China ‘is not picking up the phone when we’re calling them’: Senior Pentagon official
U.S. officials say recent comments from Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan endorsing economic engagement with China do not mark a change in U.S. policy.
When Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen last week said that fully “decoupling” the American and Chinese economies would be “disastrous,” some people might have wondered if there were internal disagreements within the U.S. administration about U.S. policy to China.
But National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan chimed in a few hours later to make clear that Yellen was not off the reservation.
“Secretary Yellen is right,” Sullivan wrote in a tweet quoting Yellen’s tweet of a video of her speech on U.S.-China economic relations, delivered at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) on April 20. “Economic engagement remains a critical part of the Administration’s approach to managing the US-China relationship.”
The United States does “not seek to ‘decouple’ our economy from China’s,” Yellen said in her speech at SAIS on April 20. “A full separation of our economies would be disastrous for both countries. It would be destabilizing for the rest of the world.”
Yellen said that she and President Biden don’t see the relationship between the United States and China as a zero-sum contest between rival great powers. “We believe that the world is big enough for both of us,” she said. “China and the United States can and need to find a way to live together and share in global prosperity.”
“Negotiating the contours of engagement between great powers is difficult,” Yellen said. “That’s why I plan to travel to China at the appropriate time.”
Asked if Yellen’s pro-China economic engagement comments and Sullivan’s reiteration of them were a sign of the Biden administration trying to recalibrate its China messaging after months of high tensions, marked by Secretary of State Antony Blinken canceling a planned trip to Beijing in February after the Chinese spy balloon incident, a senior Biden administration official said the policy had not changed.
“This is pretty much the rhetoric that we've been using on the economic engagement component…since Bali,” the senior administration official said, referring to the meeting of US President Biden and Chinese President Xi at the G-20 summit in Bali, Indonesia, on November 14, 2022.
The message from Bali was “competition, not conflict, and certainly economic engagement is part of what was outlined there,” the official said.
American officials indicated that it was to be expected that China would rebuff US diplomatic outreach in the weeks leading up to and following Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen’s meeting with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy in Los Angeles on April 5. But they suggested that the situation was expected to ease somewhat in the coming months.
“I think we will see more diplomatic contact in the coming months, but policy will be consistent and the underlying dynamics still competitive,” a second senior US administration official, speaking not for attribution, said.
Administration officials have said that they hope that Blinken, Yellen and Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo will all travel to China in the next several months, depending on their counterparts’ availability. Two Commerce Department officials, including China expert Elizabeth Economy, traveled to China this month, in part to see about planning a possible future visit by Raimondo, the Financial Times reported April 20.
‘Our outreach to the PRC is largely ignored’
Top Pentagon policy official Colin Kahl said last week that President Biden has repeatedly made clear that the United States does not want a conflict with China. But U.S. efforts over the past several months to engage with Chinese counterparts to manage tensions in the relationship have largely been rebuffed, he said.
“We do not want a conflict with China,” Kahl, the Undersecretary of Defense for Policy, said in a conversation with Foreign Policy Live on April 17. “In fact, in all of his interactions with President Xi Jinping, President Biden has emphasized the importance of putting guardrails around our competition, emphasizing strategic stability, crisis communications.”
And though the Chinese leader “often leaves those meetings saying the right things,” Kahl continued, “the reality is the PRC is not picking up the phone when we're calling them.”
“When you have crises around…the Speaker of the House visit to Taiwan or the recent transit by the President of Taiwan through the United States, our outreach to the PRC largely is largely ignored,” Kahl said. “So I think it's incumbent upon both sides to make sure that we do build these guardrails so that we don't have the spiral and self-fulfilling prophecy that you referenced.”
“The problem is not a technological one,” Kahl said. “We can pick up the phone, there's a link… That's not the problem. The problem is political will on the other side.”
Kahl attributed China’s disinterest for now in U.S. efforts to engage in crisis communications in part to China’s very centralized system, that made senior- and mid-level Chinese officials reluctant to engage without Xi’s explicit sign-off.
“I think that China has just a different theory than the United States and the Soviet Union had during the Cold War,” Kahl said. “I think coming out of the Berlin crisis, but especially the Cuban Missile Crisis, there was a sense in both Moscow and Washington that the two sides had to communicate with one another one another to prevent Armageddon.”
“I think China has a very different view,” he said. “They seem to have the view that crisis communications will be an excuse for the United States to create more crises, so that we can then manage them. And that if we want to avoid crises, there's a simple solution and that's just to get out of the Western Pacific and to abandon our alliances and partnerships and leave…And that's… a theory that's very incompatible with the types of robust crisis communication.”
“This is an issue that President Biden has raised with Xi Jinping on a number of occasions,” Kahl said. “Xi has said that he's committed to improving these types of communications. We just haven't seen it manifested yet.”
Biden ‘wants to put a floor on the relationship, but that is bumping up against a fevered anti-China mood in Congress’
Former State Department and National Intelligence Council Asia analyst Robert Manning said Chinese President Xi Jinping’s actions were largely responsible for the deterioration of US Chinese relations over the past decade, but that US domestic politics was now driving an overly hardline response that complicates the Biden administration’s efforts to put a floor on the relationship.
“I think, to his credit, that Biden understands that China is a nuclear weapons state and the largest trading power and the largest capital exporting power in the world and we have to deal with that,” Manning, now with the Stimson Center, said in an interview. “It’s not going to go away.”
“But I think he's kind of lost control over the policy because… in US politics, everybody seems to advance by how much you can beat up China,” Manning said. “The politics in DC combines to where the administration has kind of lost control of the policy, that they want to put guardrails in place.”
The Biden administration “wants to put a floor on the relationship, but that is bumping up against a fevered anti-China mood in Congress,” he said.
In China, “I think we're dealing with an immature Great Power,” Manning said. “And we are in a historic transition with a diffusion of power. And we have a hard time dealing with that, so the policy is evolving. It may take a Cuban Missile-type crisis to bring sobriety to both sides.”
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