14.07.2022 Author: Vladimir Terehov

On Another US-China Contact


The noise (literally and figuratively) created by the conflict in Ukraine may not give a complete picture of the significance of particular events taking place at the table of the Great Game today. Although this conflict has set the agenda for no less high-profile action, which was the recent NATO summit in Madrid.

Meanwhile, no less (and probably more) significant events are taking place on the other side of the globe and without too much noise. Something really important in our lives should never get too much attention or too much publicity. To assess the real situation on the global table, it is desirable to understand the meaning of the leading players’ moves, as well as to recognize the (usually not loud) remarks exchanged between them.

Such “remarks” are uttered in the course of certain contacts between the responsible representatives of the United States and China, that is, the two most important players. As for the specific personalities involved in such contacts, the most significant among them are, of course, the presidents of both countries, i.e. Joe Biden and Xi Jinping. But the ground for contact between them is being prepared by lower-ranking government officials. On the US side they are J. Sullivan, J.  Yellen, A. Blinken and L. Austin. Their partners on the PRC side are (roughly responsible for a similar range of tasks) Yang Jiechi, Liu He, Wang Yi and Wei Fenghe.

An important point to note is the (always and for all) pertinent question of the role of potentially, to put it mildly, different opinions in the outwardly unified governing administration of a certain country regarding approaches to a particular important problem. Signs of such “different opinions” were quite clear in the previous US administration, when almost all the anti-Chinese negativity was generated by Secretary of State M. Pompeo (apparently preparing to run on behalf of Republicans in the next presidential election). While the positives, mainly in the area of bilateral trade, were credited to President Trump.

However, a number of increased tariffs, which have created problems for Chinese IT companies’ access to the US market, are still in effect under his name. But in the last year or two, there have been significant costs associated with these tariffs in the US itself. The problem has once again been aptly summed up by the Chinese Global Times in a piece of fiction.

Therefore, in the general anti-China flow generated by the US administration as a whole, since the beginning of this year there has been an outwardly not very visible “positive stream” in the form of messages to Beijing sent by the current Secretary of the Treasury J. Yellen.

But it is this “stream” that deserves special attention, for only with it can hopes for a non-catastrophic development of relations between the two leading world powers be linked. When engaged in a common cause, such as bilateral trade and economic relations, all sorts of mutual suspicions and fears (most often irrational) that constitute the sphere of activity denoted by the elastic word “politics” recede into the background.

On the initiative of J. Yellen, negotiations took place online on July 5 with Chinese Vice-Premier Liu He on a set of issues related to the aforementioned “costs”. It should be noted that it was Liu He who led the Chinese delegation during the long negotiations with his US counterparts to resolve serious problems in bilateral trade and it was he who signed the final document (the so-called Phase 1 Agreement) on behalf of his country in January 2020. Meanwhile, it was President Trump himself who signed it on behalf of the US.

As for the Liu He-J. Yellen negotiations, there are certain differences in the parties’ comments on the fact of the negotiations and their contents. In a dryly business-like manner, the Department of the Treasury’s brief concludes with the notable passage that Ms. J. Yellen “looks forward to future discussion with Vice Premier Liu”.

While the Chinese Global Times also describes the negotiations as “constructive”, there is a clear apprehension in its commentary about the negative impact on the bilateral trade and economic sphere of the very “political” stream that dominates Washington’s messaging to Beijing.

In this connection, it is worth pointing out a significant event on the eve of the Liu He-J. Yellen negotiations, the consequences of which substantially explain the “impatience” of the latter mentioned. It is about a large-scale deal concluded by Chinese airline companies with European Airbus, which will supply the former with about 300 passenger planes for a total amount of USD 37 billion. The emotions of Boeing’s managemen are understandable in this regard, which, reflecting the sentiments of a significant section of American business, are directed towards the current US administration: “Cut out your political fiddling with the Chinese and let us work in peace in the giant Chinese market” (speaking of the “collective West”).

But, to repeat, it is “politics” that has so far dominated the US course on China. During his trip to Indonesia for the G20 ministerial meeting, US Secretary of State A. Blinken felt it necessary to inform Taiwan’s leadership that he was scheduled to meet with his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi on the margins of the event. According to the Taipei Foreign Ministry, the institution will also be informed of the outcome of the negotiations.  This was hardly seen in Beijing as anything other than a petty jab at it over a key issue for it.

The meeting took place on July 9 and initial comments indicate that the main theme of the negotiations was to “curb, or at least manage, the rampant hostility” in recent US-China relations.

But this common task cannot be achieved without controlling its military component, which is becoming increasingly important as the armed forces of both countries increasingly “explore” the same sea areas adjacent mainly to China’s coastline so far. The situation in the Taiwan Strait could be particularly dangerous. The PRC has recently disputed that it has the status of international waters. Meanwhile, the US naval command cites this very status when explaining (if it deems it necessary) the regular demonstrative passages of its ships through the Taiwan Strait.

Issues of keeping the military component of the bilateral confrontation under control are discussed by defense ministers L. Austin and Wei Fenghe. Their last direct meeting took place in early June in Singapore on the margins of another so-called Shangri-La Dialogue. On July 7, the heads of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the two countries’ armed forces discussed the topic of preventing a possible conflict in the Taiwan Strait in an online format.

But the whole set of bilateral relations is the responsibility of higher (“supra-ministerial”) government officials, such as J. Sullivan and Yang Jiechi. Their last prolonged (almost four-hour) meeting took place on June 13 in Luxembourg. According to leaks to the media, one of the main topics discussed was the prospect of a meeting at the highest, i.e. presidential, level. Apparently this same issue was also raised during A. Blinken’s negotiations with Wang Yi in Indonesia.

There are also nuances in the parties’ assessments of this prospect. While President J. Biden is rather optimistic, the Chinese leader has not yet made any judgments on the matter. The assessments by Chinese experts, on the other hand, are mostly in a cautiously skeptical tone.

And the latter seems quite understandable, given the overall not yet very optimistic (to put it neatly) situation between the two major world powers.

Vladimir Terekhov, expert on the issues of the Asia-Pacific region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.