Can China’s new ambassador help warm frosty ties with the United States?

Can China’s new ambassador help warm frosty ties with the United States?

There are signs of deepening mistrust between the United States and China even as the Biden administration and Beijing appeared to be working to revive high-level talks.

President Joe Biden this weekend predicted a “very soon thaw” between Washington and Beijing, the world’s largest economies.

The arrival on Tuesday of Xie Feng, Beijing’s new ambassador to Washington, was a potential indication of warming relations, but the new envoy said relations between the two countries faced “serious difficulties and challenges”. .

“We hope the United States will work with China to increase dialogue, manage differences and also respect our cooperation so that our relationship gets back on track,” he told a small crowd of mostly reporters. from New York. York John F. Kennedy International Airport before boarding a van with aides and family members.

Xie Feng, China’s new ambassador to the United States, speaking in Hong Kong on February 7, 2020. Philip Fong/AFP via Getty Images File

While Xie may have been cautiously optimistic, a senior Chinese diplomat recently shared a bleaker assessment of US-China relations during a briefing.

“The bilateral relationship has again encountered a freeze,” the Chinese diplomat told NBC News, speaking on condition of anonymity as they are not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.

The mixed signals show how relations between the countries have been on a roller coaster.

Beijing reacted angrily to last weekend’s Group of Seven, or G7, summit in Hiroshima, Japan, which pledged to cooperate economically with China but be tougher on areas such as “coercion economy”, human rights, Taiwan, Tibet, Hong Kong and the growing assertiveness of Beijing. in the South China Sea.

Beijing called the statement “defamation and lies”.

Things were looking up six months ago after Biden met with President Xi Jinping in Indonesia, raising hopes for a new chapter. But relations have sunk to a decades-old low and a planned trip to Beijing by Secretary of State Antony Blinken was canceled after a ‘spy balloon’ was spotted gathering information while flying over military sites Sensitive Americans in February.

China, which apologized for the incident shortly after the ship appeared over the west coast but then took a more defensive stance, said it was a balloon unmanned civil meteorological service.

Biden and Xi met on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Bali, Indonesia on November 14, raising hopes that relations between the two countries would improve.Alex Brandon/AP File

An hour-long meeting between National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and China’s top diplomat, Wang Yi, on May 11 reignited predictions of new high-level talks. A few days earlier and after a practical freeze in high-level diplomatic communications between the two countries, US Ambassador to China Nicholas Burns met with Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang in Beijing. Then came the G7 this weekend and China’s furious reaction.

But before high-level diplomacy can move forward — with one of Biden’s cabinet members visiting Beijing or a call between Biden and Xi — there are a number of hurdles China must face. overcome, according to the Chinese diplomat who spoke to NBC News, as well as public comments from Chinese media and officials.

The unnamed Chinese diplomat, who is based in Washington, pointed to three examples of “concerns not yet addressed by the US side”.

Among these is the FBI’s ongoing investigation into the Chinese balloon shot down by the United States, they said. Privately, Chinese officials fear that the release of this investigation could force either side into an embarrassing cancellation of another meeting or call between Xi and Biden.

The Biden administration has signaled it wants to move on.

At the G7, Biden dismissed the so-called spy balloon as a “dumb balloon.” Blinken, meanwhile, did not mention it in his opening remarks during a congressional hearing last week.

The unnamed Chinese diplomat said another concern “which have yet to be addressed by the US side” are the “false accusations”, as the diplomat put it, that China is operating illegal police stations in New York and elsewhere around the world. The FBI has arrested two people accused of running one of these police stations in New York, one of dozens of similar investigations in Canada, the United Kingdom, Germany and the Netherlands. China says the stations are there to help the diaspora with administrative issues.

The diplomat appeared to rule out a Biden-Xi phone call in the near future.

“It is hoped that the United States will work with China to resolve issues in the relationship and create favorable conditions for future interactions between the two key leaders,” the diplomat added.

Favorable terms will be difficult to secure, not least because US politicians have largely coalesced around the subject of China.

“China is an adversary of the United States in every way,” Rep. Nancy Mace, RS.C., said in response to the diplomat’s comments.

“We cannot afford to be complacent or passive in the face of China’s continued aggression,” she added in a statement to NBC News.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, DN.Y., a longtime China hawk, stressed the importance of a bipartisan approach to Beijing earlier in May.

“If we in America rest on our laurels, if we let the CCP defeat us, it would have serious consequences for the democratic nations of the world,” he said, referring to the Chinese Communist Party.

U.S. Navy sailors off South Carolina recover parts of the “spy balloon” on February 5.Petty Officer 1st Class Tyler Thompson / US Navy

China, meanwhile, seems to believe it can forge closer ties with the United States’ European allies.

A succession of Chinese diplomats have toured the mainland, including Foreign Minister Qin Gang and Wang Yi, director of the Office of the Central Foreign Affairs Commission. This week, Li Hui, China’s special envoy to Ukraine, will continue a tour of Ukraine, Poland, Germany, France and Russia.

At the G7, an idea promoted by the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, gained ground. Rather than “decoupling” from China, the West should “de-risk” trade in industries where national interests are at stake. In other words, Europe must continue to engage and trade with China , but also to challenge Beijing if necessary and protect its vital industries.

It comes even as Europe and the United States are growing closer over China, according to Ian Bremmer, president of research and political risk consultancy Eurasia Group, author of “Superpower: Three Choices for the Role of America in the World” and a commentator on world affairs.

“China is consolidating its economic power in a way that all G7 allies find problematic,” he said on Tuesday.

But Von der Leyen, and Europe in general, aren’t tough enough on China for many in Washington.

“Our European allies have to make a decision,” Mace said. “They have to choose whether to stand with China or stand with the United States, and we cannot allow them to continue playing both sides.”

And while China’s state-controlled media is seen as a barometer of elite opinion about the United States and the state of relations, no one in Beijing is holding their breath.

“Talk for the sake of talking will do little to break down roadblocks on the path to a healthy relationship, which involves concrete steps on Washington’s part to demonstrate complete sincerity and deliver on its promises,” according to an article from the L. state news agency Xinhua earlier this month. month.

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