The challenging stabilization talks

Hussein Haridy
Friday 19 May 2023

Last week’s high-level talks between the US and China aimed at increasing engagement between the two superpowers in order to maintain open channels of communication.


In their quest to stabilise their bilateral relations, the US and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) held talks in Vienna on 10-11 May. 

The US administration was represented by Jake Sullivan, the White House National Security adviser. Wang Yi, a Chinese Politburo member and director of the Office of the Foreign Affairs Commission of the Chinese Communist Party, represented the PRC at the talks, the first to have taken place between the two countries on this theme. 

Described by a senior US official as “candid, substantive and constructive,” the talks aimed at increasing high-level engagement between the two superpowers in order to maintain open channels of communication between Washington and Beijing and as an attempt to manage the competition between the two countries. Relations between them have seen increasing tensions since former speaker of the US House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi paid an official visit to Taiwan last August despite Chinese warnings and drew a strong Chinese reaction in the form of military exercises in the Strait of Taiwan.

According to a readout by the White House on the Vienna stabilisation talks, the two sides agreed to maintain a bilateral dialogue through this “important strategic channel of communication,” building on the results of the in-person summit between US President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping in Bali, Indonesia, last November. At the summit, Biden made clear that the US, while in competition with China, does not seek confrontation or conflict with it.

At the Bali meeting, the two presidents agreed to keep channels of communication open, and it was agreed that US Secretary of State Antony Blinken would travel to Beijing in February 2023. However, the US administration postponed the visit after the Chinese spy balloon incident last year. No date for the visit has yet been announced, but the Sullivan-Yi talks in Vienna could help in rescheduling it sometime in the next few months, while also working on scheduling a telephone call between the US and Chinese presidents.

The Vienna stabilisation talks covered a host of bilateral and global questions mostly related to the Taiwan issue and the war in Ukraine. They discussed possible bilateral cooperation in the field of countering narcotics, though there were no concrete results announced in this context despite a US push for a “working constructive engagement” between the two governments in this field.

As far as the Taiwan question is concerned, Sullivan reiterated the often-repeated position of the US that it opposes unilateral changes in the status quo from either side and expressed the hope that cross-Strait differences could be resolved through peaceful means. The US also reaffirmed its commitment to the One China Policy as embodied in the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979, the three communiqués on this subject between the US and China, and the six assurances issued with regard to the question of Taiwan.

One senior US official said in a background press call on 12 May that the objective was to manage the Taiwan issue without conflict in the light of the experience of the last four decades, while admitting that the US and China have very different views on “many” issues relating to Taiwan.

Concerning the war currently raging in Ukraine, the US delegation at the Vienna talks repeated the administration’s concerns that China might provide military assistance to Russia. China has repeatedly denied that it will do so. It should be mentioned in passing that the US administration also welcomed the first telephone call between President Xi and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy last month, their first since the outbreak of the war in February 2022. 

On 8 May, the Chinese foreign minister said in an interview published by Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, a Saudi publication, that China has been advocating a peaceful resolution to the Ukraine conflict based on the Chinese Peace Plan of February 2023 that outlined the Chinese position relating to the return of peace in Ukraine.

As the senior US official quoted above pointed out, diplomatic communications between Washington and Beijing should be held regularly regardless of the ups and downs in their bilateral relations. The new Chinese Ambassador to the US Xie Feng, is expected to take up his post in Washington in the very near future. His predecessor, Qin Gang, became China’s foreign minister last December.

The new Chinese ambassador in Washington has a very challenging job waiting for him. The Republican majority in the House of Representatives will not make his tour of duty an easy one. It has held more than ten hearings on China and US-Chinese relations since the new Congress convened in January.

In the March/April edition of Foreign Affairs, the Book Review Section, Jane Perlez who served as bureau chief of The New York Times from 2012 to 2019 reviewed a book entitled Agents of Subversions: The Fate of John T. Downy and the CIA’s Covert War in China, written by John Delury. The conclusion of the review as well as that of the author’s are relevant to the way the US is conducting its policies towards China today.

In his conclusion, Delury gets it right, arguing that the misguided policies Americans hatched some 70 years ago provide a warning of what not to do in a moment of deteriorating US-Chinese relations. He writes, “The temptation of reverting to old war patterns of covert subversion ­— playing out not only on land, sea, and air but also in unseen domains from outer space to cyberspace — should give us pause in light of the history of how that went the first time it was tried.” Washington should not forget that lesson.

The world would be a safer place if the Biden administration would heed this particular historical lesson.

* The writer is former assistant foreign minister.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 18 May, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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