U.S.-China relationship showing few signs of thaw

Frederic J. Brown/AP Photo

The United States has said for months that it wants to thaw its icy diplomatic relationship with China. New tension points keep getting in the way.

The U.S. advance of trade talks with Taiwan, made public last week, and China’s recent ban of memory chips from a U.S.-based company in its infrastructure projects are the latest frictions roiling ties between the two economic powers.

The disruptions come right before an expected meeting between Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo and Chinese Commerce Minister Wang Wentao in Washington on Thursday. Wang is also expected to sit-down with U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai on the sidelines of a gathering of trade officials in Detroit, although that meeting has not yet been confirmed.

“We still want to have these conversations,” White House national security spokesperson John Kirby told reporters Wednesday. “We're still in discussions with the PRC about how to move forward on that, but I just don't have an update for you.”

Beijing seems skeptical of any progress.

“The U.S. says it wants to speak to the Chinese side while seeking to suppress China through all possible means…is there any sincerity in and significance of any communication like this” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning said this week.

The uncertainty ahead of the meetings underscores the difficulty of repairing the U.S.-China relationship, which has hit its lowest point in decades after a string of economic and security flare-ups. The Biden administration’s more conciliatory rhetoric in recent months — emphasizing it does not aim to curb Beijing’s growth or “decouple” the two economies — has done little to ease the simmering distrust in both capitals. And domestic political pressure continues to drive saber rattling on both sides. The dearth of high-level dialogue is only likely to feed the conflicts.

Those tensions spilled into plain view last week when the Chinese embassy announced Wang would travel to the U.S. and meet with top U.S. trade officials this week. Less than two hours after that pronouncement, Tai announced the U.S. had completed the first phase of a trade deal with Taiwan, which China views as a breakaway province.

Beijing was irate. China accused Washington of violating the long-standing one-China policy in which the U.S. does not maintain formal diplomatic relations with the self-governing island.

A Chinese official unauthorized to speak to the press seemed to walk back the announcement of the meetings shortly after news of the Taiwan deal, saying “both sides are still discussing the details at the working level.”

The meetings with Raimondo and Tai would open the door for the U.S. and China to address mounting frustrations on bilateral trade. China is eager to shake U.S. tariffs and export controls that it considers unjustified and protectionist, while the U.S. argues that Beijing continues to engage in forced labor, economic coercion and other practices that distort the market in its favor. China has also not fulfilled its purchase commitments under a Trump-era trade deal, but the Biden administration’s attempts to enforce those terms hit a dead end.

The expected meetings could also build on the initial opening created by national security adviser Jake Sullivan’s two-day confab with China's top diplomat, Wang Yi, in Vienna earlier this month, which both sides described as “candid, substantive, and constructive.” That encounter marked the most high-profile meeting of U.S. and Chinese officials since Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen met with former Chinese Vice Premier Liu He in Zurich in January.

President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping met in-person for the first time since Biden became president in Bali, Indonesia, in November on the sidelines of a G-20 summit. However, spiraling bilateral tensions over issues including trade, Taiwan and the Chinese spy balloon incident in February have effectively frozen high-level diplomatic contacts for the past six months. The next likely opportunity for a Biden-Xi meeting would be in San Francisco in November during the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation leaders’ summit.

The Biden administration has also been seeking to reschedule Secretary of State Tony Blinken’s trip to China, which Washington canceled in the wake of the spy balloon incident. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s meeting with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen in California in April added to Beijing’s list of grievances with the Biden administration and has made Chinese authorities reluctant to renew substantive high level bilateral contacts, putting Blinken’s Beijing trip in limbo.

The bilateral chill has also frozen bilateral military communications. Beijing suspended senior military contacts as part of a package of reprisals for then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan in August. And Beijing is stalling on agreeing to a meeting between Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Chinese Defense Minister Li Shangfu at the annual Shangri-La Dialogue security conference in Singapore next week.

Li, who became China’s defense minister in March, has been under sanctions by the U.S. government since 2018 for his role in purchase of Russian weaponry and has not responded to Austin’s previous outreach efforts. Chinese officials have said that Li's sanctioned status stands in the way of such a meeting. The State Department said on Monday that it won't budge on lifting those Li sanctions to get that meeting, putting the meeting in doubt.

Despite the U.S. desire for renewed dialogue, Washington has not been hesitant to fault China for its own actions. Kirby on Wednesday strongly condemned a move by China to ban the use of memory chips made by Boise, Idaho-based Micron in key infrastructure projects because of national security concerns.

“This announcement from the PRC on Micron is just baseless. No foundation in fact whatsoever,” Kirby said, adding that the administration is engaging directly with Beijing to detail its position and seek clarity on China’s move.

At the same time, Kirby said it was an obvious effort by China to push back against the united position taken by G-7 leaders against Chinese economic coercion at their recent summit meeting in Hiroshima, Japan.

“I mean, it came just one day after the G-7 leaders issued their first ever statement on economic resilience and security,” Kirby said. “So how do they respond to criticism over economic coercion? With economic coercion.”

But the Micron episode should not stand in the way of more dialogue between the two countries, Kirby said, expanding on Biden’s comment on the potential for a “thaw” in relations.

“We don't believe that should be the case,” Kirby said. “The discussions and the lines of communication that we're trying to keep open, remain open. And again, there's been some promising indicators there.”