- China's top foreign policy official, Yang Jiechi, spoke with the US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken in the first senior-level official contact since US President Joe Biden took office.
- The readouts from both sides offer little hint that rapprochement is possible in the short term, given the focus on Chinese sovereignty issues where compromise is unlikely.
- But a more optimistic reading of the call is that both sides are engaged in nationalist posturing for domestic audiences as a precondition for offering concessions later.
The Chinese readout of the call focused on Yang's demand for “the United States to rectify its mistakes made over a period of time.” Yang added that “Hong Kong, Xinjiang and Tibet-related affairs are all China's internal affairs and allow no interference by any external forces.” Though this language is familiar, the readout's emphasis on these points suggests that Beijing is digging in its heels rather than striking a conciliatory note.
The briefer US readout emphasized Blinken's focus on the very sovereignty and human rights issues that Beijing regards as non-negotiable “red lines.” Blinken “stressed the United States will continue to stand up for human rights and democratic values, including in Xinjiang, Tibet, and Hong Kong,” according to the US readout.
A crucial question for US-China relations under Biden is the extent to which the US administration insists on intermingling human rights and sovereignty issues with economic relations. Both the phase 1 trade deal and the EU-China investment deal demonstrate that Beijing is willing to offer at least some concessions on issues like market access, regulatory treatment of foreign companies in China, intellectual property protection, and state-owned enterprises. Cooperation is probably also possible on global issues like cybersecurity, Covid-19, and climate change. But the scope for compromise on Hong Kong, Xinjiang, Taiwan, and the South China Sea is far narrower. If Washington insists on conditioning economic, public health, and climate cooperation on progress on Beijing's red line issues, the overall outlook for bilateral relations will darken.
A more optimistic interpretation of the Yang-Blinken call is that both sides are engaged in posturing aimed primarily at domestic audiences. Given the US political environment, even an administration intent on improving relations with China would likely begin by establishing its “tough on China” credentials before pivoting. Likewise for Yang, appearing too conciliatory – even as Blinken hammers on core sovereignty issues – could leave him vulnerable to nationalist critics.
The same dual reading is possible for a major speech by Yang to the National Committee on US-China relations on 1 February. As a Politburo member and director of the Communist Party's Central Foreign Affairs Commission Yang effectively outranks Foreign Minister Wang Yi. As previously discussed, Yang spent most of the speech criticizing the Trump administration, seeming to imply that blame for the decline in US-China relations lies entirely with Washington.
In an optimistic scenario, cooperation on climate or Covid-19 could allow both sides to claim victory and lay the groundwork for a broader shift in relations. But a risk to this scenario is the US Senate, where bipartisan momentum is building for tougher action to protect US data and intellectual property from Chinese companies. Such action could derail a potential rapprochement, as Beijing is unlikely to be sympathetic to claims from Biden administration officials that they are powerless to control Senate hardliners.
Given that Biden will be fully occupied with domestic issues in his first months in office, US-China relations are likely to remain in a holding pattern for much of 2021. Even if Biden ultimately intends to reduce tariffs or soften export controls, for example, these moves can likely only occur in the context of a broader China strategy that would allow the administration to claim credibly that it is maintaining pressure on Beijing. Formulating such a comprehensive China strategy will take time, even once all of Biden's nominees are confirmed.