US-China Talks: Salvaging a relationship

August 03, 2021 06:00
US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman Photo: Reuters

Fifty years to the month after Henry Kissinger’s secret visit to China to end a generation of hostility between Washington and Beijing, another American official, Wendy Sherman, was in China, this time in an attempt to keep the badly tattered relationship from going off the rails entirely.

Much has changed in the intervening half century. In 1971, the United States was the world’s most powerful country and China one of its poorest. Today, China is the second largest economy and a rival for world power.

In hindsight, Kissinger’s job was relatively easy. President Richard Nixon’s national security adviser, after all, had Chairman Mao Zedong behind him. Mao paved the way by inviting the American table tennis team to visit, and the slogan was “Friendship first, competition second.”

Now, no one speaks about friendship. It is competition first, last and in between. That is, if they are not decoupling.

Secretary of State Anthony Blinken describes the US-China relationship as “competitive where it should be, collaborative where it can be, adversarial where it must be.”

However, in talks between Sherman and Vice Foreign Minister Xie Feng, and, separately, with Foreign Minister Wang Yi, China indicated the US couldn’t adopt a policy to “harm China’s interests” and then ask for cooperation when needed.

Xie said, “The US side has sought China’s cooperation and support on climate change, the Iran nuclear issue and the North Korea nuclear issue.” But, he said, such cooperation requires “a favorable atmosphere in bilateral relations.”

Climate change and nuclear proliferation are existential threats to the world. Combating them isn’t a favor to the US. And yet China is withholding cooperation because the US continues to criticize its policies inside and outside the country, on human rights and other grounds.

This means China won’t cooperate to solve global issues unless the US stops its criticisms. However, China should realize that acting responsibly on global matters is what is expected of a major power and not a bargaining chip.

In March, when top diplomats of the two countries met in Alaska, China defended its human rights record and criticized that of the United States. At the time, Blinken said the U.S. “acknowledges that we’re not perfect” but said that throughout its history, it has confronted “those challenges openly, publicly, transparently.”

A few months later, on July 14, Blinken announced that the US had invited special United Nations envoys on racism and human rights to visit the country and report back to the world body. Clearly, it was a challenge to China to face criticism openly rather than try to silence the critics.

During the Sherman visit, China gave the US two lists, one calling for action in certain areas, the other a list of key Chinese concerns.

China’s giving such lists to the US is highly symbolic. For many years, the US on human rights grounds gave China lists of people in Chinese prisons and asked for them to be freed, or at least to explain why they were being incarcerated. Long ago, China stopped accepting such lists. Now, it is giving the US lists of things to do.

But the Americans didn’t pull any punches either, with Sherman raising all the sensitive issues China detests, including Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Tibet, which China considers its internal affairs, as well as Chinese actions in the Taiwan Strait, the East China Sea and the South China Sea, all international waterways.

On the whole, the visit went well. Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian provided this assessment: “The talks have been profound, candid and helpful for the two sides to gain a better understanding of each other’s position and seek healthy development of China-US relations going forward.”

Ned Price, a State Department spokesman, also praised the visit for “demonstrating the importance of maintaining open lines of communication between our two countries.”

Both sides, it is clear, still value the relationship and do not want to see it marred by conflict.

China should realize that it is not possible for the United States to stop its criticism on issues, even if Beijing regards them as its internal affairs. Rather, it should accept that a candid relationship, in which each side is free to comment on the other, can be the basis of a sincere and honest relationship.

Now that Beijing has given Washington its wish lists, it is up to the United States to respond. One thing that can be done relatively easily is to allow China to reopen its consulate in Houston, leading to the reopening of the American one in Chengdu. These moves would help to reduce hostility, repair some damage and provide breathing space to both sides. The relationship needs space and time to heal.

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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.