Yang Jiechi and Wang Yi, the top officials in charge of foreign relations of China and the United States, together with Blinken and Sullivan, will hold the “2+2” high-level strategic dialogue between China and the United States in Alaska from March 18 to 19. This dialogue is different from both the “2+2” dialogue between the U.S. and Japan, where the foreign minister and defense secretary meet, and the economic and security strategy dialogues that have been held between China and the U.S. on several occasions. It can be said that this is the first platform to reposition bilateral relations between the two powers.
Because of its importance, Chinese and U.S. media and think tanks are making predictions and comments about this high-level diplomatic and strategic dialogue, and there are many different opinions. The author has also made a few comments on the upcoming dialogue below.
First, this “2+2” dialogue is likely to be a “new starting point” for U.S.-China relations. It is important to see that the Trump Administration felt compelled to “blame” China, smearing and wildly attacking it irrationally, in the late stage of its term due to its poor performance in dealing with the new epidemic,. It embarked on an irrational “bottomless tough” line against China, groundlessly discrediting and frantically attacking it, and almost completely abandoned the official dialogue with China. Although Yang Jiechi met with the then U.S. Secretary of State Pompeo in Hawaii in June 2020, the dialogue was fruitless because Pompeo was determined to “disengage” with China.
Since Biden took office in January 2021, high-level interaction between the U.S. and China has increased significantly, and on February 2, Yang Jiechi delivered a speech at a video conference held by the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations, calling on the new U.S. Administration to put U.S.-China relations back on a healthy track and sending positive signals that the two sides can move forward together. The two Heads of State paid their respects to each other on the Chinese New Year of the Ox on phone and also had an in-depth exchange of views on bilateral relations and major international and regional issues. The upcoming March 18-19 U.S.-China High-Level Strategic Dialogue will be the third interaction between the U.S. and China since the Biden Administration took office. The author’s observation is that the “engagement policy” with China, which was abandoned by the Trump Administration before, is being resumed to a certain extent.
Secondly, this “engagement policy” is premised on preconditions of “what’s good for the U.S”. This is the so-called “result-oriented” dialogue and engagement. Although different from Trump’s unreasonable “America First,” it is still essentially the logic of a bully. On this premise, Blinken and other senior U.S. officials have stated several times that the responsibility for the U.S.-China relationship coming to the present point does not lie entirely with the U.S. side, even asking the Chinese side to “correct its mistakes” first. This has set a “roadblock” to improvement of Sino-US relations.
The world knows that the second half of the Trump and Pompeo Administration has reached the limit of full scale anti-China approach of “economic decoupling,” “political anti-communism,” “containment militarily” and so on. The hard-line policies without a floor, such as “abandoning one China principle” have pushed China-US relations to the edge of a precipice. The Chinese side has exercised great restraint and made every effort to refrain from embarking on the no return path of a “new cold war” in China-US relations. In any case, the U.S. side is the main party responsible for the hollowing out of Sino-U.S. relations.
Frankly speaking, we understand the dilemma the Biden Administration faces in improving U.S.-China relations. The devastating effects of the “Trump legacy” are far-reaching and extensive, and hard to reverse; the U.S. is faced with the difficult task of getting on top of the domestic epidemic and economic situation; anti-China forces in Congress are still “bull-headed” and the domestic political atmosphere is negative and hostile. In this environment, it is almost impossible for the Biden Administration to correct the hard-line anti-China policy of the previous Administration in the short term. However, this is not a reason for some factions in the Democratic Party to “put China on the mat for its crimes”. Turning black and white and confusing right and wrong will only be akin to quenching thirst by drinking poison and will not help the Democratic Party to get out of its predicament.
China and the United States need to do something to arrest he damage and stop the free fall. The Democratic Party is accustomed to using “human rights and democracy” as the banner of its foreign policy. Some politicians will also take China to task on issues related to Hong Kong and the border, and even use “defending Taiwan’s democracy” as a veneer to support “Taiwan independence”. The Chinese side emphasizes the red line of core national interests, on which has no room for concessions. If the U.S. side is still shirking or even shifting responsibility at this time, it will not help the U.S.-China “2+2” high-level strategic dialogue. China and the United States should focus on the future and work together to remove old obstacles and prevent creation of new ones.
Third, the U.S.-China “2+2” dialogue should focus on expanding the scope of cooperation. Secretary Blinken recently said that the U.S.-China relationship has all three elements, of competition, confrontation, and cooperation, and that we should do whatever we can. This is obviously much more sober than Pompeo’s one-sided approach of refusing to cooperate, blind in its confrontation. The question is what to cooperate on and how to cooperate? China believes that there is room for cooperation and the need for cooperation in the three major areas of climate governance, prevention and control of new epidemics and crisis control (including arms control). The U.S. side has also responded positively to this. For example, the dialogue between the expert groups of both sides in the field of climate governance has been quite in-depth, and experts in epidemic prevention and control are also exploring the path of cooperation. Now we need to turn the consensus at the expert level into a coordinated diplomatic mechanism between the two countries, This is the bright spot that may appear in the “2+2” dialogue.
In fact, these three areas are not the only areas of cooperation between the United States and China. We can imagine that China and the United States can jointly promote the prevention and control of new epidemics in third countries, jointly invest in infrastructure development, and jointly create rules for climate governance within the UN system, etc. Bilateral cooperation can also be expanded to multilateral and global cooperation. As long as China and the U.S. cooperate in these three areas first, the possibility of removing disturbing factors and avoiding friction in other areas will increase, and positive factors can be accumulated for further improvement in the next stage of development of Sino-U.S. relations, and gradually establish new mutual trust.
China and the United States are large in size and responsibilities, and so are the challenges. The opportunities are even greater. The high-level diplomatic “2+2” dialogue between the two countries can be a new starting point, or a turning point. Although the road is is tortuous, the prospects can often be bright. .
(The author is Executive Vice President of the Institute of Belt and Road and Global Governance, Fudan University)