The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion China wants to ‘reduce misunderstanding’ with the U.S. It could start by talking.

Qin Gang, Chinese ambassador to the United States, in Washington on April 16. (Amanda Andrade-Rhoades/For The Washington Post)

ASPEN, Colo. — Chinese Ambassador Qin Gang assured a foreign policy gathering here this week that Beijing wants “to reduce misunderstanding and miscalculation” with the United States. If that’s true, why does China continue to resist a U.S. proposal to discuss “strategic stability” between the two increasingly competitive countries?

President Biden said on Wednesday, before his covid-19 diagnosis was announced, that he expects to talk with Chinese leader Xi Jinping in the next 10 days, and a senior administration official said the president’s agenda will include a renewed emphasis on the risks in the relationship, and the need to establish better communications. But, so far, the official said of the Chinese, “they haven’t taken us up” on a U.S. proposal for the stability talks.

This difficulty in developing a Sino-U.S. dialogue about strategic issues has frustrated the Biden administration. An important lesson of the Cold War was that nuclear-armed superpowers must communicate to avoid dangerous mistakes. But China has resisted arms-control talks even as it expands its nuclear arsenal, and as a result, it hasn’t learned a common language for crisis management in the way the Soviet Union did.

Biden first proposed the talks in a virtual summit with Xi last November, saying the two countries needed “common-sense guardrails to ensure that competition does not veer into conflict,” according to a White House statement at the time. Items on the agenda for such talks would include expansion of a 1998 agreement for avoiding maritime incidents, measures to avert dangerous military activities, and plans for a hotline and other crisis communication measures, the administration official said.

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Rather than embracing what former Australian prime minister and China scholar Kevin Rudd calls “managed strategic competition” in a new Foreign Affairs article, Beijing insists the United States should return to its old policies of supportive engagement, which facilitated China’s rise. Like nearly every other Chinese diplomat I’ve encountered over the past decade, Qin often repeated the phrase “win-win cooperation,” which China sees as a cure-all for its increasingly testy relationship with Washington.

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China wants to have it both ways as a superpower: flexing its muscles without being seen as a bully. Xi has been explicit in his “Made in China 2025” plans for dominance of major technologies. But China “has difficulty in recognizing the relationship [with the United States] as competitive,” the senior administration official said. Instead, it responds to criticism from the U.S. and Asian regional powers with a wounded tone, as though to say, “Who, us?”

Framing a strong and sustainable U.S.-China policy remains the Biden administration’s biggest long-term challenge, despite the current preoccupation with the war in Ukraine. Beijing is the only competitor that could genuinely challenge the United States militarily, officials believe. But Ukraine has complicated U.S.-China policy — for both sides.

Chinese leaders have been “unsettled” by Ukraine, CIA Director William J. Burns told the Aspen Security Forum here, speaking a few hours after Qin. The war has drawn the United States and its European allies closer together, confounding Beijing’s hopes of dividing the transatlantic alliance, Burns said. He also noted that China has been “careful” not to violate U.S. sanctions against Russia. Even flagship companies such as telecommunications giant Huawei have reduced their business with Moscow, for fear of new penalties from Europe and the United States.

Xi was surprised that the Biden administration, which the Chinese expected would be weak and ineffective abroad, has been able to rally global support for Ukraine. But despite Xi’s wariness of incurring sanctions, he remains firmly aligned with Russian President Vladimir Putin, the senior administration official said. Hopes that the war might encourage a break between Beijing and Moscow were misplaced.

For Chinese and U.S. officials alike, the issue that overhangs the relationship is Taiwan. Qin avoided any inflammatory statements to his Aspen audience. And U.S. officials don’t expect that Xi will make any move to “reunify” with Taiwan until well after a Communist Party congress this fall. Despite grumbling among some officials who think Xi has overreached, that gathering is expected to ratify his continuing leadership. Until then, Chinese policy will be on hold in many areas, as officials wait to see precisely what positions the party will endorse.

A frequent topic during this week’s Aspen conversations was what lessons Beijing will draw about Taiwan from Russia’s costly and, so far, unsuccessful war in Ukraine. One obvious answer is: Don’t invade.

Rather than a Ukraine-style invasion, Xi might adopt “incremental steps,” such as more overflights of Taiwan’s airspace, or perhaps seizure of a small island in the Taiwan Strait, the senior administration official predicted. Such moves would create doubts about Taiwan’s security and U.S. resolve without risking a bloody all-out conflict.

As in the ancient times of philosopher Sun Tzu, China’s preference is to win wars without fighting them. And as their resistance to strategic stability talks shows, the Chinese don’t like talking about war risks, either. But that communications impasse isn’t the win-win proposition of Chinese imagining. It’s lose-lose.

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