Where is US’s China policy headed? / Manoj Joshi
US National Security Advisor, Jake Sullivan, met for over eight hours over two days last week with Chinese Communist Party Politburo Member and Director of the Office of the Foreign Affairs Commission, Wang Yi, in Vienna. The meeting, which had not been publicised by either side before the talks, has been seen as a part of an effort by both countries to stabilise their relationship which is perhaps at its lowest level in recent decades.
Both sides have been locked in a steadily escalating geopolitical competition, even as they have close and intense economic linkages and a joint interest in dealing with several global and regional affairs. They are locked in opposing sides on issues like Ukraine and Taiwan, and a slow-motion decoupling as US companies diversify away from China and earnings of US companies in China are falling.
Both sides used identical language to describe the outcome of the meeting. A White House readout noted that the talks featured “candid, substantive and constructive discussions on key issues of US-China bilateral relationship, global security matters, Ukraine and Taiwan. A Chinese readout used the same terms “candid, in-depth, substantive and constructive discussions” on ways to “remove obstacles in the US-China relationship and stabilise the relationship from deterioration.” Wang laid out the Chinese position on Taiwan, Ukraine and other regional issues. Speaking on background, a US official said that both sides saw the balloon incident as being “unfortunate” and were now looking to “re-establish standard, normal channels of communications.”
Two days before the Sullivan-Wang meeting, US Ambassador Nicholas Burns met China’s Foreign Minister Qin Gang in Beijing. According to Qin, a series of “erroneous words and deeds” by the US had put the relationship between the two powers on “ ice” but stabilising ties was the top priority for both countries. Burns said that he and Qin had discussed “challenges in the US-China relationship” and the necessity of “stabilising ties.”
The US is in a delicate balancing act with regard to its China policy. In recent years, American policy has shifted from engagement to competition and even containment. In the wake of the US-China trade war, and the first wave of US technology restrictions on Chinese firms like Huawei, there was talk of a “decoupling” of the two economies. The Chinese crackdown in Hong Kong and the post-Pelosi visit tensions over Taiwan have deepened the divide between the world’s two foremost powers.
In 2021, Biden had told Xi of the need “to establish some common-sense guardrails” to ensure that the two do not get into an inadvertent conflict. Last November following their summit meeting in Bali, Biden said that “I am not looking for conflict, I’m looking to manage this competition responsibly” At the meeting, Xi called Taiwan “the first red line” that must not be crossed in China-US relations. This was to be followed by a visit of US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to Beijing, but that was called off last minute because of the balloon episode. Blinken met Wang at the Munich Security Conference later in February, but there was little forward movement.
It may be recalled that last October, the US government put in place extensive new restrictions on China’s access to advanced semiconductors and the equipment used to make them. These restrictions were layered upon earlier decisions to restrict semiconductors to entities like Huawei and ZTE.
Earlier this year, the US further tightened restrictions on the export of semiconductor manufacturing equipment to China. It coordinated with the governments of the Netherlands and Japan to tighten the guidelines. More recently, it has made it clear that it will restrict the actions of chipmakers who get funds under the CHIPs and Science Act. These restrictions are part of Washington’s effort to secure the supply of components that are needed for AI and supercomputers, as well as everyday electronics.
In March came harsh signals from China. Speaking in March, President Xi Jinping for the first time named the US and said that it was in a policy of “comprehensive containment, encirclement and suppression against us.” The next day, the new Foreign Minister Qin Gang was more explicit. He slammed the US for equating the Ukraine issue with Taiwan and said that the “so-called ‘competition’ by the US is all-round containment and suppression a zero-sum game of life and death.” He warned that if the US “does not hit the brakes and continues to speed down the wrong path, no amount of guardrails can prevent derailing, and there will surely be conflict and confrontation.”
In April, senior American officials have been trying to calm the turbulent waters. Last month, speaking at Johns Hopkins University, US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said that decoupling would be “disastrous” and that US goals relating to national security were not aimed at stifling China. She called for a plan of “constructive engagement” with three elements—national security of the US and its allies; an economic relationship based on “fair” competition; and cooperation on urgent global challenges.
The Yellen speech was a comprehensive take on US approaches to China and struck what The New York Times said was a “notably positive tone” after months of tensions between the two countries.
A week later, the tenor of her remarks was underscored by the National Security Advisor, Jake Sullivan at a speech at the Brookings Institution. Sullivan used the term “de-risking”, a term used earlier by EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen: “We are for de-risking and diversifying, not decoupling,” he noted. Sullivan had earlier described the US policy of technology restrictions on China as creating a “small yard, with a high fence.”
Now officials like Blinken, Yellen, Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo and Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin are trying to schedule meetings with their counterparts, but the going has been tough. According to Financial Times, the Chinese are reluctant to have Blinken visit because they were worried that the FBI may release the report based on the salvaged debris of the balloon.
As for Austin, the problem is that his newly appointed counterpart General Li Shangfu is under US sanctions since 2018 in relation to Chinese imports of Russian arms when he was serving as a general. The US says that a meeting in third countries would not be affected by the sanctions, but it is unlikely that the Chinese will agree. General Li was appointed defence minister in March.
With the tightening of the Western alliance in the wake of the Ukraine war, the US has sought to incorporate the European Union into its China project. Shortly after his three-day visit to China, French President Emmanuel Macron said in reference to Taiwan that Europe should not get caught up in crises “that are not ours”. Europe should try to be the “third pole” in the world order and that the need for Europe’s “strategic autonomy” was now accepted.
But Washington points to a 30 March-speech by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen where she said that it was neither viable nor in Europe’s interest to decouple from China, adding “We need to focus on de-risking—not decoupling.” She added in blunt language “The Chinese Communist Party’s clear goal is a systemic change of the international order with China at its center.” She added that it was there was a need for European companies to ensure that their “capital, expertise and knowledge are not used to enhance the military and intelligence capabilities of those who are also systemic rivals.”
Just how much of the messaging from the US about the China relations is sincere, and how much of it is aimed at reassuring nervous allies who feel that Washington’s policies could have a negative impact on them is not clear. But Washington’s agenda remains clear.
Speaking last week in Japan, where she is attending the meeting of G7 finance ministers, Yellen called for “coordinated action” by G7 nations against Chinese use of “economic coercion” against other countries. She also said that Washington has been considering the imposition of additional “narrowly targeted restrictions on outbound investment to China,” and that these have been discussed with other G7 partners. She said these would be targeted at technologies “where there are clear national security implications.”
But as of now, it does appear as though the two sides are trying to create what David Ignatius called “a framework for constructive engagement.” There is some optimism arising from the detailed discussions that Sullivan and Wang held in Vienna which, as we note were described by both as “candid” and “constructive”. Both sides perceive the need to stabilise their relationship given the role the two countries play in world affairs.
With the US going into election mode, it is not clear how long this period where the two sides are trying to work out a new modus vivendi will last. Engagement with China could become a political liability in the US where, if there is consensus on one issue, it is that of a hardline on China.