The U.S.-China Talks: A Meeting of Friends and Foes

As you receive this newsletter, President Biden’s top foreign policy officials are in the middle of meetings in Anchorage with their Chinese counterparts, the first high-level talks between the two global powers since the start of the Biden administration.

Relations between the countries are as complicated as they are consequential. Conflicts have arisen recently over the Trump administration’s trade war, China’s increasingly authoritarian policies in Hong Kong, its campaign of internment and mass sterilization against Uyghur Muslims and its suspected role in cyberattacks against the United States.

The run-up to this meeting has only brought those tensions into clearer focus. Antony Blinken, the secretary of state, traveled last week to visit the two closest American allies in Asia, Japan and South Korea, but pointedly did not meet with Chinese officials. Instead, China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, and a top diplomat, Yang Jiechi, arrived on U.S. soil today to meet with Blinken and Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security adviser, for the first time.

To get some clarity on the stakes of the meetings, I spoke to David E. Sanger, a White House and national security correspondent, who has been closely following the proceedings from Washington.

In the first major U.S.-China colloquy of the Biden administration, what are the top agenda items for each side? Are the two countries looking to make tangible progress on specific foreign policy items, or is this more of a get-to-know-you affair?

It’s not a get-to-know-you affair; all of the players here, on both sides, have been around for a long time. But don’t expect major progress on any specific issue: It’s not as if the Chinese are going to back away from their crackdown in Hong Kong or against the Uyghurs, or the Biden administration is suddenly going to lift the restrictions on Chinese companies buying into Silicon Valley start-ups, or cease running “Freedom of Navigation” operations in the areas of the South China Sea that China now claims as its own.

Instead, this is a meeting to vent — and take the measure of each other’s priorities. We’re back to the real world of superpower jockeying, where a rising, ambitious power takes on a status-quo power.

We’ve seen it before. Think about when the U.S. was on the rise in the 1890s and the British had to decide whether to make room for us in the world system, contain us, or resist our expansion. That one worked out well (though the British may have a different interpretation).

But as my friend Graham Allison at the Harvard Kennedy School notes in “Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap?,” his book on China’s rise, the fear of a rising power can prompt armed conflict — and often does.

The Biden administration has not exactly been rolling out the red carpet for this meeting. Yesterday it announced subpoenas against top Chinese companies suspected of threatening national security, and last week Blinken told the House Foreign Affairs Committee that he believed the Chinese government was committing “genocide” against Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang. What does this tell us about how the administration plans to approach diplomacy toward China?

It tells you that the Biden administration is, so far, sounding a lot tougher on China than many expected. That should be no surprise. While the Republican talking point during the campaign was that Biden would give away the store to the Chinese, the history of Biden and his top foreign policy aides, Blinken and Sullivan, suggests a very different approach. They are focused on the technological competition with China, the threat of continuing cyberattacks (and China is believed to be behind one of the biggest in recent weeks, aimed at Microsoft systems), and new forms of military competition.

As Sullivan pointed out in an essay published last year, it’s possible that China is looking to follow the American model from 130 years ago, building up its navy and expanding its reach, to push us farther and farther east in the Pacific. But it is equally possible that its strategy is to deploy its 5G networks around the world, make nations dependent on its aid, its infrastructure projects and its vaccines, and spread influence that way. Or it may try both. In any case, we now have a full-scope competitor — an economic and technological competitor and a military adversary.

The subpoenas that Biden’s Commerce Department served to the Chinese companies were sent out under a Trump administration policy, which allows the executive branch to intervene on sales of foreign-made communications equipment if national security is seen as at risk. Would you say U.S.-China relations represent a rare area in which Biden is not seeking a hard break from his predecessor’s policies?

Certainly the Biden team has not walked away from the instruments of power exercised by Trump; I think it realizes that Trump accurately identified the importance of addressing the China challenge. The Biden camp just believes he confronted it the wrong way. Trump thought he could ban Chinese technologies, and impose sanctions on the country until it came to the bargaining table.

But China is too big to sanction effectively. And at the end of the day, the U.S. has to innovate and produce competitive products. To the Biden team, that means we need our own answer to 5G networks, because right now there is no American-made alternative. It means we need to make advances in semiconductors and artificial intelligence, even if that requires some innovative, government-backed industrial policy.

China’s cooperation is seen as essential in combating climate change, as it is the only country that emits more carbon dioxide than the United States. Now that Biden has committed to rejoining the Paris climate accord, is his administration looking to lay the groundwork for some firm commitments from China on the emissions front?

This will be the really interesting trade-off. The Chinese will try to use their cooperation on climate as a bargaining chip in other arenas. The Biden White House will try to resist, arguing that avoiding a climate catastrophe is in the fundamental interests of both nations.

And the man caught in the middle will be Biden’s climate czar, former Secretary of State John Kerry. He’s said that he won’t trade away other American interests. But expect some behind-the-scenes tension.

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