U.S. and China: Healing a wounded relationship

December 07, 2021 08:51
A screen showing Chinese President Xi Jinping attending a virtual meeting with U.S. President Joe Biden via video link, Photo: Xinhua

In the three weeks since the virtual meeting between President Joe Biden of the United States and Chinese leader Xi Jinping, there has been a clear improvement in the relationship, with China now cooperating in various areas despite previous demands that Washington first drop its antagonistic attitude.

Thus, when the United States announced plans to release 50 million barrels of oil from its strategic reserve in December to counter rising fuel prices, China announced that it, too, would join in this effort “based on its own needs” along with the United Kingdom, Japan, South Korea and India.

Antony Blinken, the U.S. Secretary of State, said Dec. 2 that the United States was working well with China and European partners in talks with Iran in Vienna.

Moreover, military-to-military exchanges are resuming. On Dec. 2, the Pentagon announced a working level virtual meeting with Chinese defence officials to discuss its recently released report on “Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China.” The discussion was called “constructive.”

A meeting between Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and China’s defense minister, Wei Fenghe, as well as Xu Qiliang, vice chairman of the Central Military Commission, is being worked on.

So the summit that ostensibly achieved no breakthroughs and had no deliverables actually ended up restoring some normality to the bilateral relationship.

To a large extent, this change was attributable to Biden’s perseverance. He was the one who requested a meeting with Xi, just as he had initiated the phone call with the Chinese leader in September.

In fact, the Chinese attitude changed markedly after the Sept. 9 phone call.

When John Kerry visited China in early September, he ran into a brick wall. Senior Chinese officials met him, in person or virtually, including Vice Premier Han Zheng, a member of the Politburo Standing Committee, and Foreign Minister Wang Yi. But they refused to engage on the climate issue and told him that it was illogical to expect bilateral cooperation on climate when the United States was hostile to China on every other issue.

This Beijing message was sent to Washington through various channels, including during deputy secretary of state Wendy Sherman’s China visit in July. No doubt, it was delivered personally by Xi to Biden in their September phone call as well.

The atmosphere started to improve after that call. On Sept. 24, Huawei’s chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou, detained in Canada on fraud charges in December 2018, was freed after the United States dropped its extradition request. Her release was seen by China as a response to their demand, and it helped to clear the air.

China’s change in attitude was clear even before the virtual summit. On Nov. 10, three days before the end of COP26, China and the U.S. issued a joint “Glasgow Declaration” on enhancing climate action in the 2020s. Climate cooperation had resumed.

Of course, there are still plenty of areas where the two countries disagree, such as human rights.

But there is now a floor under the relationship and it is no longer in free fall. And, since the relationship is characterized by competition, there is a ceiling as well. Since both sides acknowledge it to be the world’s most important bilateral relationship, it should be handled with care.

China still is reluctant to characterize the relationship as primarily competitive and prefers to describe it as one of “mutual respect, peaceful co-existence and win-win cooperation.”

In fact, China doesn’t accept Biden’s description of the world today as being characterized by a contest between democracy and autocracy, claiming that China itself is democratic. Interestingly, however, the Chinese Communist Party, in its November party plenum, issued a resolution describing the world today in not so different terms.

A resolution on the 100-year history of the party said: “Our continued success in adapting Marxism to the Chinese context and the needs of our times has enabled Marxism to take on a fresh face in the eyes of the world, and significantly shifted the worldwide historical evolution of and contest between the two different ideologies and social systems of socialism and capitalism in a way that favors socialism.”

So, in the Communist party’s eyes, the contest is not between autocracy and democracy but between socialism and capitalism. That is a change in concept and terminology. In practice, capitalist countries tend to be democratic.

So China does see a global contest, with the capitalist United States on one side and socialist China on the other. And it believes that history is on its side.

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Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.