The two governments have sparred over several issues in recent months, including the origin of the novel coronavirus, mass protests promoting democracy in Hong Kong and denouncing racism in the United States, mutual accusations of lying, and the expulsion of journalists in both countries.
As if to underscore the gulf between them, U.S. and Chinese officials both told foreign diplomats that the other side requested the meeting in Hawaii.
The meeting of delegations led by Pompeo and Yang, a Politburo member considered the architect of China’s foreign policy, reflects mounting concern about the tensions between the two economic and nuclear-armed superpowers. With Republicans and Democrats intensifying their criticism of China, the tensions are unlikely to lift no matter who wins the U.S. presidential election.
“The decline, the deterioration and the speed is faster than anyone’s imagination,” said Cheng Li, director of the China Center at the Brookings Institution. “There’s no trust whatsoever, on both sides.”
In a brief summary after the meeting that lasted almost seven hours, the State Department said Pompeo and Yang had an “exchange of views.”
“The Secretary stressed important American interests and the need for fully-reciprocal dealings between the two nations across commercial, security, and diplomatic interactions,” the statement said. “He also stressed the need for full transparency and information sharing to combat the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and prevent future outbreaks.”
Pompeo has excoriated China repeatedly for its repression of human rights, journalists and Uighur Muslims. He has called the Chinese Communist Party “the central threat of our times” and a “fraud” that has purveyed “obscene propaganda” about anti-racism protests in the United States.
Chinese state-run media have in turn labeled Pompeo “evil,” “insane” and “the enemy of humankind.” After a prickly phone call with Pompeo, Yang told CGTN, China’s state-run overseas broadcaster, that he objected to U.S. attempts to “slander and smear China’s efforts” to contain the coronavirus.
Pompeo entered the meeting, his first with his Chinese counterpart since September, with the hope of resolving issues he has cited many times before. He wanted to extract more information from Beijing about the viral outbreak and to remind the government about its commitments to Hong Kong amid concerns it is trampling on the island’s autonomy, a senior State Department official said before the session.
“We still do not have access to live virus samples, to facilities, to scientists” from Wuhan, said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive bilateral relations.
In addition, Pompeo has wanted to persuade China to raise issues related to nuclear arms negotiations between the United States and Russia. Next week, Marshall Billingslea, the special presidential envoy for arms control, will meet with his Russian counterpart, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, to discuss regulating the world’s two largest nuclear arsenals. The Trump administration is seeking a trilateral agreement, but China declined a U.S. invitation to the meeting.
“They are expected to double their nuclear arsenal completely unconstrained, with no transparency at all, over the next decade,” the official said about China, explaining the administration’s wish to include Beijing in a deal.
“Their behavior — cracking down on Hong Kong’s freedoms, illegally seizing new territory in the South China Sea, igniting a border dispute with India, etcetera — all of this behavior makes it really concerning to us,” the official said.
Another person familiar with the preparations said Pompeo also planned to raise issues related to Taiwan and Phase 1 of the U.S.-China trade agreement.
Fewer details are known about China’s agenda, but Beijing is clearly alarmed at the bipartisan, belligerent attitude in Washington. Even President Trump, who used to call Chinese President Xi Jinping a “very, very good friend of mine,” has taken to castigating China and its ruling Communist Party.
“The Chinese are worried about an accelerating downward spiral in the U.S.-China relationship, particularly in the run-up to the next election,” said Bonnie Glaser, a China analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Trump and his Democratic rival, Joe Biden, “treat China as a punching bag. They want to put a floor under this deteriorating situation so they don’t end up in such a negative place in November, which might make it difficult to have any kind of amicable relationship.”
Even allies that share U.S. concerns about China’s growing influence are wary of adopting the confrontational approach favored by the Trump administration. Josep Borrell, the foreign policy chief of the European Union, said this week that Europe does not want to pick sides between the United States and China. He called for a U.S.-European dialogue to discuss ways to address China’s assertiveness.
Phil Reeker, the assistant secretary of state for European affairs, said he had no concerns about China driving a wedge between the two longtime allies.
“We aren’t the ones suggesting a choice between Chinese authoritarianism and the free world,” he said. “It’s China that’s trying to force a decision on that, as the Chinese Communist Party tries to make the world safe for an authoritarian system.”
As one of the most vociferous hard-liners on China in the Trump administration, Pompeo would seem an unlikely candidate to mend fences between the two countries. Li, of Brookings, said the Chinese viewed the meeting as a “Nixon coming to China” moment, meaning the point where a leader suddenly reverses his previous views and acts as a bridge-builder.
The Chinese seem to reserve their greatest scorn for Pompeo but recognize he is secretary of state and Trump’s closest adviser. But it is unclear whether Pompeo can put aside his harsh language and policies to avert a new Cold War.
“We’re at a moment now where we can avoid that,” said Benjamin H. Friedman, the policy director for Defense Priorities, a foreign policy think tank. “Some of the things we’re doing ought to be avoided — needlessly taunting them or sanctioning them in ways that are not helpful is a mistake. At the same time, it’s a good use of rhetoric to say things about the way they treat protesters in Hong Kong and the Uighurs.
“We’d like to strive for a limited, controlled rivalry with China and a businesslike relationship that acknowledges their sins. But the fact is, we’re bound to deal with them in part because nuclear weapons block war.”