US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, right, is pictured with China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Bangkok, Thailand, on January 26. Photo: Xinhua
Shi Jiangtao
Shi Jiangtao

Although China and US made no real gains in Bangkok, maybe talking about the relationship is the relationship

  • Jake Sullivan says: ‘Our strategy was to use those meetings to open up a two-way flow of exchanges, and that’s exactly what happened’
  • While Biden needs to stabilise ties with China in the face of a tough re-election race and diplomatic troubles, Beijing is also struggling to deal with woes at home
The Bangkok rendezvous between China’s top diplomat Wang Yi and US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan ended quietly with no breakthroughs, except the renewed commitment to continue this “strategic channel of communication” and other high-level consultations.
But Beijing and Washington still claimed that the meeting last month, the highest level talks since the leaders of the two countries met in California in November, was a diplomatic success, with both taking credit for bringing the other side back to the negotiating table.

The rival powers even used similar words – “candid” and “substantive” – to describe the pair’s marathon talks that spanned 12 hours over two days, indicating the scope of the topics discussed as well as the depth of their disagreements.


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US, China join forces to counter global fentanyl trade

But questions have arisen, inevitably, on both sides about the point of such dialogue in the absence of clear progress on thorny bilateral issues and transnational challenges, ranging from Taiwan and the South China Sea to the Red Sea crisis and North Korea.

In fact, US President Joe Biden has often been criticised by China hawks in Washington over his alleged “zombie engagement” with Beijing after high-level contact was suspended following Washington’s downing of an alleged Chinese spy balloon a year ago.

In a speech at the Council on Foreign Relations last week, Sullivan went to lengths to defend his regular private meetings with Wang, and Biden’s decision to send four senior cabinet officials to Beijing before his summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

“Critics said at the time that this travel was one-sided, but our strategy was to use those meetings to open up a two-way flow of exchanges, and that’s exactly what happened,” he said. “And we’re definitely not interested in dialogue just for dialogue’s sake.”

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Sullivan spoke highly of such “intensive diplomacy”, which he said was a part of the Biden administration’s China strategy of “invest, align, compete” that was aimed at managing tough issues and avoiding “major surprises”, “misperceptions and miscommunication”.

“Detailed, dogged diplomacy is necessary to manage the friction that is endemic to a strategic competition between two major powers,” he said.

While Wang touted Xi’s central role in guiding bilateral ties, Sullivan also hailed Biden’s effective stewardship of US-China policy, asserting that “there really is no substitute for leader-to-leader conversation”.

Biden’s top aide was also critical of the approach to China under the previous administration of Donald Trump – the most likely Republican challenger to Biden’s re-election – which he said was “more confrontational than competitive” and “too often undervalued the allies and partners”.

His remarks underscored the role of domestic politics in the intensifying US-China rivalry, which has become a main driving factor in the thawing of bilateral tensions in recent weeks.

While Biden needs to stabilise ties with China in the face of a tough re-election race and a full plate of diplomatic troubles, from Ukraine to the Israel-Gaza war, Beijing is also struggling to deal with acute economic and political woes at home.

According to a study unveiled in December by Evan Medeiros, senior director for Asia under former president Barack Obama’s National Security Council, the influence of domestic political factors has expanded on both sides to reshape the US-China rivalry and direct actions.

In the US, Congress and electoral politics are gaining traction in foreign policy decisions. Meanwhile Xi’s concentration of power, which “leaves little room for negotiation with Washington without his explicit approval and direct involvement”, also has a profound impact on bilateral ties.


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Xi Jinping, Joe Biden hold talks on sidelines of Apec summit to ease strained US-China ties

Xi’s new priorities – national security and self-sufficiency – have “created a political climate that preferences resistance against US policy and offers limited incentives for policymakers to work with their US counterparts, raising questions about the durability” of the current detente, Medeiros said in the report.

The Bangkok talks between Wang and Sullivan also offered hints about how the Biden administration tries to tread a fine line between competition and cooperation when building stability into what Sullivan put as “perhaps the world’s most consequential relationship”.

“A sustainable China policy is about holding in one’s head multiple truths at the same time and working iteratively to reconcile them,” Sullivan said. “We are clear-eyed about the competitive structural dynamics in our relationship with the PRC [People’s Republic of China].

“But we’re also keenly aware that the United States and the PRC are economically interdependent and share interests in addressing transnational problems and reducing the risk of conflict.”

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But apparently, how to sequence competition and cooperation remains a challenge for both China and the US in the post-engagement era.

Sullivan has clearly prepared for the uphill task, discussing the issue in an article he co-authored with the administration’s top Asia expert Kurt Campbell that was published in Foreign Affairs in 2019 shortly before Biden’s election victory later that year.

“Going forward, Washington should avoid becoming an eager suitor on transnational challenges,” he said because it would “limit the scope for cooperation by making it a bargaining chip”.

“The best approach, then, will be to lead with competition, follow with offers of cooperation, and refuse to negotiate any linkages between Chinese assistance on global challenges and concessions on US interests.”