Yang Jiechi, China’s top diplomat, held a phone conversation with US Secretary of State Tony Blinken on Saturday, marking the highest-level direct talk between China and the United States since President Joe Biden took office on January 20.
** Apart from Blinken congratulating Yang on the Chinese New Year, and Yang congratulating Blinken on his appointment as US Secretary of State, senior Chinese sources characterized the talks as “frank and tough,” with both sides laying out and stressing their respective positions, including warnings from both sides over “red lines.” Indeed, our understanding is that after the call between the two, and Biden’s public hard line on China in his first major foreign policy speech, the prospects for a direct call between President Biden and China’s President Xi Jinping are for now on ice.
No Progress on Talks
In that Saturday call, Yang flatly rejected Blinken’s call for China to support UN Security Council sanctions against the military junta in Myanmar, on the basis that China shares the same position with allegedly “all” ASEAN countries to refrain from intervention in what Yang characterized as Myanmar’s internal affairs.
Instead, Yang offered the far more milquetoast option of calling on the international community to “create an enabling external environment for the proper settlement of the Myanmar issue.” How the Myanmar issue plays out in the UN Security Council, or indeed if these differences are swept under the rug, could prove one early, even if tangential, litmus test for relations between Washington and Beijing.
More broadly, Yang, who carries the official title of Member of the Politburo and director of the Office of Foreign Affairs of the Communist Party of China Central Committee, urged the US to “correct its mistakes, control divergence, and push for healthy bilateral relations” with China.
However, lest it be forgotten, Yang also warned again of Beijing’s positions and red lines; that the Taiwan question is the single most important and sensitive issue in China-US relations and that it affects China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, and he strongly urged the US to “stop meddling in China’s internal affairs,” including in Hong Kong, Xinjiang, and Tibet.
For his part, our understanding is that Blinken, rejecting Yang’s warnings, said the US will stand for human rights and democratic values in Xinjiang, Tibet, and Hong Kong, and affirmed that the US will “hold China accountable for threatening stability” in the Indo-Pacific, including in the Taiwan Straits.
Beijing Interprets Washington
Shortly after the call, Blinken posted a tweet saying, “I made clear the US will defend our national interests, stand up for our democratic values, and hold Beijing accountable for its abuses of the international system.”
And recognizing some of the fundamental and in part irreversible changes that have occurred over these last four years in the political landscape against China, Beijing fully expects the Biden administration to work with its allies to continue and “decouple” with China in the high-tech sector, as well as to put more pressure on China on human rights. Sources in Beijing, however, do not believe when push comes to shove that the US will pull its allies into a more confrontational united front on the South China Seas or Indo-Pacific, or into an even harder and more united front against China on the economic and trade fronts.
Having said that, Beijing was a little taken aback by President Biden’s first foreign policy speech.
In the words of one senior official in Beijing, “[Biden’s] speech is in line with the current mainstream perception and sentiment of American society over US foreign relations. He mentioned China or Beijing six times but only one sentence was about cooperation. His few words sketched extreme US vigilance toward the scenario of China catching up with and even surpassing the US.”
“The Biden administration,” he continued, “seems to be shaping an expectation among US society [that] the new government will keep playing tough with China, but at the same time, it will adjust the previous administration’s practices and carry out cooperation with China in some areas.”
Looking for a positive spin, Chinese sources did say that while the Yang-Blinken talk did not reach any major consensus, it will pave the way for a gradual resumption, as has been hoped, in high-level exchanges (see among other reports SGH 2/2/2021; “China: Phase One and US Trade Review”).
But more reflective of the steep political hill yet to climb for both sides is the following reaction to Biden’s speech and the Yang call with Blinken from one senior official in Beijing:
“Given that Biden himself showed almost no signs of his eagerness to contact President Xi in the near future, the President [Xi] will not propose a call with Biden.”