Policy Prescriptions for U.S.-China Relations
This blog post was adapted from Ambassador Blackwill’s remarks delivered at the CSIS-Chumir Global Dialogue Commission, which was held on December 16, 2022.
I am trying to be neutral in the discussion below regarding the U.S.-China relationship, as if I was providing the objective perspective of a visitor from another galaxy, not a Biden administration viewpoint with which you are familiar. Indeed, my comments that follow would be regarded as heretical in most of Washington.
China and the United States are in a competitive downward spiral that if not reversed could drastically damage the two countries and damage the rest of the world. In short, they currently both chisel away at the world order.
I will in a moment lay out proposed policy prescriptions to arrest this systemic decline in U.S.-China relations.
But first, let me stress that in my view in recent times, neither the United States nor China has made such specific policy proposals to reduce tensions. Rather, daily mutual denunciation has been the order of the day. To depart this road to global catastrophe will require compromise and political will from both sides. Neither of those have been present in recent years. The Chinese have an aphorism that applies here, “If you want to catch a fish, don’t climb a tree.” In recent years, Washington and Beijing have climbed ever higher in the tree.
So, why is there no sign of political will and compromise from either Beijing or Washington? There are several reasons why China may be unwilling to compromise.
- Perhaps Xi Jinping and his colleagues believe they have a winning hand because the United States is in secular decline. Thus, there is no need for Beijing to compromise.
- Perhaps Xi Jinping and his colleagues believe that the United States has containing China as its strategic objective: To weaken China and to trigger regime change in China. Thus, it is too dangerous for Beijing to compromise.
- Perhaps Xi Jinping and his colleagues believe that the U.S. is abandoning the One China policy, hollowing it out on the way to recognizing Taiwan as an independent state. Thus, again, it would be too dangerous for Beijing to compromise.
Now to Biden:
- Perhaps, like the Truman administration in the late 1940s vis-a-vis the Soviet Union, the Biden administration believes that the United States must substantially strengthen itself and its allies before it can negotiate successfully with China. Thus, now it is too soon for Washington to compromise.
- Perhaps the Biden administration believes that it is too dangerous in terms of U.S. domestic politics to seriously negotiate with China, and that doing so would open up the administration to effective Republican attacks leading up to the 2024 presidential election. Thus, it is currently too risky politically for Biden to compromise with Xi Jinping.
- Perhaps the Biden administration believes that China will in the foreseeable future use military force to unify Taiwan with the Mainland. Thus, the administration’s emphasis must be on deterrence and to build up Taiwan’s defense forces.
- Perhaps both countries believe the internal problems of the other provide an opportunity to press their cases and to take risks.
In any case, there are specific and practical policy prescriptions regarding the U.S.-China relationship that could help rebuild trust and reduce tensions.
- Both sides should limit their rhetorical assaults on the other.
- Both sides should agree to launch an intense bilateral dialogue led by their national security advisors to discuss their respective vital national interests and red lines for the other’s behavior, as Dr. Henry Kissinger has proposed.
- Both sides should agree to begin talks to restrain their respective military modernizations, including the effects of artificial intelligence on decision-making and the battlefield, as Dr. Kissinger has proposed.
- Both sides should in their actions restore their respective long time interpretations of their One China policies, which have stood the test of time.
- Both sides should resume the patterns of their military activities in the Taiwan Strait that took place before the visit by then-Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan.
- Both sides should agree to immediately begin negotiations on an Incidents at Sea agreement.
- Both sides should agree to work together towards a joint proposal to restrain North Korea’s nuclear weapons and to reduce tension on the Korean Peninsula.
- Both sides should agree that their presidents will meet every four to six months.
- Both sides should agree that their foreign ministers will visit the other’s capital every year, and in addition meet whenever they are both at international meetings.
- Both sides should agree to establish a formal joint crisis management mechanism.
- Both sides should agree to step up their military-to-military contacts, and that their defense ministers should meet at least twice a year.
- Both sides should agree to intensify talks to reduce their trade differences.
- Both sides should agree to work together on climate issues.
- Both sides should agree to work together on global infectious diseases and global public health.
- Both sides should agree to make it easier for their citizens to visit the other country.
What is notable about these policy prescriptions, also, is what they do not ask for:
- Neither government is asked to change the way it governs itself.
- Neither government is asked to reduce its intelligence activities against the other.
- Neither government is asked to reduce its defense modernization.
- The United States is not asked to stop strengthening its Asian alliances and partnerships.
- China is not asked to stop its efforts to strengthen its activities and influence efforts in Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America.
- China is not asked to weaken its strategic relationship with Russia.
- The United States is not asked to slow its arms transfers to Taiwan.
- China is not asked to end its threat to use force to bring Taiwan into the PRC.
To repeat—to reach mutual agreement on any of these measures would require negotiation, compromise, and political will from both Xi Jinping and Joe Biden.
That would be a radical departure from their policies today.
I want to make one final point. Dr. Kissinger a half a century ago in the early years of the Nixon administration negotiated with Moscow a basic policy framework for addressing the profound differences in the bilateral relationship. That framework with its intense bilateral diplomacy was especially crucial in avoiding U.S.-Soviet conflict during the 1973 Yom Kippur War.
Coming back to the danger of war over Taiwan, there is at present no such policy framework and no such intense bilateral diplomacy between the United States and China.
To say that is irresponsibly dangerous is an understatement.