The Washington Post

For stability with the U.S., China must start talking

- Aspen, colo.

Chinese Ambassador Qin Gang assured those at 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 the Chinese “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 nucleararm­ed 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.

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.

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 United States 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 the war in 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 winwin propositio­n of Chinese imagining. It’s lose-lose.

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