Unofficial US-China dialogue: seeing the worst in each other undermines nations’ already dismal relations

·6-min read

Washington needs to clearly and consistently outline its China policy and Beijing needs to explain how expanding into the South China Sea and elsewhere contributes to regional peace and stability, according to the National Committee on American Foreign Policy, which organised a series of recent US-China backchannel discussions.

“Track two” or backchannel diplomacy involves non-governmental contacts used to explore options when official channels are blocked, although this has declined as relations have hit new lows and Covid-19 has reduced face-to-face contact.

The committee – a non-profit, non-partisan group focused on conflict resolution – announced the results of the dialogue on Thursday, and said few who participated saw much cause for improvement in US-China relations.

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“The discussions were candid and most participants were pessimistic that either side had political will to improve the atmosphere in which great power competition is taking place,” the committee said.

“Both sides do not want to spark outright military conflict, setting the floor of the bilateral relationship. However, the ceiling seems to be falling and the room for manoeuvre to prevent the worst outcomes is narrowing.”

Yun Sun, director of Stimson Centre’s China Programme and a dialogue participant, said that meetings like this were useful, but that talking over Zoom was frustrating and did not address a fundamental problem in the relationship.

“We don’t know what our endgame is,” she said. “Without clarifying what our endgame is, we don’t have an answer for policy, we don’t have an answer for strategy.”

Among the 15 Americans participating in the meetings, which took place in May, were former ambassador J. Stapleton Roy, now an analyst with the Wilson Centre; Brookings Institution fellows David Dollar and Ryan Haas; and former ambassador Susan Elliott, president and chief executive of the committee that organised the talks.

The eight participants on the Chinese side included Cui Liru, a senior adviser with the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR); retired Major General Yao Yunzhu, former head of the Academy of Military Sciences; and professors from Tsinghua, Peking and Fudan universities.

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Those representing the Chinese side, including foreign policy professors and analysts with CICIR, a think tank under the Ministry of State Security, appear to be among the few Chinese authorised to speak publicly about Chinese policy in informal settings with Americans, said Jeff Moon, head of China Moon Strategies and a former US consul general in Chungdu.

The committee’s report recommended that both sides figure out how to rebalance the economic relationship so sanctions and other trade restrictions are “less reflexive and more targeted” and how to lend more predictability to managing other sensitive areas.

Most of the points expressed were not particularly surprising. Both sides saw Taiwan as an increasingly dangerous flashpoint, with each camp ascribing the worst possible motives to the other’s actions as they play to their respective domestic audiences.

“Viewing each other as the mortal enemy is a self-fulfilling process,” said Sun. “We’re not in a cold war yet; that suggests there is an uneasy peace. I’m not sure there is going to be peace. The two sides are not even in consensus that we need rules of engagement.”

J. Stapleton Roy, a former US ambassador to China, was among those taking part in the meetings. Photo: AFP/Getty Images
J. Stapleton Roy, a former US ambassador to China, was among those taking part in the meetings. Photo: AFP/Getty Images

More and more, both sides also see their rival as a threat to their own existence – with the US framing competition as an ideological struggle between democracy and authoritarianism and China convinced that the US will go to any length to frustrate its development – making it extremely difficult to find common ground.

“It’s a polite and rational discussion, unlike others where Chinese diplomats are making increasingly provocative statements,” said Moon.

“But these kind of track two discussions are probably among the very few mechanisms that amount to feeding unofficial views into the bilateral dialogue.”

One unnamed Chinese participant said President Xi Jinping tried to send signals directly through top channels – underscoring the importance of the bilateral relationship early in the Joe Biden administration and signalling that Washington had misinterpreted China’s strategic intention in the March 2022 phone call – only to be rebuffed, according to the report.

The misinterpretation related to the gravity of the Taiwan situation, analysts said.

“The Chinese side felt the US did not reciprocate these positive messages, and wondered if the US heard such messages at all,” the report said.

“Chinese participants also wondered if a tougher approach to China was reflective of partisanship and the Biden administration’s weak hold on Congress.”

US President Joe Biden participates in a virtual meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping on November 15. Photo: Getty Images/TNS
US President Joe Biden participates in a virtual meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping on November 15. Photo: Getty Images/TNS

The account of the discussions painted an image of each side staking out positions it viewed as defensive only to see those positions interpreted as hostile and aggressive by the other camp.

While Beijing welcomed US statements suggesting it did not seek regime change, for example, it found it difficult to reconcile these with a heightened US rhetoric and military posture.

Similarly, even as China views its statements defending the sovereignty of its periphery as defensive, the US and its regional allies see these as escalatory and confrontational.

“Suspicion clouds attempts to find specific common ground, and lends credibility to worst-case scenario analysis and fears of entrapment,” the committee said.

This even extended to seemingly minor issues. One unnamed Chinese participant pointed out that China viewed the offer of US Covid-19 vaccines as a potential trap. If it accepted, the US media would jump on it as proof that Chinese vaccines did not work.

How US-China cold war could lead to more conflict, but also more peace

In fact, virtually any positive response to a US initiative is perilous in a political climate in which the US is viewed as determined to contain China, another said.

As relations have soured badly, areas that used to bridge differences have become tools to be weaponised, participants said, including trade, sanctions and financial systems.

“A Chinese participant explained that many Chinese feel US sanctions over Xinjiang are aimed at regime change, not policy change, and are driven by containment strategies rather than morals,” the report said.

“American participants felt the economic stress China had placed on US allies had lent credence to calls for decoupling and sparked supply chain restructuring.”

Some, however, see value in any type of communication given the current environment.

“These kinds of dialogues are an essential counter to the war of words,” said Nicholas Cull, public diplomacy professor at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. “I wish there were more conversations of this kind.”

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