After three years of self-isolation from China, President Biden’s top aides are flying to Beijing over the summer to try to convince and cheer Chinese officials, including Xi Jinping, the nation’s leader, about building a new foundation for relations.
It could amount to the most consistent diplomatic push of Mr. Biden’s presidency. He’s betting that high-level dialogue can itself act as ballast in a relationship that has been in dangerous free fall for years. “I think there is a way to resolve, to establish a working relationship with China that benefits them and us,” Mr. Biden said in CNN interview broadcast on Sunday, when Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen was ending her visit to Beijing.
Ms Yellen met for hours with China’s premier and Mr Xi’s vice premier and top economic aide, who was relatively unknown to US officials – a sign that these exchanges could help establish important one-on-one channels. Since May, the CIA director and the secretary of state have also traveled to Beijing, and the special climate envoy and the commerce secretary will soon follow.
Mr. Biden and his aides say that forging these personal ties could be necessary to defuse crises between the world’s two major superpowers. But the recent visits have also thrown into sharp relief the worsening structural problems in the relationship, which some analysts say could lead to armed conflict if mismanaged.
Diplomacy has done nothing to address the single thorniest issue between the two nations – the status of Taiwan – and China’s military ambitions in the Asia-Pacific region, which are incompatible with US military dominance there. When Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken met with Mr. Xi in June, the Chinese leader refused to even acknowledge that a framework was needed for the rivalry.
That means China will continue to view a wide range of Washington policies as hostile actions, including export controls on advanced semiconductor technology and new military deals with other Asian nations. US and Chinese officials recognize that the relationship is increasingly defined by military tensions, with talk of potential war normalized in the two capitals.
For the first time, Mr. Xi said publicly this year that the United States is trying to achieve “circumvent containment” of China, and there is still no indication that diplomacy this summer is disabusing him of that notion.
Mr. Biden said in his interview that Mr. Xi called him because the United States was strengthening its military alliances in the region and asked: “Why are you doing this?” Mr. Biden said he responded, “We’re not doing this to surround you. We’re doing this to maintain stability in the Indian Ocean and in the South China Sea” and to strengthen standards for the use of international waters and airspace.
US officials say the two militaries have increasingly risky sea and air contacts, and that any accident could trigger a crisis. But military diplomacy remains a yawning gap in relations.
Mr. Xi and his aides rebuffed Mr. Blinken when he asked them to reopen high-level military-to-military channels that China closed after Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan last August. And in early June, Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III got the cold shoulder by his Chinese counterpart, General Li Shangfu, at an annual security conference in Singapore. The US government imposed sanctions on Mr. Li in 2018 over purchases of military equipment from Russia.
Both the Biden administration and Chinese officials are bracing for domestic US politics to add to tensions next year. Republican and Democratic candidates in the 2024 elections are expected to try to outdo each other in sharp rhetoric about China. U.S. officials say the trips this summer are intended to give the two governments a chance to have frank conversations about the relationship before political campaigning heats up.
“For the Chinese, this year is the last chance before things are supposed to get worse next year with the US presidential election,” said Yun Sun, a China foreign policy scholar at the Stimson Center in Washington. “Combined with China’s own economic challenges, particularly the sluggish recovery, Beijing has incentives to compensate. Washington does as well.”
China wanted to receive American economic cabinet members before Mr. Blinken, but the Biden administration insisted that Mr. Blinken must be the first official to visit after the secret trip of William J. Burns, the director of the CIA, in May.
Chinese officials have avoided making commitments with Mr. Blinken on some important issues, including limiting exports of precursor chemicals used to make fentanyl, for which China is the main supplier. Chinese officials are suspicious of Mr. Blinken, who regularly raises issues of strategic competition and human rights. In February, he canceled his initial plans for a visit because of a Chinese spy balloon incident, and he said publicly that same month that China was considering sending military aid to Russia for use in Ukraine.
Ms. Yellen has received a warmer reception since last Thursday. China’s finance ministry published a a long statement on Monday describing her comments in favorable terms rarely seen in other recent statements on US-China relations. The statement underscored Ms. Yellen’s insistence that the United States does not seek to decouple, or unplug, its economy from China’s. Less than two weeks ago, Li Qiang, the prime minister of China, warned in a speech that the United States was trying to do just that.
Perhaps most importantly, the Treasury Department’s statement echoed recent calls by Ms. Yellen and Mr. Blinken for the United States and China to work together in areas where they share common interests, including global economic stability and climate change. “Effectively dealing with global challenges requires coordination and cooperation between China and the United States,” it said.
A senior Treasury official said on Ms Yellen’s flight back to Washington that her trip had been successful in forging ties with China’s new economic team and “setting a floor in the relationship” between the US and China – a favorite phrase among US officials. to describe efforts with China.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to openly discuss diplomatic talks, said Ms. Yellen and her team had gained a better understanding of how China’s economic policy team is structured and how it sees the health of the Chinese economy. The official said that the Treasury hopes that communication at multiple levels will happen more often to avoid misunderstandings. But the official declined to say whether Ms. Yellen had invited He Lifeng, China’s vice premier and an economist who is close to Mr. Xi, to Washington.
Eswar Prasad, a Cornell University professor who studies China’s economy, said Ms. Yellen’s willingness to engage with China’s economic leadership on a range of substantive issues while acknowledging differences and explaining the rationale for U.S. actions will set the tone for more constructive discussions.
“While any significant de-escalation of mutual economic hostilities is not in the cards, Yellen’s visit could help limit any further escalation of bilateral economic and trade tensions despite rising anti-China rhetoric in Washington,” he said.
However, the two governments expect more clashes over investment restrictions, export controls and sanctions. U.S. officials have tried to signal to Chinese officials that this is a new normal in relations — that the U.S. plans to end very specific trade ties with China because of national security concerns. The idea was most clearly expressed by Jake Sullivan, the national security adviser, in a speech in April, when he said that the United States would protect “basic technologies with a small yard and a high fence.”
The Chinese government continues to push back against US sanctions against hundreds of Chinese entities and individuals that were imposed as punishment for human rights abuses in Xinjiang, Tibet and Hong Kong.
Some Chinese experts are skeptical that the goodwill from Ms. Yellen’s visit will last. Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations at Renmin University in Beijing, said Ms. Yellen’s most important comments were those in which she said the United States would continue to diversify supply chains away from China and take targeted actions to defend its national security. .
“It summarizes two fundamental policies that the United States has taken persistently and with repeated escalations,” he wrote in a text message.
Wu Xinbo, the dean of international studies at Fudan University, said the long-term impact of Ms. Yellen’s visit “depends on how this translates into policy.” Technology issues have moved so much to the center of the relationship that Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo’s visit will be critical in showing whether the United States is ready to address China’s concerns, he said.
“To some extent her visit is more important than Yellen’s visit,” he said.
China has agreed to resume climate dialogue after suspending it last August. John Kerry, the special climate envoy, plans to land in Beijing on Sunday for four days of talks. China and the United States are the two largest emitters of greenhouse gases, and China’s coal use continues to grow despite its parallel expansion of renewable energy capacity.
“There is a lot of work that now needs to be done to achieve our goals,” Mr. Kerry said in an interview last Thursday, “and the news coming out of the scientific community around the world should be very alarming to everyone.”
By October, at least three Chinese ministers will visit the United States. That would pave the way for what is likely to be the most important diplomatic engagement of the year: Mr. Biden and Mr. Xi meeting in San Francisco in November on the sidelines of an economic summit of Asia-Pacific nations.
Lisa Friedman contributed reporting.