China-US high-level dialogues: A welcome uptick but a long road ahead

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s recent meeting with US President Joe Biden in Washington indicates that high-level exchanges between the two powers are gaining momentum. But there is still a long way to go.
US President Joe Biden (right) with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi (left) at the White House in Washington, DC, on 27 October 2023. (CNS)
US President Joe Biden (right) with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi (left) at the White House in Washington, DC, on 27 October 2023. (CNS)

High-level exchanges and dialogues between China and the US, which hit a nadir in 2020, appear to be showing some improvement. These interactions reduce the risk of crisis and inadvertent escalation and should be encouraged. However, there is still a long way to go given deep-seated differences.

Flurry of meetings

Xanthi Carras, principal director in the Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for China, Taiwan and Mongolia, led the US delegation to the Xiangshan Forum — China’s analogue to the Shangri-La Dialogue (SLD). The last time a senior US official attended the Forum in person was in 2019. This was Chad Sbragia, deputy assistant secretary of defence for China. China froze military-to-military exchanges in August 2022, after Nancy Pelosi, then speaker of the US House of Representatives, visited Taiwan.

Last week, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi met US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and President Joe Biden. Wang said that both sides would work to achieve a meeting between Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meetings in San Francisco in November. Wang added that both countries needed to "return to Bali" but warned that they could not rely on “autopilot” to do so. (Biden and President Xi Jinping last met at the G20 meetings in Bali, Indonesia, in November 2022, where they discussed the Taiwan Strait, competition and communications.)

High-level dialogue between Beijing and Washington has hovered at such new lows in the past three years that any improvement would be seen as progress.

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US Secretary of State Antony Blinken (right) meets with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi (left) at the State Department in Washington, US, on 26 October 2023. (Sarah Silbiger/Reuters)

On 25 October, President Xi rhetorically held out an olive branch, saying China stood willing to cooperate with Washington to manage their differences and to work together to respond to global challenges. He had delivered a letter to participants at the annual dinner of the New York-based National Committee on United States-China relations.

In addition, the apparent sacking of Chinese Defence Minister Li Shangfu, who was under US sanctions for buying Russian arms for the PLA, might pave the way for the restarting of high-level dialogue. In June 2023, General Li had refused to meet US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin on the sidelines of the SLD because of these sanctions.

Since June, three US cabinet secretaries — trade, treasury and commerce — have visited China. Sullivan, by one count, has spent 20 hours speaking to Wang Yi in the past few months.

Progress measured in small steps

High-level dialogue between Beijing and Washington has hovered at such new lows in the past three years that any improvement would be seen as progress. In 2014, military-to-military interactions, comprising high-level dialogues, academic exchanges and functional meetings, totalled 39. This dropped to four per year in 2020 and 2021. In 2022, this improved slightly to seven exchanges or meetings (see table below).

US-China Military Exchanges: Ticking Up But from a Low Base

table
Sources: China Military Power Reports at dod.mil, except for 2013 and 2014 reports from andrewerickson.com (Information from ISEAS)

US officials are quick to point fingers at the Chinese for the chill. In the latest Chinese Military Power Report, they noted that China’s penchant for terminating military-to-military interaction “suggests the PRC views military channels of communication as a tool to punish or reward the United States for its perceived behaviour, versus being inherently valuable to maintaining peace and stability”.

To the Chinese, they see the US as using high-level exchanges to mask tensions created by American “provocations” of China, such as Washington’s arms sales to Taiwan and intelligence and reconnaissance missions carried out near China’s coastline. “What is the point of dialogue in such a context?” a retired PLA officer told the author.

China asserting presence in Asia

There are more systemic obstacles at work. President Biden is effectively pursuing a full-court press vis-à-vis China, with measures such as “friendshoring” and decoupling. In addition, the US has done a creditable job in corralling a network of allies and partners to manage the rise of China. These measures are seen by the Chinese as an overt American attempt to contain China.

China could be testing whether Washington would be able to manage crises on three fronts (Europe, the Middle East and Asia).

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Palestinians lift placards during a rally in front of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) offices in Hebron in the occupied West Bank on 31 October 2023, in support of Gaza amid ongoing battles between Israel and the Palestinian group Hamas. (Hazem Bader/AFP)

Last, the ensuing conflict between Israel and Hamas may provide the Chinese with another avenue through which to undermine America’s power and presence in Asia. The Chinese had quietly watched the botched US withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021, its substantive reaction to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and more recently, its commitment to Israel after the Hamas attacks on civilians on 7 October 2023. Taken together, these crises might reduce American bandwidth to act in Asia, where it has remained primus inter pares for 70 years after the end of World War II.

The Biden administration appears to have caught on to China’s calculus to probe and test American resolve and bandwidth in Asia. In his strongest statement yet on tensions between China and the Philippines in the South China Sea, President Biden stressed that he wanted “to be clear... The United States’ defense commitment to the Philippines is ironclad”. Biden’s statement came days after two collisions between Filipino and Chinese vessels in the disputed area. 

Some observers note China, Russia and North Korea could be seeking to “probe, test and attack” the US and its allies while they are distracted by events in the Middle East. This is plausible: China could be testing whether Washington would be able to manage crises on three fronts (Europe, the Middle East and Asia).

In short, the resumption of Sino-US dialogue is an encouraging sign. That said, one swallow does not a summer make.

This article was first published in Fulcrum, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute’s blogsite.

Related: Israel-Palestine conflict: A chance for China-US cooperation? | Russia-Ukraine war: China needs to be wiser and more flexible in its foreign policy