China and the U.S. Are Talking, but Their Détente Has Limits

China and the U.S. Are Talking, but Their Détente Has Limits

China and the United States are back at the negotiating table. Whether they can agree on much is another matter.

In Bangkok, China’s top diplomat last week discussed North Korea and Iran with President Biden’s national security adviser. Days later, in Beijing, officials restarted long-stalled talks on curbing the flow of fentanyl to the United States. And the White House says Mr. Biden plans to speak by phone with China’s leader, Xi Jinping, in the spring.

The developments point to a tentative détente struck by Mr. Biden and Mr. Xi at a summit near San Francisco in November — and both the potential and the limitations of that thaw in relations. Even as the world’s two superpowers are working to manage frictions, the diplomacy has also exposed the chasm at the heart of the tensions: how to define the relationship.

The Biden administration has maintained that the countries are strategic competitors, and that the meetings are crucial to ensuring that the rivalry does not veer into conflict. Chinese officials, however, reject that framing, seeing competition as code for containment. In the meetings, they have pushed a new catchphrase, the “San Francisco Vision,” claiming that Mr. Xi and Mr. Biden agreed at the summit to stabilize relations and put competition aside.

The divergence in rhetoric highlights the fragility of the current reset, especially in an election year when Mr. Biden will come under pressure to be tough on China, and as concerns rise over warnings by the Federal Bureau of Investigation that Chinese hackers were ramping up plans to infiltrate U.S. infrastructure in the event of a war.

For Mr. Biden, the talks on fentanyl in Beijing are one of the few outcomes of the San Francisco summit that he can point to as a win. China is the main source of chemicals used to make fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that kills 100,000 Americans a year. U.S. officials have long wanted China to do more to restrict exports of those chemicals, known as precursors, but Beijing stopped cooperating as ties deteriorated in recent years.

To get China to resume regular talks on fentanyl, Washington agreed in November to Beijing’s demand that U.S. sanctions be lifted on a forensics institute run by China’s Ministry of Public Security. The institute was placed on a trade blacklist in 2020, accused of complicity in abuses against ethnic minorities in China like the Uyghurs. The Biden administration said lifting the sanctions was justified because China had shut down some companies exporting fentanyl precursors and closed their bank accounts.

Beijing has moved to lower tensions in other areas, too. In December, it restarted talks between the two countries’ militaries, which Washington has pushed for in the hope of lowering the risk of an accidental conflict in contested areas like the East China Sea and South China Sea. The countries are also expected to hold talks soon on mitigating the risks of artificial intelligence technology.

For China, such diplomacy is partly aimed at reassuring the world that it is a responsible global player and that it is doing its part to steady relations, analysts say.

“If China and the United States increase their cooperation in international affairs, it may make Washington realize Chinese international influence can be constructive and helpful to U.S. interests,” said Wu Xinbo, the dean of the Institute of International Studies at Fudan University in Shanghai.

But on other, more complicated geopolitical issues, such as the widening crisis in the Middle East and tensions on the Korean Peninsula, the rapprochement may have limited effect, analysts say. China has influence over Iran and North Korea as one of the world’s only major nations to maintain robust diplomatic and trade ties with the two heavily sanctioned countries.

Last week, Jake Sullivan, the U.S. national security adviser, urged Foreign Minister Wang Yi of China to pressure Iran to rein in the Houthi rebels attacking commercial ships in the Red Sea and persuade North Korea to dial back its threats of war.

But Beijing can only do so much without hurting its own interests, analysts say.

China’s priority on the Korean Peninsula is to preserve the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s regime so that his country remains a critical buffer between the Chinese border and U.S. troops stationed in South Korea. That makes Beijing reluctant to push Pyongyang too hard, and it makes Mr. Kim less susceptible to Chinese pressure.

As for the Red Sea, China has an interest in reducing tensions there, having invested billions of dollars in logistics and energy to expand trade in the region. China has said that it has been communicating with “various parties” to bring an end to the attacks on commercial shipping.

But Beijing must balance any pressure it places on Iran with its bid to court countries in the Middle East to counter U.S. global dominance. It has sought to avoid siding too closely with Washington in a region where it has won good will for voicing more sympathy for the Palestinian cause and blaming American support for Israel as the root cause of persistent conflict in the Middle East.

Beijing’s recent rhetoric toward the United States underscores that it is still trying to strike a tough posture and act on its own terms, while also seeking something in return for cooperating with Washington.

Mr. Wang told Mr. Sullivan during their meeting that the United States and China should treat each other as “equals rather than being condescending.” The White House has said that it is trying to arrange a call between Mr. Biden and Mr. Xi in the coming months. China, however, has yet to confirm any such plan.

Chinese propaganda organs such as Global Times, a Communist Party newspaper, published editorials this week that said Washington should “cherish China’s good will” in agreeing to discuss the fentanyl issue. Another editorial suggested that the United States should “talk to China nicely” if it wants Beijing’s help in pressuring Iran.

At the same time, inaction poses a risk for Beijing. China has tried to cast itself as a more credible global peacemaker than the United States by shunning security alliances and calling for dialogue to resolve crises, not military interventions like the American and British strikes on the Houthis. Yet Beijing has been unable, or unwilling, to try to restrain partners such as Russia, Iran, North Korea and Pakistan at a time when they are at the center of some of the world’s most dangerous conflicts.

“If Beijing isn’t able to keep its closest friends from shooting at each other, its narrative that China is an architect of global security and a stabilizing force could have mounting credibility problems,” said Sheena Greitens, a political scientist who studies Asian security at the University of Texas, Austin.

Ultimately, the détente with the United States could be a way for China to buy itself more breathing room.

Danny Russel, a vice president of the Asia Society Policy Institute and a former U.S. assistant secretary of state, said Beijing’s easing of tensions with Washington was a “tactical pause in the struggle with the West” to allow Mr. Xi to devote more attention to his country’s struggling economy. China has seen a collapse in foreign investment and confidence because of rising debt, a property crisis and geopolitical tensions.

“The tactical pause, which serves several of Xi’s interests at the moment, should not be confused with a softening of Xi’s resolve on so-called ‘core interests,’” Mr. Russel said, referring to what Beijing has cast as nonnegotiable issues, such as its claim to Taiwan and the Communist Party’s right to maintain its rule over China.

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