“China is not going for the neck… [it’s] develop these countermeasures in a way that can punish the United States without also hurting itself too much at the same time,” said Bonny Lin, former country director for China in the Office of the Secretary of Defense and director of the China Power Project at the Center. for strategic and international studies. “There are things [on the list] that we haven’t made significant progress with China, that we have common interest to do, but they’re not going to rock the boat significantly in terms of the overall US-China relationship.”
The Chinese list of targeted areas of cooperation excluded trade and health security related to the pandemic, suggesting an official effort to mitigate potential backlash that could harm China’s interests. “This seems underwhelming … there are lots of things in what I call China’s core concerns that they are leaving untouched,” said Yun Sun, director of the China Program at the Stimson Center.
At the top of Beijing’s list of targeted bilateral cooperation items was the cancellation of three upcoming military-to-military meetings, including the China-US talks on theater commanders, talks on defense policy coordination and meetings with the Military Maritime Consultative Agreement. These cancellations are troubling given the inadequacy of existing US-China military crisis communications at a time when People’s Liberation Army forces are conducting an unprecedented level of ongoing live fire military exercises in near the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan.
High-level bilateral military contacts have long been a vexing issue. Beijing repeatedly rejected Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s efforts to secure a call with his Chinese counterpart, Wei Fenghe. Austin finally succeeded in speaking with Wei in April after nearly 18 months of effort.
“We want more open communication, especially between our militaries at a time like this,” National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said Friday. “Because when you have that much military hardware steaming and sailing and flying around, the chances of misunderstandings and miscalculations only increase.”
But the relatively low-key nature of the canceled talks suggests that Beijing’s cancellation was more form than substance.
“These are all useful engagements, but those that are not at the very best level and…[bilateral] communication will remain open,” Ret said. Vice Adm. Robert B. Murrett, Professor of Practice at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School. “I hope that these as opposed to being canceled [meetings] is actually just being suspended and that cool heads would prevail sometime into next year.”
The announcement of the cancellations allows Beijing to publicly comment on the Pelosi visit while allowing time to follow them back in the coming months. The performative aspect of the Chinese response reflects President Xi Jinping’s domestic political considerations and the need to polish his image as an iron-willed defender of China’s territorial integrity. That effort is especially urgent in the run-up to this fall’s 20th Communist Party Congress, where Xi is widely expected to appear with a unprecedented third term as an overriding leader.
“The problem for Xi Jinping is that he has to appear tough before the party congress – already online [in China] some cite the weakness of the Chinese response to the visit,” said Anthony J. Saich, director of the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at Harvard’s Kennedy School.
The Chinese government hammered home its indignation over Pelosi’s visit – which Beijing views as an unacceptable expression of US support for Taiwan independence – in a meeting Thursday between Chinese Ambassador Qin Gang and Kurt Campbell, the National Security Council’s Indo-Pacific Coordinator. Qin’s talking points probably mirrored those of a screed he published in the Washington Post on Thursday, warning that Pelosi’s actions had “outraged the 1.4 billion Chinese.”
The Chinese embassy in Washington echoed that stance, saying China was blameless in a bilateral furor that could have serious geopolitical consequences. “The US and Taiwan have made provocations together first, while China has been forced to act in self-defense,” Jing said on Friday. “[Taiwan] is one of the very few issues that could bring China and the United States into conflict or even war.”
Despite this rhetoric, the relatively low impact of the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s response suggests that Beijing wants to convey displeasure without damaging the bilateral relationship. “They cut off cooperation in areas where we try to push them to cooperate, but we didn’t see too many results,” Lin said. “Anything [restricted] on the much larger security or trade relations would have a more significant impact.”
But the Chinese are moving to suspend the negotiations between China and the US on climate change triggered sharp criticism from the White House. “They think they’re punishing us by shutting down this channel — they’re actually punishing the whole world because the climate crisis doesn’t recognize geographic boundaries,” Kirby said.
Close observers of US-China climate cooperation express hope that the suspension of negotiations will be strictly temporary and that the two sides will be able to return to the commitment on reductions in CO2 emissions in the near future.
“It certainly stings given the bilateral engagement lined up in the coming weeks leading up to COP 27… I hope and expect to see negotiations resume well before the end of the year,” said Joanna Lewis, associate professor at Georgetown University and expert in China’s climate policy.
US lawmakers struggling with thousands of overdose deaths in the United States each year from illegal fentanyl manufactured from Chinese raw materials are appalled by China’s move to suspend US-China counternarcotics cooperation.” This is particularly disappointing because, despite our disagreements with China on a wide range of issues, counternarcotics cooperation had been a bright spot in the bilateral relationship in the past year.” said Rep. David Trone (D-Md.), co-chair of the Biden administration Commission to Combat Synthetic Opioid Trafficking.
GOP lawmakers see Beijing’s retaliation for Pelosi’s visit as further evidence that China’s ruling Chinese Communist Party cannot be trusted as a reliable partner, even on issues of clear mutual interest.
“It is clear from these actions that the CCP is not interested in avoiding conflict, upholding the rule of law, stopping their flow of toxic substances into the United States, or cooperating on climate,” Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), ranking member from the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said in a statement. “The Biden administration’s policy of ‘cooperating where we can’ with the CCP is not realistic, and I urge them to face the reality of the CCP, not what they want it to be.”
Meanwhile, the White House is bracing for the potential for more Chinese retaliation for Pelosi’s Taiwan trip in the coming days.
“It’s hard to know what exactly the Chinese side is thinking here in terms of intentions and duration … we’d like to see the tensions drop immediately,” Kirby said.
Nicolle Liu and Lara Seligman contributed to this report.