In this time of war, the quiet U.S.-China dialogue is a significant factor for peace. From a situation where they were virtually not talking to each other, the two global powers appear to have reached a point where a presidential summit may be on the cards at the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in San Francisco in November. It may be too soon to use words like “détente”, but what we could perhaps hope for is a tactical stabilisation of the ties between two of the world’s leading powers. At the immediate level, Washington’s ability to talk to China could promote restraint in West Asia. China has undoubted influence on Iran, which virtually controls the Hezbollah in Lebanon. The Hezbollah’s entry into the war in Gaza could really complicate the situation in the region.
Last week, Wang Yi visited the U.S., the first by a Chinese foreign minister since the pandemic, and met with President Joe Biden and senior U.S. officials. He is reported to have told the U.S. strategic community that “the road to San Francisco “will not be a smooth one.” Mr. Wang’s visit came in the wake of visits by the U.S. Secretaries of State, Treasury, and Commerce to China in the last few months. Till May, the Chinese military was refusing to take calls from the Pentagon. With the sacking of Chinese defence minister Li Shangfu, the issue has become moot.
The American position
In the latest issue of Foreign Affairs, U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan wrote, “High level and repeated interaction is crucial to clear up misperception, avoid miscommunication, send unambiguous signals, and arrest downward spirals that could erupt into a major crisis.” Recall that Mr. Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping met in Bali at the sidelines of the G-20 summit last year and discussed Taiwan, their competition, and strategic communications. But the relationship went into a tailspin following the so-called spy balloon incident earlier this year.
The U.S. is currently speaking from a position of strength. Its economy is doing well while that of China is stumbling. In foreign policy, the Biden administration has been able to revive America’s traditional alliance in Europe on account of the Ukraine war, and strengthen the hub-and-spoke alliances into a larger matrix covering the Indo-Pacific. This involves strengthened ties with India, upgraded ties with Australia, Vietnam and Japan, and revived ties with the Philippines.
But the Biden administration has not relented on the tough line it adopted towards Beijing from the outset. It maintains the Trump-era tariffs, and initiated a policy of export restrictions designed to hobble the growth of the Chinese high-tech industry. Its National Security Strategy of last October said that China was “the only competitor with both the intent to reshape the international order and, increasingly, the economic, diplomatic, military and technological power to advance the objective.”
However, the administration said that it was keen to establish guardrails to ensure that the relationship did not go off-track. But this did not assuage China. A sense of bitterness was evident in March when Mr. Xi unusually named the U.S. for having “contained and suppressed us in an all-round way.” Qin Gang, subsequently sacked as foreign minister, said that “no amount of guardrails can prevent derailing… if the U.S... continues to speed down the wrong path.”
The U.S. continues to tighten its export controls to Beijing and is talking tough on the China-Philippines stand-off at the Second Thomas Shoal in the South China Sea. It is also tightening controls on its outward investment to China and restricting Chinese investments in the U.S. Its approach was identified by Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen who visited Beijing earlier this year. It was a call for constructive engagement with China involving three points — national security of the U.S. and its allies, an economic relationship based on “fair competition”, and cooperation on urgent global challenges. Ms. Yellen rejected the idea that the U.S. wanted to decouple its economy from China, noting that the U.S. trades more with China than with other countries except its neighbours Canada and Mexico.
China believes that the U.S. remains a formidable military power but is in inevitable decline. But it would like to maintain the façade of cooperation and peaceful co-existence rather than deal with the competitive and confrontational posture that the U.S. has adopted. China has long sought U.S. acceptance of its economic and political system, which means the supremacy of the Chinese Communist Party. Militarily and politically, China has sought to establish its regional dominance in the western Pacific. But its neighbours such as Japan, the Philippines, and Vietnam, which are backed by the U.S., contest this. Taiwan occupies a difficult position in this situation. Undergriding this is the realpolitik of U.S. global politics: preventing the rise of a hegemonic power on either end of Eurasia could well be a prelude to the undermining of its own global hegemony.
U.S.-China relations are crucial in dealing with global issues such as climate change or crises such as the one in West Asia. But the climate of truculence is hampering effective cooperation. It is hoped that the Biden-Xi summit can begin the process of improving China-U.S. ties and putting their bilateral relationship on an even keel. The relationship will retain a strong competitive tenor but that should not prevent the U.S. and China from making it pragmatic.
Manoj Joshi s a Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi