A possible easing of China-US relations this year?

The recent meeting between Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and US national security adviser Jake Sullivan ended on a good note as both sides reported relatively positive assessments. This has created the conditions for the two sides to take the next step to continue to communicate across different fields and between two countries’ leaders in the following months. Lianhe Zaobao correspondent Yu Zeyuan tells us more.
US national security adviser Jake Sullivan (left) in Davos on 16 January  2024 and China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi (right) in Brazil on 19 January 2024. (Fabrice Coffrini and Sergio Lima/AFP)
US national security adviser Jake Sullivan (left) in Davos on 16 January 2024 and China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi (right) in Brazil on 19 January 2024. (Fabrice Coffrini and Sergio Lima/AFP)

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi met with US national security adviser Jake Sullivan in Bangkok, Thailand, over two days from 26 to 27 January. Looking at the reports from both sides after the meeting, this was a positive round of talks, creating the conditions for the higher-ups from China and the US to continue communicating with each other this year. 

Both sides seek to alleviate tension

The Chinese reported that Wang and Sullivan had a “candid, substantive and productive strategic communication” exchange, while the White House expressed that both sides held “candid, substantive and constructive discussions” on global and regional issues.

Reports said that Wang and Sullivan met for a total of 12 hours over the two-day long closed-door meeting. The White House held a press conference specially addressing the meeting after its conclusion, revealing that the Chinese and US leaders would engage through a phone call in the following months, and that US Secretary of State Antony Blinken would make a trip to China again this year. 

Since the outbreak of the China-US trade war in 2018, both sides have traded blows over politics, economy, technology, ideology and so forth, and China-US relations have been on a sharp decline. This culminated in then US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan in August 2022 — China-US relations were tense, with signs that it could fall apart entirely.  

But evidently, both China and the US found it hard to shoulder the consequences of a fall out of bilateral relations. From 2023, Wang and Sullivan held many closed-door meetings in third-party locations, seeking to alleviate the tense relations. In November 2023, Chinese President Xi Jinping had a meeting with US President Joe Biden in San Francisco, improving China-US relations. 

Although both sides expressed their thoughts on the Wang-Sullivan meeting differently, the evaluations were relatively positive on the whole, indicating a possible easing of China-US relations this year...

Chinese President Xi Jinping waves as he walks with US President Joe Biden at Filoli estate on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit, in Woodside, California, US, on 15 November 2023. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)
Chinese President Xi Jinping waves as he walks with US President Joe Biden at Filoli estate on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit, in Woodside, California, US, on 15 November 2023. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

Although both sides expressed their thoughts on the Wang-Sullivan meeting differently, the evaluations were relatively positive on the whole, indicating a possible easing of China-US relations this year — something that had been rare in the past few years.   

The Chinese readout of the meeting said that the two heads of state would maintain regular contact to provide strategic guidance to bilateral relations. The two countries would also promote exchanges in various fields and at various levels, making good use of current strategic communication channels as well as a series of dialogue and consultation mechanisms in such areas as diplomacy, military, economy, finance, business and climate change. 

Both sides also agreed to launch a working group on counternarcotics cooperation in the near future, hold the first meeting of China-US intergovernmental dialogue mechanism on artificial intelligence (AI) this spring, and take further steps to expand cultural and people-to-people exchanges between the two countries. The two sides also discussed international and regional issues, including the Middle East, Ukraine, the Korean peninsula and the South China Sea.

Meanwhile, the US stated that both sides held discussions on global and regional issues, including those related to Russia’s war against Ukraine, the Middle East, North Korea, the South China Sea and Myanmar, as well as on cross-strait issues. Both sides committed to maintaining this strategic channel of communication and to pursuing additional high-level diplomacy and consultations in key areas between the US and China, including through a call between Biden and Xi. 

Both sides recognised recent progress in resuming military-to-military communication and noted the importance of maintaining these channels. The two sides also welcomed advances in cooperation on counternarcotics issues, including the launch of the US-China Counternarcotics Working Group on 30 January, and also discussed next steps towards holding a US-China dialogue on AI in the spring.

Preventing escalation in Taiwan Strait

For China, the Taiwan issue has always been the most critical point in China-US relations. Taiwan held its presidential elections in January, and the pro-"Taiwan independence” Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) is staying in power, which introduced a new variable to cross-strait and China-US relations.

The US will also hold its elections this year, and China is certainly concerned that the US will continue to cross the bottom line on the Taiwan issue. Thus, as long as there is communication between the higher-ups in China and the US, the Chinese will continue to prioritise the Taiwan issue. 

The call to support China’s peaceful reunification was a new demand raised during the Xi-Biden meeting in November 2023. The fact that Wang reiterated this point shows that the Chinese have normalised such a demand. 

Taiwan's President-elect William Lai Ching-te during a campaign event in Taipei, Taiwan, on 11 January 2024. (Chan Long Hei/Bloomberg)
Taiwan's President-elect William Lai Ching-te during a campaign event in Taipei, Taiwan, on 11 January 2024. (Chan Long Hei/Bloomberg)

Wang Yi stressed in the meeting that the issue of Taiwan independence posed the biggest challenge to China-US relations, and that the US side should abide by the "one China" principle and the three China-US Joint Communiques, and translate its commitment of not supporting Taiwan independence into action and support China's peaceful reunification.

The call to support China’s peaceful reunification was a new demand raised during the Xi-Biden meeting in November 2023. The fact that Wang reiterated this point shows that the Chinese have normalised such a demand. 

The US did not directly respond to Wang’s request on the Taiwan issue in its statement, and only stressed the importance of maintaining peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait. This has been the US’s longstanding position in dealing with China on the Taiwan issue. 

The US sent a bipartisan delegation to Taiwan the day after their election results, but Biden also reiterated immediately after Taiwan’s elections that the US does not support independence for Taiwan.

Dennis Wilder, former member of the US National Security Council, former special assistant to the president and senior director for East Asian affairs, analysed on 17 January that the Biden administration is currently facing the volatile situation in Ukraine and the Middle East, and would not want another crisis to surface. The US would express this stance to Taiwan’s president-elect William Lai, to remind him not to create new problems. 

That is to say, although the DPP holding office in Taiwan is beneficial for the US to continue playing the “Taiwan card”, the US would still look to prevent the situation in the Taiwan Strait from getting out of hand and becoming another hot potato for the US during the Biden administration. 

As long as the US does not cross the bottom line of supporting Taiwan independence, there will still be room to manoeuvre in China-US relations, and China can then focus its energies on solving its internal development problems. 

People line up to board trains at Zhengzhou, in China’s central Henan Province on 26 January 2024, the first day of the annual Lunar New Year travel period. (AFP)
People line up to board trains at Zhengzhou, in China’s central Henan Province on 26 January 2024, the first day of the annual Lunar New Year travel period. (AFP)

For China, it is unrealistic to ask the US not to play the Taiwan card. As long as the US does not cross the bottom line of supporting Taiwan independence, there will still be room to manoeuvre in China-US relations, and China can then focus its energies on solving its internal development problems. 

Tech and trade impact on bilateral relations

As for the US’s continued suppression of China, as well as the exchange of blows across all fields between China and the US, this would persist with no major changes likely just because there is communication among the Chinese and US higher-ups.

US Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo stated on 26 January that the US would not allow China to use US cloud computing systems to train their own models, and that the US would make sure to shut down every avenue that the Chinese could have to use US technology to develop their own AI capabilities. 

However, competition between both sides does not mean that China and the US cannot cooperate, nor does it mean there is no room for an easing of bilateral relations. Both China and the US gave relatively positive assessments of the meeting between Wang and Sullivan, creating the conditions for the two sides to take the next step to continue to communicate across different fields.  

Of course, China-US relations can no longer return to the state it was prior to the outbreak of the trade war between the two in 2018. Moreover, with the constant decline in relations over the years, the basis for a comprehensive improvement of China-US relations no longer exists. There could even be an occurrence of a black swan event in bilateral relations. But with regard to the weak global economy and regional stability, the easing of China-US relations is a good thing — even if it does not last. 

This article was first published in Lianhe Zaobao as “中美关系今年相对缓和?”.

Related: It's all about power: US-China relations set to remain rocky in 2024 | US-China cooperation in an age of strategic competition: Asia Future Summit 2023