Pacific Dialogue
Fueling the… Freeze?
By Liang Xiao  ·  2023-06-06  ·   Source: NO.23 JUNE 8, 2023

Are they or are they not? Whether the U.S. and China, the two largest economies on the planet, are ushering in a major opportunity for the warming up of bilateral relations has become a hot topic worldwide.

At a press conference following the Group of Seven (G7) Summit in Hiroshima, Japan, on May 21, U.S. President Joe Biden said he believed the heightened tensions between the U.S. and China should see "a thaw very shortly."

And Biden's optimism does not appear to be wishful thinking. Since early May, an apparent desire on Washington's part to reengage with Beijing has significantly lifted interaction between American and Chinese political and business circles.

First, on May 8, Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Qin Gang met with U.S. Ambassador to China Nicholas Burns for the first time since Qin had taken up the position in late 2022. Next, Wang Yi, a member of the Political Bureau of the Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee and Director of the Office of the Foreign Affairs Commission of the CPC Central Committee, had an in-depth discussion spanning more than eight hours with U.S. National Security Advisor Jack Sullivan in Vienna, Austria, on May 10-11. Xie Feng, China's new ambassador to the U.S., after Qin left the post to become foreign minister, arrived in New York on May 23 and met with U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Victoria Nuland two days later. That same day, Chinese Commerce Minister Wang Wentao met with U.S. Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo in Washington, D.C. and U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai in Detroit the following day. Before leaving for the U.S., Wang hosted a symposium in Shanghai to listen to the status quo of American enterprises in China and hear their opinions and suggestions on China's optimization of its business environment. And on May 30, well-known American entrepreneur Elon Musk embarked on his first visit to China in nearly three years, where he received a warm welcome from Minister Qin.

Even though frequent high-level bilateral meetings can indeed create conditions for the improvement of Sino-American relations, any substantive "thaw" of bilateral relations will be a long and tough process. In the past few years, China and the U.S. have resumed the dialogue several times, but usually the relationship between the two global giants would fall off the cliff again soon after due to new frictions or misinterpretations.

For example, during the Group of 20 (G20) Summit in Bali, Indonesia, last November, the leaders of both countries had candid and constructive talks as well as instructed their teams to manage risks and maintain open lines of communication. Following that, global public opinion generally held that Sino-American relations would start warming up again. These plans were soon blown off course, though, by China's "wandering balloon" that entered American airspace due to force majeure in late January. In light of the incident, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken then postponed his planned trip to Beijing.

The Chinese side has always believed that some American politicians, including Biden, do have the will to improve the relationship. But the partisan struggle in the U.S., as well as Washington's "political correctness," greatly reduces their commitment. For example, when Biden stated Sino-American relations would "thaw," he added that the U.S. Government was considering lifting restrictions against China's defense minister, People's Liberation Army General Li Shangfu, who has long been on Washington's sanctions list. But a spokesperson for the State Department quickly walked back Biden's comment.

This type of inconsistent behavior is also believed to be an important reason why China has rejected an American proposal for U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to meet with his Chinese counterpart Li at the Shangri-La Dialogue Security Forum in Singapore on June 4-6.

What the Chinese value most is not the splendor of the U.S.' words, but the sincerity of its actions. A discrepancy between the two only adds fuel to the current fire, or rather, "freeze."

In the end, any progress toward a more functional China-U.S. relationship will require political courage and determined efforts from both sides. Neither side can deliver greater stability on its own. To achieve maximum cooperation within a framework acceptable to both sides is in the best interest of China and the U.S., and that of the international community. 

Copyedited by Elsbeth van Paridon

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