China's Top Diplomat Pushes U.S. to Repair Strained Relationship

A senior Chinese official told the United States to uphold its commitment to not having a conflict with Beijing, and put the onus of restoring amicable relations on Washington, during a call with Joe Biden's national security adviser on Wednesday.

Yang Jiechi, the top diplomat in Beijing, spoke with Jake Sullivan in only their fourth publicized talks in the past two years, following in-person meetings in Anchorage and Zurich in 2021, and in Rome this March. Their latest discussion centered on fraught bilateral ties, but also touched on Ukraine and North Korea, according to a readout released by the Chinese Foreign Ministry.

China's statement revealed positive dialogue between the militaries of the two countries, and on issues including climate change, public health and agriculture. But Yang also protested what he called "a series of wrong words and deeds that interfered in China's internal affairs and harmed Chinese interests"—a phrase that could point to anything from Western warnings about Beijing's continued support for Moscow, or the continued American backing of Taiwan.

"The United States should match its words with deeds, and turn relevant commitments into concrete policies and actions," Yang told Sullivan. Washington, he said, should "do more constructive things to push China-U.S. relations back on the right track of healthy and stable development."

A readout released by the White House was typically brief. It said the talks "focused on regional security issues and nonproliferation," as well as "Russia's war against Ukraine and specific issues in U.S.-China relations."

Challenges Remain

Despite some initial optimism in Beijing after Biden's election victory, there now appears very little prospect of the relationship's return to the rosier days at the beginning of the early 2010s. Successive administrations have identified China's growing military and its ambition to reshape universal norms through influence in international institutions, as the key challenge of the present century.

Since the Trump years, Beijing has increasingly viewed the U.S.'s perception of a "China threat" as driving renewed efforts to contain the burgeoning superpower by strengthening existing alliances in Asia and forging new partnerships like the Quad and AUKUS.

The Biden administration, which is trying to bolster its status as the resident power in the "Indo-Pacific" region, says its moves aren't targeting any one country, least of all China. Since coming into the White House last year, his officials, especially in the Pentagon, have worked to reestablish lines of communication with Beijing, with an eye on "crisis management."

The Chinese leadership isn't convinced, but it does seem to be taking calls from American counterparts—the Chinese Foreign Ministry's readout said Sullivan asked for the talks this week.

At the heart of U.S.-China relations, which were formally established in 1979, is the question of Western-leaning Taiwan, a democratically governed island Chinese Communist Party officials want to annex into the mainland.

The Taiwanese public hasn't shown any interest in being ruled from Beijing. The U.S., which believes the island's post-World War II status remains undetermined, doesn't have formal diplomatic relations with Taipei, but says differences across the Taiwan Strait must be resolved in a peaceful manner, in accordance with the wishes of Taiwan's 23.5 million people.

For decades, Washington has also been Taiwan's strongest international backer. It's one of the only countries that openly sells Taipei defensive arms, as mandated by the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979.

Yang, who is the director of the CCP's Central Foreign Affairs Commission and a former ambassador to Washington, told Sullivan that Taiwan was the "most serious and most sensitive core issue" in U.S.-China relations. He said the Biden administration's recent actions vis-à-vis Taiwan were "poles apart" from its stated commitment to the U.S.'s "one China" policy.

'Down the Wrong Path'

Yang warned the U.S. against going "further and further down the wrong path" with its support for Taiwan. "China will definitely take firm action to safeguard its sovereignty and security interests, and we will do what we say," he said.

At a White House press briefing on Wednesday, Sullivan previewed Biden's upcoming trip to Northeast Asia, a visit to shore up American alliances in the region, in a move that will inevitably irk Chinese leaders in the process.

Included in his itinerary is a Quad summit in Tokyo. While in Japan, he will also launch the administration's Indo-Pacific Economic Framework.

Chinese State Councilor Yang Jiechi and JakeSullivan
Chinese State Councilor Yang Jiechi (L), and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan (R) speaking during the daily press briefing in the Brady Briefing Room of the White House in Washington, DC, on May 18, 2022. KIMIMASA MAYAMA/STEFANI REYNOLDS/AFP/Getty