China U.S. relations: Is it possible to stop the slide?

July 06, 2023 08:32
Photo: Reuters

Two weeks after U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken traveled to Beijing for intensive talks June 18-19 to stop the dangerous downward spiral of the U.S.-China relationship, the first fruits of the accord to re-establish channels of communication came with the announcement that Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen would make a 4-day visit to China starting July 6.

In a possibly coordinated move, China’s communist party last Saturday announced the appointment of Pan Gongsheng, who has been deputy governor of the People’s Bank of China for over a decade, as the bank’s party secretary, a move The Wall Street Journal called a prelude to his becoming governor.

“My hope in traveling to China is to re-establish contact,” Ms. Yellen said in an interview program last week, before the formal announcement of her trip. “There are a new group of leaders, we need to get to know one another.”

She said the two countries “need to discuss our disagreements with one another so that we don’t have misunderstandings, don’t misunderstand one another’s intentions.”

If her trip goes well, other American officials are likely to follow and senior Chinese officials are expected to visit the United States.

During the Blinken visit to Beijing, China agreed to establish – or re-open – channels of communication, except for military ones.

As Blinken himself acknowledged at the end of his trip, progress is “not the product of one visit, one trip, one conversation.” The accord put a floor under the relationship, one that is challenged daily in the highly charged atmosphere in Washington, where there are dozens of China-related bills awaiting action and Democrats, including President Joe Biden, don’t want to be seen as being “soft on China.”

This became evident the day after Blinken’s departure from Beijing when Biden, who had dispatched him to stabilize relations with Beijing, thought nothing of calling China’s president, Xi Jinping, a dictator during a fundraising event. It seemed strange that the president was willing to jeopardize the fragile accord just reached..

Despite Biden’s “dictator” remarks, which the Chinese government called a “political provocation,” China made it clear that the accord still held. The People’s Daily – mouthpiece of the Communist Party – published a commentary June 22 headlined “China, U.S. should work together in same direction to stabilize, improve bilateral relations.” It asserted that China was “committed to building a stable, predictable and constructive relationship with the United States.”

Biden has spoken about establishing guardrails and designing principles for the relationship with China. Regardless of what else may be agreed, one principle should be that each side will refrain from personal attacks on the leader of the other side. After all, in a crisis, they are the ones who will be expected to work together to try to resolve it.

Some analysts have pointed out that not only is Biden focused more on his re-election than on putting a floor under relations with China, but that his foreign policy team is also unusually sensitive to partisan politics.

“It’s hard to overemphasize how much Biden and his foreign policy team are focused on domestic politics,” Dennis Wilder, who served President George W. Bush as Senior Director for Asia at the National Security Council from 2005 to 2009, said in an email. “This team is unusual in that the key players like Blinken and [Jake] Sullivan are political pros as much as they are national security experts.”

Wilder contrasted this situation with that in the Bush administration, where the foreign policy experts, such as Colin Powell and Condoleeza Rice, both of whom served as secretary of state, and Stephen Hadley, who was national security adviser, “did not see it as their role” to be involved in political campaigns.

Domestic politics may have long-term effects on foreign relations. The New York Times reported June 27 that “Americans’ views of China are starting to resemble their views of the Soviet Union decades ago,” and “that could make it harder to mend ties.” That is to say, even if Biden wants to improve relations with Beijing, the American public may not let him.

“The message Americans are getting from their leaders about China is profoundly negative,” the report said, and “souring public opinion, in turn, may worsen U.S.-China relations.”

If a national attitude settled in the United States whereby China is assumed to be the enemy, there may well be a replay of the Cold War, in which the governments and peoples of the two countries view each other with implacable hostility. There will be no winners, only losers. Responsible leaders in both countries, but especially in the United States, must act now to ensure that that doesn’t happen.

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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.