China Wants to Set the Terms of Any ‘Thaw’ With the U.S.

For a few weeks, a flurry of meetings between American and Chinese officials seemed to signal that the two countries were trying to reduce tensions, after months of rancor and frozen high-level contacts raised concerns about the risk of a conflict, accidental or otherwise.

First the U.S. national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, met with China’s top diplomat, Wang Yi, in Vienna, in May. Then the two countries’ top commerce officials held talks, the first bilateral cabinet-level meeting in Washington in months. China’s ambassador also arrived in Washington last week, finally filling a post that had been vacant since January.

But even as Beijing has returned to the table on some issues, it has also struck an even tougher posture, complicating the “thaw” in U.S.-China relations that President Biden had predicted last month. China has questioned Washington’s sincerity, pushed back on U.S. tech export controls by imposing its own restrictions and demanded the dropping of sanctions.

Beijing rejected an invitation for China’s defense minister, Li Shangfu, to meet with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin at a security meeting this weekend in Singapore, the Pentagon said this week. And last Friday, a Chinese jet buzzed an American spy plane over the South China Sea and flew directly in front of the plane’s nose, a maneuver the U.S. military called “unnecessarily aggressive.”

“China tends to look at access to its senior leaders as a reward for acquiescence, rather than a tool for creating stability or resolving differences,” said Drew Thompson, a former U.S. defense official who is currently a fellow at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore. “You have to meet China on their terms in order to get a meeting.”

The Pentagon called China’s rejection of the meeting at this week’s Shangri-La Dialogue security forum in Singapore an example of Beijing’s “concerning” unwillingness to engage on military issues. Mr. Li, who was appointed to his position in March, has been under U.S. sanctions since 2018 over the purchase of military equipment from Russia. Pentagon officials have said these do not prevent Mr. Li from meeting Mr. Austin.

But China has argued that sanctions against Chinese officials are an obstacle to improving the relationship. Mao Ning, a spokeswoman for China’s foreign ministry, said Washington should lift the sanctions against Mr. Li and “create favorable conditions for dialogue.” On Tuesday, she reiterated China’s position that Washington should “immediately correct wrong practices” if it wants to restore communication between the militaries.

China wants to meet with U.S. officials without what it sees as demeaning circumstances, said Shen Dingli, a professor of international relations at Fudan University in Shanghai.

“We want to have a meeting based on mutual respect,” Professor Shen said. “We want the U.S. to lift the sanctions and to seek a compromise by mutual concession.”

In recent years, the U.S. has sanctioned Chinese officials and companies over allegations of human rights abuses, tech espionage and a range of other issues.

The U.S. and China have incentive to seek a steadier footing ahead of the annual Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in November in San Francisco, which will be closely watched for any meeting between Mr. Biden and China’s leader, Xi Jinping. Though both governments have said they want to arrest the downward spiral in relations that was set off in February when the U.S. downed a suspected Chinese spy balloon, their motives for doing so are not always aligned.

U.S. officials want open lines of military communication with China. As the jet interception last week showed, the two countries’ militaries regularly patrol disputed areas such as the South China Sea, heightening the risk of an unintentional conflict. On Thursday, Mr. Austin said some of China’s activities in international airspace and waterways were “provocative.” (Beijing, for its part, blamed the United States for deploying aircraft and vessels too close to Chinese borders.)

Mr. Biden has talked about erecting “guardrails” to prevent U.S.-China competition from veering into a crisis. But Chinese officials have rejected that suggestion as an effort by Washington to contain and suppress China’s rise.

“In the absence of dialogue, there are unacceptable risks to both sides,” said Bonnie Glaser, director of the Indo-Pacific Program at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. That includes, she said, the risk of “sleepwalking into a conflict over Taiwan.”

The U.S. also sees the potential for deeper cooperation with China on issues like mitigating climate change and relieving debt in poor countries, arenas where the two rivals are more likely to find common ground than in sensitive military and security issues.

John Kerry, Mr. Biden’s climate envoy, said last month that China invited him to visit in the “near term.” Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen also said in April that she hopes to visit China, calling for a “constructive” and “healthy” economic relationship.

For China, restarting trade talks with the U.S. could help revive the domestic economy. China’s recovery this year, after three years of strict “zero Covid” restrictions, has been uneven, and growth in exports has slowed. Geopolitical tensions, as well as China’s focus on national security, have created an uncertain business environment.

“We want to talk about how we can export to the U.S. without hurting U.S. national security, and how the U.S. can access the Chinese market while respecting China,” said Professor Shen of Fudan University.

Seeking to court businesses, China has welcomed a series of visits by prominent entrepreneurs, including Tim Cook, Apple’s chief executive, in March, and Elon Musk, Tesla’s chief executive, this week.

On Tuesday, China’s foreign minister, Qin Gang, used a meeting with Mr. Musk to convey Beijing’s talking points that a “healthy, stable and constructive” relationship between the U.S. and China benefited both countries, and the world. Mr. Qin said the two countries needed to know when to “step on the brakes” to “avoid dangerous driving,” and when to “step on the gas pedal” to promote cooperation.

China may also feel pressure to engage with the U.S. to push back against sweeping restrictions announced by the Biden administration in October to block Beijing’s access to critical U.S. technologies, such as semiconductors. China is incensed by Washington’s efforts to rally allies like Japan and the Netherlands to similarly cut off chip exports to China, moves that have hurt the Chinese economy.

In what analysts saw as a retaliatory move, the Chinese government last week announced a ban on certain companies buying products from Micron Technology, a U.S.-based microchip manufacturer.

“When China talks about finding stability in the relationship, it’s often more about getting the U.S. to relieve strategic pressure on China,” said Paul Haenle, a former director for China on the National Security Council under the Bush and Obama administrations. “They want the U.S. to stop with the sanctions, stop with the export controls.”

Even with talks restarted, some issues may be difficult or impossible to resolve. Washington has repeatedly warned of consequences if China provides lethal aid to Russia, Beijing’s close strategic partner, in Moscow’s war in Ukraine. Bipartisan political moves in the U.S. to confront China could limit the space for Biden administration efforts at rapprochement, analysts say.

In a commentary last week, People’s Daily, the main newspaper of the Communist Party, said Ambassador Xie Feng’s arrival in Washington on May 23 was “a sign of détente that is pulling the strained relationship from the brink.”

But the article also blamed American policymakers for damaging the relationship, saying improved relations hinged on whether Washington was willing to “refrain from damaging mutual trust, avoid misunderstanding and miscalculation, and take concrete steps to deliver on its promises.”

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