Dialogue between the world’s two top powers is important. It can also be a trap. With Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s visit to Beijing last weekend, the rhythm of Sino-American diplomacy is accelerating. The challenge for President Joe Biden will be to prevent that diplomacy from derailing the policies the US must pursue to maintain a position of strength.
The next few months will pose a critical test for US policy: They will reveal whether Washington will be paralyzed by the tensions that rivalry inevitably brings.
As expected, Blinken’s meetings with President Xi Jinping and other Chinese officials produced no major breakthroughs beyond the usual assurances that neither Washington nor Beijing seeks unmitigated confrontation. Even so, the trip is part of a larger sequence of meetings meant to restore the high-level dialogue that stalled after the Chinese spy-balloon incident in January.
Last month, CIA Director William Burns secretly visited Beijing and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan met with his counterpart, Wang Yi, in Vienna. Blinken’s trip probably presages a visit by Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, and perhaps a meeting between Biden and Xi this fall.
Biden’s team aims to set the Sino-American relationship on a surer footing in 2023, before the politics of that relationship heat up prior to the US election in 2024. The administration worries that close encounters between US and Chinese military forces in the Western Pacific will be hard to handle absent working channels of communication. It realizes that US allies expect Washington to talk and compete simultaneously. So Biden seeks a mature competitive relationship with China, one in which sustained dialogue tempers the dangers of rivalry.
The instinct is understandable; the results are likely to be underwhelming.
As Blinken’s visit confirmed, the US will not convince the Chinese military to establish and use real crisis-management mechanisms, because Beijing believes they would simply tempt Washington to engage in behavior that triggers crises in the first place. Dialogue may help the US and China better understand each other’s positions on Taiwan, technology and other contested issues. But it surely won’t resolve disputes that result from clashing interests rather than insufficient communication.
Xi won’t, therefore, slacken Chinese efforts to squeeze Taiwan, steal US intellectual property, dominate key technological choke points and spread Chinese influence around the world. He will structure Sino- American diplomacy in ways that encourage Washington to weaken its own position.
In late 2022 and early 2023, the US had the momentum in the rivalry. Biden’s administration was sealing new basing and defense arrangements with Japan and the Philippines. It was taking the technological fight to Beijing with sweeping controls on the sale of high-end semiconductors and the inputs needed to produce them. There were overdue moves afoot to limit the flood of US investment into Chinese tech firms. More recently, though, the pace of US policy has slowed.
The FBI has yet to release its report on the contents of the Chinese spy balloon, an incident Biden now dismisses as “silly.” The executive order on outbound investment is months behind schedule. A significant arms package for Taiwan seems stuck in the Pentagon bureaucracy. There are reports that Biden has delayed tightening sanctions against Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei Technologies Co.
US officials argue that these things simply take time. And to be fair, Biden is pushing on other fronts, such as expanding ties with India and working with the Group of 7 to build multilateral resistance to Chinese economic coercion. But there is less urgency in US policy today than there was six months ago — and Beijing surely wants to keep it that way.
The Chinese are old hands at using American concerns for the stability of the relationship to soften the edges of US policy, and are laying the groundwork for another such effort today.
If Washington wants to talk, say Chinese officials, it must “show sincerity” and “take concrete actions” to rebuild the relationship. As the dialogue expands, Beijing will no doubt engage more substantively with some parts of the US government than others — a familiar trick for sowing conflict within an administration. The Chinese may well threaten to cancel high-level meetings if the US pushes ahead with unwelcome policies on Taiwan and other issues. Xi will try to force the US to choose the dialogue it wants and the competitive actions it needs, hoping America’s well-intentioned desire for the former will impede the progress of the latter.
Want to know why this would be so damaging? Consult Biden’s own position documents. His National Security Strategy calls the 2020s “the decisive decade”: Actions taken or not taken now will determine the contours of global order for many years to come. Time the US doesn’t use to strengthen itself in the Western Pacific or the tech rivalry is time it won’t get back.
It is true that a mature competitive relationship requires dialogue. But succeeding in competition also requires the US to get used to the fact that tension can be the necessary byproduct of good policy. How well Biden handles his engagements with Beijing over the next few months will reveal how well he grasps this uncomfortable, essential point.