Home / Headline / As U.S. and China spiral toward strife, they give diplomatic peace a chance

As U.S. and China spiral toward strife, they give diplomatic peace a chance

China-U.S. relations are atrocious and trending in a terrifying direction. Both countries are increasingly warning about the possibility of war. The countries have resumed high-level diplomacy in an effort to stop the slide. Establishing a sustainable détente will take more than just meetings. 

A sustainable détente will require substantive progress. We’re not seeing that yet.

Biden and Xi in front of flag

Here’s a rare point of agreement, a scarce source of mutual understanding between the world’s two top superpowers: Things are very bad.

At least the United States and China can agree on that. Their relationship is on rough terrain, sliding toward an unspeakably ominous place.

The official state line in Beijing is that relations are at their lowest point in the half-century history of diplomatic ties between the U.S. and the People’s Republic. Chinese ministers warn we’re stumbling toward war.

President Xi Jinping just ordered China’s military to put all of its effort into war preparations. U.S. lawmakers are gaming out war scenarios. You know you’re getting to a bad place when the Pentagon press service puts out a headline like: War is “not inevitable.”

So that’s the context for the resumption of high-level diplomatic dialogue this week, with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken finally making a long-delayed, two-day visit to China that ended Monday.

“He did a hell of a job,” President Joe Biden said when asked about the trip. “We’re on the right trail here.”

Xi’s response was vague but positive. In brief remarks, he alluded to the countries having made progress and reaching agreement on unspecific issues. “This is very good,” he said.

Xi sits at one end of table, Blinken seated far away, with traditional Chinese mural in background, in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing

Within 48 hours, signs of trouble

The inevitable question now is whether this holds. Within 48 hours of the visit, reasons for doubt had already surfaced.

By mid-week, Biden had publicly referred to Xi as a dictator, the Chinese government complained, and news media in both countries were filled with stories about the countries’ unresolved grievances: espionage, human rights abuses, and economic warfare.

Whether this attempt at détente has lasting power will ultimately hinge on whether there’s progress on these substantive issues.

There’s scant evidence that happened in Beijing.

On one substantive issue, the U.S. says it asked repeatedly to establish a military-to-military line of communication — and was rebuffed.

On espionage, the Americans have essentially stopped complaining about the Chinese spy balloons which, leaked documents say, were more sophisticated than publicly reported.

Biden is now downplaying the dispute.

People on beach pointing at sky

Biden calls Xi ‘dictator’

He says the balloons were blown off-course and the Chinese president didn’t even know they were over the continental U.S.: “No, I’m serious,” Biden said during a Tuesday night fundraiser, before inserting an aside that irritated Beijing.

“That’s what’s a great embarrassment for dictators, when they didn’t know what happened. … When it got shot down, he was very embarrassed.”

These same balloons had so miffed Washington earlier this year that Blinken delayed a trip to China, a trip promised as part of a renewed China-U.S. dialogue.

In the aftermath, China set out to teach the Americans a lesson. As Washington started asking for another meeting, Beijing left it cooling its heels.

China repeatedly brushed off U.S. efforts to reschedule Blinken’s visit then, and while he was in Beijing, the Americans were kept in suspense until the last minute about whether their delegation would even meet Xi.

With the meeting now over, China’s pressure has persisted. Beijing’s stated position is that the onus for improving relations rests entirely upon Washington.

Three men in white shirts stare from balcony.

Beijing’s strategy: Make Washington move first

Editorials in the state-directed Xinhua News Agency and Global Times cast this as a window of opportunity for the U.S. to fix things, should the U.S. decide to seize it.

Of particular interest in China, given its slowing economy: Will the U.S. relax economic sanctions?

Washington just recently cut China off in trade of semiconductor chips, arguing they are used in weapons systems; it’s imposed tariffs; it’s reportedly planning to ban certain investments in China; some state governments, meanwhile, are forbidding Chinese purchases of farmland.

It’s unclear whether Xi was referring to any of these priority issues when he alluded on Monday to having reached certain agreements with Blinken.

People in hardhats in background as Trump points from podium

What is clear is that U.S. officials have recently started downplaying the idea of an economic war with China.

In Washington, the term “decoupling” is out. It’s been replaced by “de-risking.” What the U.S. insists it wants is not a total separation of the two economies, just less trade in goods with national-security applications.

This was foreshadowed even before Blinken’s visit, when the U.S. treasury secretary brushed off the idea of a full U.S.-China economic divorce as disastrous and destabilizing, and the White House national security adviser echoed the point.

Blinken said he tried hard in Beijing to disabuse his hosts of the notion that the U.S. is looking to economically crush China. “We’re not,” he said, offering as proof the record U.S.-China trade last year.

Meanwhile, both countries have their own domestic politics to worry about: In Washington, any relaxation of pressure on China could trigger political blowback.

Washington strategist: ‘I’m quite concerned’

In the U.S. capital, there’s a growing bipartisan eagerness to challenge Beijing — over everything from human rights abuses on both Chinese and U.S. soil, to festering economic grievances, like intellectual-property theft and anti-competitive pricing by state-run enterprises.

One recent architect of U.S. national defence strategy says he’s disturbed by some of what he heard from the Blinken visit.

High-level dialogue is fine, said Elbridge Colby. But what’s not fine, in his view, is the U.S. chasing after détente, on terms chosen by China.

“I’m actually quite concerned,” Colby told CBC News in an interview.

“The [People’s Republic of China] has not changed its policies or positions in any noticeable way…. And the [Biden] administration is doing this attempt at détente, but from a position where … the Americans are expected to accept responsibility.”

Plumes of smoke and water in background of a ship

He called the spy-balloon climbdown the most egregious example. He calls that inexcusable, while China is reportedly in talks to build a military training facility in Cuba. (China denies this.)

Colby is an increasingly prominent analyst in Washington who co-led the Pentagon’s 2018 U.S. National Defence Strategy.

That document warned that China — not terrorism — was the greatest long-term security threat to the U.S.; that Chinese control over the Indo-Pacific could be disastrous to U.S. trade and prosperity; and that Taiwan is the key to all this.

He’s been arguing for years, including against fellow Republicans, that other military entanglements are a distraction: Iraq, Iran, Syria, North Korea and, now, Ukraine, where he says American allies, including Canada, need to be shouldering more of the burden.

Next yardstick: San Francisco in November

The solution to preventing an invasion of Taiwan, he says, rests on a famous aphorism of Teddy Roosevelt’s: Speak softly and carry a big stick.

Colby applauds the Biden administration for mastering the speaking softly part, for keeping the rhetoric cool and avoiding needless belligerence.

He faults the administration for not doing enough substantively, though, to build the U.S. and Taiwanese militaries quickly enough and dissuading Beijing from an invasion.

Will renewed diplomacy change anything?

Perhaps we’ll have a better sense by November, when Xi may be in the United States for the annual Asia-Pacific summit, being held this year in San Francisco.

Biden says he hopes to meet his Chinese counterpart soon.

By then, we’ll know whether Washington can achieve three things at once: manage its top rivalry abroad, the domestic politics at home, and all while the two countries keep talking.

“Progress is hard. It takes time. And it’s not the product of one visit, one trip, one conversation,” Blinken said in Beijing.

“My hope and expectation is we will have better communications, better engagement going forward. That’s certainly not going to solve every problem between us. Far from it. But … it’s in the interests of the United States to do that. It’s in the interests of China to do that. It’s in the interests of the world.”


Alexander Panetta is a Washington-based correspondent for CBC News who has covered American politics and Canada-U.S. issues since 2013. He previously worked in Ottawa, Quebec City and internationally, reporting on politics, conflict, disaster and the Montreal Expos.

Credit belongs to : www.cbc.ca

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