Can Beijing be Flexible on U.S. Policy?

Publication: China Brief Volume: 22 Issue: 19

PRC Foreign Minister Wang Yi meets with business executives of member companies of the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations (NCUSCR), the US-China Business Council and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce on September 19 in New York (Source: NCUSCR)

General Secretary Xi Jinping did not mention “America” in his opening report to the 20th Party Congress (Xinhua, October 16). Nevertheless, Xi made clear that China faces a difficult international environment, precipitated in large part by the U.S. challenge, which threatens the realization of national rejuvenation. For Xi, the threat appears particularly acute in two areas: technology and Taiwan. He called for winning the “battle of key core technologies” by building on breakthroughs in areas such as supercomputing and quantum computing, space exploration, nuclear energy, satellite navigation and biomedicine (Xinhuanet, October 16). On Taiwan, Xi issued a thinly veiled ultimatum to Washington, stating that the People’s Republic of China (PRC) will strive for “peaceful reunification” to incorporate Taiwan into the Motherland, which he called “an inevitable requirement for realizing the great rejuvenation.” Should this approach fail, Beijing reserves the right to employ military force to counter “interference by external forces” and “Taiwan independence” separatists (Central Committee Taiwan Work Office, October 16).

Earlier this month, the U.S. took two actions that would have elicited a more vociferous response from Beijing had the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) not been enmeshed in the run-up to the 20th Party Congress. On October 7, the Department of Commerce passed sweeping export controls on high-performance chips and machinery that will hamper the PRC’s ability to develop its domestic semiconductor industry. A spokesperson for the PRC Ministry of Commerce lamented the move as “technology bullying” (Xinhua, October 10). On October 12, the Biden administration released its National Security Strategy (NSS), which identifies the PRC as America’s only strategic competitor “with both the intent to reshape the international order and, increasingly, the economic, diplomatic, military, and technological power to advance that objective” (The White House, October 12). Nevertheless, the Biden administration’s approach, both in practice and as laid out in the NSS, cannot be characterized as solely focused on strategic competition with China. The new NSS expresses a willingness to “work with the PRC where our interests align,” asserting that disagreements cannot obstruct cooperation on transnational challenges such as “climate, pandemic threats, nonproliferation, countering illicit and illegal narcotics, the global food crisis, and macroeconomic issues.” For better or for worse, the Biden administration has sought to make the case to Beijing that strategic competition need not obstruct cooperation on shared transnational challenges.

These moves put the ball in Xi’s court following the 20th Party Congress. Does he leverage the Biden administration’s desire to collaborate on transnational challenges to seek to reduce the competitive dynamics in relations and entice Washington to pare back its economic and technological curbs? Or does Xi double down on his current hardline approach to the U.S. of linking transnational cooperation to strategic accommodation? Although it is possible that Xi might opt for the first approach, there is no guarantee that he will do so. On the plus side, achieving a limited thaw with Washington would provide time to achieve greater self-sufficiency in finance, technology, food, energy and other key areas (China Brief, June 17). However, much of Xi’s domestic political legitimacy is bound up in his reputation for standing up to America, which could incentivize him to embrace strategic competition in spite of the enormous risks that it carries (China Brief, October 4).

Crossed Signals

The term “wolf warrior” has almost become a cliché to describe Chinese diplomats in the Xi era. One reason that PRC diplomats often sound irascible to western audiences is that their primary audience is their superiors back home. In the U.S., the PRC’s public diplomacy has both irritated relations and strengthened the very “anti-China forces” that Beijing blames for its poor international image (Xinhua, January 15). For example, shortly after assuming his new post in Washington last year, Ambassador Qin Gang made an address to the Carter Center and the George H.W. Bush Foundation for US-China Relations on the PRC’s “whole process democracy” (PRC Embassy in the U.S., September 22, 2021). In his remarks, he likened the CCP to the most venerated American president: “Isn’t it obvious that both China’s people-center philosophy and President Lincoln’s ‘of the people, by the people, for the people’ are for the sake of the people?”

Last month, the PRC Embassy in Washington sent a letter to former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo “expressing concern” over “groundless accusations” that he made in a Hudson Institute video series on the CCP (VOA Chinese, October 12). The video series directly addresses ordinary Chinese, which is surely irksome to Beijing (YouTube, September 4). The letter was an immediate public relations boon for both the Hudson Institute and Pompeo, who tweeted a screenshot of it along with a promise not to be silenced by the CCP. Missives such as the Pompeo letter are clearly designed to appeal to the top leadership at home, but they are also indicative of the PRC’s diplomatic rigidity, which makes managing what the Embassy routinely calls “the most important bilateral relationship in the world” even more difficult (PRC Ministry of Foreign Affairs (FMPRC) September 28).

After its fury over Speaker Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan finally subsided in September, Beijing, seeking to avoid major flareups in relations with the U.S. heading into the Party Congress, conveyed some limited openness to a resumption of diplomacy, albeit largely on its terms. Last week, Vice Foreign Minister Xie Feng held discussions with Scott Kennedy, a senior advisor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, in a rare in-person meeting with an expert from an American think tank (FMPRC, October 9). During the meeting, Xie Feng called for deepening U.S.-China expert exchanges to “enhance mutual understanding.”

In late September, Foreign Minister Wang Yi traveled to New York to attend the UN General Assembly (UNGA) meetings. During his visit, Wang also sought to reinvigorate ties with the U.S. expert and business communities (PRC Embassy, September 22). On the New York think tank circuit, he stressed that strong U.S.-China ties are essential to global peace and stability, but also repeatedly stressed that the relationship has hit a breaking point. In his speech to the Asia Society, Wang quoted its president (and former Prime Minister of Australia) Kevin Rudd’s analogy of U.S.-China relations as “a workshop with exposed wires and cables lying everywhere, water on the floor and sparks flying” (FMPRC, September 23). However, Wang blamed the deterioration of relations entirely on Washington for miscasting China as an authoritarian rival. He said the U.S. has “made repeated provocations on issues involving China’s core interests and development rights and interests, yet on the other, expressed a desire to keep the bilateral ties stable and prevent conflict and confrontation. This is self-contradictory in both logic and reality.” In other words, Beijing cannot accept a relationship with Washington that allows for selective cooperation in the broader context of strategic competition.

Dashed Expectations

When President Biden entered office, there was considerable hope in official Chinese circles that his administration would adopt a more accommodating policy. In a January 2021 Global Times interview, Wang Yi stated that “we hope that the next U.S. administration will return to a sensible approach, resume dialogue with China, restore normalcy to the bilateral relations and restart cooperation” (Global Times, January 2, 2021). This highlights a prevailing belief in Beijing that the U.S.’s adoption of a more competitive China policy beginning in late 2017 was driven by the Trump administration’s ideological orientation and not by a more broad-based shift in American attitudes toward China. However, Beijing was disabused of these notions early on. Taiwan’s de facto ambassador to the U.S. Hsiao Bi-khim attended Biden’s inauguration, a first since Washington switched relations from Taipei to Beijing in 1979 (Taipei Times, January 21, 2021).  Moreover, Biden opted not to immediately repeal the Trump administration’s tariffs on China.

The Trump administration’s adoption of a tougher line on China in 2017-2018 was a shock to Beijing. However, the Biden administration’s decision to sustain many of its predecessor’s policies was perhaps equally jolting as it underscored that shifts in U.S. China policy stem largely from bipartisan threat assessments rather than U.S. domestic political divisions. In a recent U.S. media interview, the PRC’s Deputy Chief of Mission in Washington Xu Xueyuan acknowledged this shift: “It’s been two years… since the Biden administration came into office, but the China policy of the U.S., to be frank, has not stepped out of the shadow of the previous administration… the root cause lies in the big problem of the U.S. mentality toward China. The U.S. side takes China as the most serious competitor and the most serious long-term challenge” (The China Project, September 29). By the time that China’s top foreign policy officials, State Councilors Yang Jiechi and Wang Yi met with Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan in Alaska in March 2021, Beijing’s frustration was palpable. The PRC foreign ministry meeting readout stated that “the previous U.S. administration went against the trend of the times, and carried out highly erroneous anti-China policies, which seriously damaged both China’s interests and China-U.S. relations.” As a result, “China urges the U.S. side to eliminate the impact of the previous administration’s wrong policy towards China and avoid new problems” (FMPRC, March 20).

List Diplomacy

Since mid-2021, Beijing has shifted from urging that Washington take steps to repair ties to demanding that it do so. In July 2021, Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman traveled to Tianjin, where she was presented with “two lists” of demands that Beijing said the U.S. must fulfill before relations can move forward: the List of U.S. Wrongdoings that Must Stop and the List of Key Individual Cases that China Has Concerns with (Xinhua, July 26, 2021). Beijing’s action items for Washington included the revocation of sanctions on CCP officials; ceasing the “suppression” of Confucius Institutes; and revocation of the registration of PRC state media entities as foreign agents.

In the interim, Beijing has doubled down on its list diplomacy. When Wang and Blinken met on the sidelines of the G-20 foreign ministers’ meeting this July, the PRC Foreign Minister reiterated that relations are “still not out of the difficulties caused by the previous U.S. administration and [are] even facing mounting challenges” (FMPRC, July 9). Moreover, Wang presented Blinken with two new lists: “Acts in the 117th Congress of high concern to China” and the “list of cooperation proposals in eight areas,” including climate change and public health. Implementing the final list is contingent on the U.S. making progress to address the other three lists of Chinese concerns.

Conclusion

Beijing has made rhetorical ultimatums to withhold cooperation on transnational issues unless Washington abandons strategic competition with China. However, through the NSS and semiconductor export controls, Washington has responded with its own tacit ultimatum to Beijing: accept a US-China relationship that is a mix of managed strategic cooperation and guarded competition, or be prepared for one that is defined wholly by competition. Xi should think carefully about which route he chooses.

John S. Van Oudenaren is Editor-in-Chief of China Brief. For any comments, queries, or submissions, please reach out to him at: [email protected].