U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and Chinese Communist Party Politburo member Yang Jiechi held a six-hour meeting in Zurich on October 6 in an attempt to manage “intense competition” between their two countries. The meeting took place against a backdrop of growing Chinese incursions of Taiwan’s air defense identification zone and a decision by the Biden administration not to remove Trump-era tariffs on Chinese goods until Beijing keeps its trade commitments. USIP’s Andrew Scobell and Carla Freeman discuss the outcomes of the Sullivan-Yang meeting and the challenges besetting the U.S.-China relationship.

Fighter jets on a runway during a drill at Chiayi, an air force base in southern Taiwan. October 18, 2017. (Bryan Denton/The New York Times)
Fighter jets on a runway during a drill at Chiayi, an air force base in southern Taiwan. October 18, 2017. (Bryan Denton/The New York Times)

What’s the context surrounding the recent meeting between U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and Chinese Communist Party Politburo member Yang Jiechi? What did they discuss and what did they hope to accomplish?

Scobell: The October 6 meeting between U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and Chinese Communist Party Politburo member Yang Jiechi occurred within the context of the most fraught period in U.S.-China relations in decades. The degree of turmoil in bilateral relations is evident from the fact that this meeting took place on neutral ground in Switzerland rather than allow either side to claim the home-field advantage. Yet, that this dialogue was held at all stands as testament to an abiding desire in both Washington and Beijing to manage bilateral disputes and limit tensions. Indeed, both sides characterized the session in subdued but generally positive terms and pledged to continue to keep the channels of communication open. Both sides have a strong pragmatic interest in maintaining a stable relationship, a desire to avoid military conflict and to see mutual benefit in addressing contentious economic issues.

However, a major stumbling block is in the tendency for each set of leaders to perceive that the other side is at fault and hence insist that it must be the one to make concessions. This is compounded by the reality that leaders, whether in Washington or Beijing, do not want to look weak by appearing to “blink first” by offering compromises or concessions. Additionally, Chinese leaders are preoccupied with status and appearances: a desire to stage high-profile events intended to showcase themselves as global statesmen. Hence, for months Beijing has been pushing for an in-person summit or at least a face-to-face meeting between Chinese leader Xi Jinping and President Joe Biden this year, independent of whether this top-level interaction is merited by a real improvement in relations and/or concrete deliverables.

Relations between the United States and China are beset by a minefield of disputes across a wide range of issue areas, including not just security, but also trade and technology. While it is not clear whether all these issues were discussed, we do know that among those covered were human rights, Xinjiang, Hong Kong and the South China Sea, as well as Taiwan.

There are a number of current flash points between the United States and China. With relations currently at a low point, what’s the biggest risk for escalation?

Scobell: The range of contentious issues is so extensive and the sensitivity of many so extreme that it is difficult to identify a single policy issue or geographic location as being most susceptible to escalation. There are so-called flash points located in the western Pacific that could trigger political-military crises leading to confrontation and spiraling into armed conflict. These include not just the Taiwan Strait, but also the South China and East China Seas. These locales have each proven to be chronic hot spots in U.S.-China relations across decades. While tensions in these locations have fluctuated considerably over the years between edgy confrontation, slow boil and relative calm, each remains an enduring flash point with the potential to escalate into war and complicated by the involvement of third parties, including one or more U.S. allies and partners.

There is also an array of diplomatic, legal, technological and economic issues that are quite volatile and prone to escalation. Prime examples include a “trade war” and a “hostage standoff.” While the former is well known, the latter is not and emerged in late 2018 when Canada arrested Meng Wanzhou, the CFO of Chinese telecom giant Huawei, at the request of the U.S. government. Shortly thereafter, Beijing detained two Canadian citizens — Michael Spavor, a businessman, and Michael Kovrig, a former diplomat — in China on what appear to be trumped up charges. Officially, these detentions were completely unrelated but the manner in which the standoff was resolved on September 24, 2021, suggests otherwise: within hours of Canada allowing Meng to board a flight to China following her plea deal with the U.S. Department of Justice, Spavor and Kovrig were allowed to depart China and return to Canada. While this de-escalation of this “hostage standoff” is arguably a positive development in the short run, its outcome might incentivize China to consider similar tactics in the future, which could set the stage for future escalation.

Where does Taiwan rank in terms of a flash point and how serious are the current tensions in the Taiwan Strait?

Freeman: For many decades, Taiwan has been the most serious political-military flash point in U.S.-China relations, and in recent weeks and months the Taiwan Strait has experienced rising tensions with dramatic increases in the frequency and seriousness of provocations by Chinese military aircraft within Taiwan’s air defense identification zone (ADIZ). Tensions between Beijing and Taipei have been acute since Taiwan’s 2016 election of president of Tsai Ing-wen, whose Democratic Progressive Party was founded on a platform favoring independence for the island. Tsai’s Kuomintang predecessor rejected the idea of Taiwan’s independence and pursued growing political interactions across the Taiwan Strait, which were suspended after Tsai became president. Tsai’s effective diplomacy with liberal democracies has frustrated Beijing, including her message that a successful takeover of Taiwan by Beijing will not only impact regional peace but also the democratic alliance system.

Washington has offered more muscular support for Taipei on a number of fronts in recent years. The Trump administration integrated the island into its Indo-Pacific strategy, expanded arms sales to Taiwan and took other steps that expanded official contacts between Washington and Taipei. The Biden administration has affirmed its own commitment to Taiwan, making clear that it not only supports strengthening Taiwan’s defense capabilities but would like to see Taiwan play a larger international role.

As Beijing signals its resolve to “unify” Taiwan by sending unprecedented numbers of warplanes, including bombers, well into Taiwan’s ADIZ, there are rising risks of an accidental collision with Taiwan’s fighter jets monitoring China’s incursions that could spark wider conflict.

Sullivan and Yang haven’t met face-to-face since March, when a pre-summit press conference grew contentious. Has that event had any lingering effects on their relations?

Scobell: The high-level March meeting in Anchorage, Alaska, was most memorable for its in-front-of-the camera theatrics. Yet, both sides took this public face-off in stride — each side was playing to their respective domestic audiences. As noted above, neither side wants to look weak vis-à-vis the other or appear hesitant to stand up for the honor and interests of their countries. Moreover, this public posturing did not prevent these senior U.S. and Chinese foreign policy officials from holding forthright and substantive discussions behind closed doors. Along with the outward histrionics, the most significant indication of the poor state of bilateral relations was the absence of a joint statement or communique at the conclusion of the March talks.

Freeman: Since the March summit in Alaska, subsequent high-level exchanges between Washington and Beijing have had a confrontational tone. A July visit to China by Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman was full of tension as the United States raised concerns about a range of China’s policies as well as the sensitive topic of the World Health Organization’s investigation into the origins of COVID-19. Beijing met Sherman with lists of actions it insisted the United States must address before it would consider working cooperatively with Washington in areas where common interest is clear. During a subsequent trip to China by U.S. climate envoy John Kerry, Chinese officials made clear that Beijing would not consider joint efforts on climate action until it was satisfied with the broader bilateral relationship.

What has been the immediate outcome of the meeting? Could we expect follow-up talks in the near future?

Freeman: Despite the frosty tenor of these meetings, several indications, not least the October 6 meeting between Sullivan and Yang, affirm there is an appetite in both countries for stabilizing the relationship. U.S. trade representative Katherine Tai conveyed in recent remarks an interest in “recoupling” the U.S. and Chinese economies ahead of planned meetings with her counterpart. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Michael Chase has held a number of virtual exchanges with the deputy director of the PLA’s Office for International Military Cooperation. Further talks between the two sides are a likely outcome of the Sullivan-Yang meeting, including a possible virtual meeting between U.S. and Chinese heads of state before the end of the year.

Scobell: While the outlook for U.S.-China relations is far from sunny and bright, recent high-level meetings suggest the two countries can, for the foreseeable future, look forward to an extended forecast of dreary and overcast weather punctuated by periodic thunderstorms. But Washington and Beijing also need to constantly scan the skies for looming storm clouds and be ever alert for the potential of severe weather systems forming over the horizon.

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