China Wants To Establish Any 'Tenuous' Terms With The US

For several weeks, a series of meetings between American and Chinese officials appeared to signal that the two countries were seeking to de-escalate tensions, after months of grudges and frozen high-level contacts raised concerns about the risk of conflict, accidental or otherwise.

First, the US national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, met China's top diplomat, Wang Yi, in Vienna, in May. Then the two countries' top trade officials held talks, the first bilateral cabinet-level meeting in Washington in months. The Chinese ambassador also arrived in Washington last week, finally filling the post vacated since January.

But even as Beijing has returned to the negotiating table on some issues, its stance has been even tougher on others, complicating the “thaw” in US-China relations President Biden had predicted last month. China has questioned Washington's sincerity is pushing back controls on US technology exports by imposing its own restrictions and demanding the lifting of sanctions.

Last Friday, a Chinese jet buzzed an American spy plane over the South China Sea and flew right in front of the plane's nose, a maneuver the US military called “unnecessarily aggressive.” And Beijing declined an invitation by China's defense minister, Li Shangfu, to meet Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III at this weekend's security meeting in Singapore, the Pentagon said, although the two shook hands and spoke briefly at the conference's opening dinner Friday.

“China tends to see access to its senior leaders as a reward for approval, rather than a tool to create stability or resolve differences,” said Drew Thompson, a former US defense official who is currently a fellow at Lee Kuan Yew High School. Public Policy at the National University of Singapore. “You have to meet China on their terms to get a meeting.”

The Pentagon cited China's refusal to meet at this weekend's Shangri-La Dialogue security forum in Singapore as an example of Beijing's reluctance to get involved in military matters. Li, who was appointed to his position in March, has been subject to US sanctions since 2018 over purchases of military equipment from Russia. Pentagon officials say this has not deterred Mr. Li to meet Mr. Austin.

But China argues that sanctions against Chinese officials are an obstacle to improving ties. Mao Ning, a spokesman for China's foreign ministry, said Washington should lift sanctions against Li and “create favorable conditions for dialogue.” On Tuesday, he reiterated China's position that Washington must “urgently correct wrong practices” if communications between militaries are to be restored.

China wants to meet US officials without looking at the circumstances as condescending, said Shen Dingli, a professor of international relations at Fudan University in Shanghai.

“We want to hold a meeting based on mutual respect,” said Professor Shen. “We want the US to lift sanctions and seek a compromise with mutual concessions.”

In recent years, the US has sanctioned Chinese officials and companies over allegations of human rights abuses, technological espionage and a variety of other issues.

The US and China have incentives to seek steadier footing ahead of the annual Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in November in San Francisco, which will be closely watched for any meeting between Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping. Although both governments have said they want to end the spiral of ties that started in February when the US dropped a suspected Chinese spy balloon, their motives for doing so have not always aligned.

US officials want open lines of military communication with China. As demonstrated by last week's jet interception, the militaries of both countries regularly patrol disputed areas such as the South China Sea, increasing the risk of an accidental conflict. On Thursday, Austin said some of China's activities in international airspace and waters were “provocative.” (Beijing, for its part, blames the United States for deploying planes and ships too close to China's borders.)

Mr. Biden has talked of building “fences” to prevent the US-China rivalry from veering into crisis. But Chinese officials have dismissed the suggestion as an attempt by Washington to contain and suppress China's rise.

“In the absence of dialogue, there are risks that are unacceptable to both sides,” said Bonnie Glaser, director of the Indo-Pacific Program at the US German Marshall Fund. That includes, he said, the risk of “sleepwalking to conflict in Taiwan.”

The US also sees the potential for deeper cooperation with China on issues such as climate change mitigation and debt relief in poor countries, arenas in which the two rivals are more likely to find common ground than over sensitive military and security issues.

John Kerry, Biden's climate envoy, said last month that China was inviting him to visit in the “short term”. Finance Minister Janet Yellen also said in April she looked forward to visiting China, calling for “constructive” and “healthy” economic relations.

For China, restarting trade talks with the US could help revive the domestic economy. China's recovery this year, after three years of strict “Covid zero” restrictions, has been uneven, and export growth has slowed. Geopolitical tensions, as well as China's focus on national security, have created an uncertain business environment.

“We wanted to talk about how we can export to the US without harming US national security, and how the US can access the Chinese market while respecting China,” said Professor Shen of Fudan University.

Seeking court business, China has welcomed a series of visits by top businessmen, including Tim Cook, Apple's chief executive, in March, and Elon Musk, Tesla's chief executive, this week.

On Tuesday, China's foreign minister, Qin Gang, used the meeting with Musk to convey Beijing's talking point that a “healthy, stable, and constructive” relationship between the US and China benefits both countries, and the world. Mr Qin said the two countries needed to know when to “slam on the brakes” to “avoid dangerous driving,” and when to “step on the accelerator” to promote cooperation.

China may also feel pressure to engage with the US to counter sweeping restrictions announced by the Biden administration in October to block Beijing's access to critical US technology, such as semiconductors. China has been angered by Washington's efforts to rally allies such as Japan and the Netherlands to similarly cut chip exports to China, a move that is hurting China's economy.

In what analysts see as a retaliatory move, the Chinese government last week announced a ban on certain companies buying products from US-based microchip maker Micron Technology.

“When China talks about finding stability in the relationship, it is often more about getting the US to reduce strategic pressure on China,” said Paul Haenle, the former China director on the National Security Council under the Bush and Obama administrations. “They want the US to stop with sanctions, stop with export controls.”

Even with talks restarting, some issues may be difficult or impossible to resolve. Washington has repeatedly warned of consequences if China provided lethal aid to Russia, a close strategic partner of Beijing, in Moscow's war on Ukraine. Bipartisan political moves in the US to confront China could limit the room for the Biden administration's rapprochement efforts, analysts say.

In a commentary last week, the People's Daily, the Communist Party's main newspaper, said Ambassador Xie Feng's arrival in Washington on May 23 was “a détente that pulled strained relations from the brink.”

But the article also blamed American policymakers for harming relations, saying better relations depended on whether Washington was willing to “refrain from undermining mutual trust, avoid misunderstandings and miscalculations, and take concrete steps to deliver on its promises.”