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The Americans Insist on Talking to China – But Maybe We Should Keep Score

Dialogue and diplomacy are not the same thing. America and its allies need to take a hard look at what that means and change how they engage with China.



US Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry and Chinese top diplomat Wang Yi shake hands before a meeting at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China July 18, 2023. (©REUTERS//Florence Lo/Pool)

There's talk and there's productive talk. You would sometimes think US officials are paid by the word and are content with the former sort of talk. Recently, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of the Treasury Janet Yellen went to China. Now, Climate Czar John Kerry is visiting the country.

These trips and attendant dialogues are invariably described as "candid and constructive." Other popular adjectives for them are "direct, substantive, and productive" and vital to "maintain open channels of communications," "responsibly manage competition," "reduce risk of misperception and miscalculation," and "learn more about each other."

And the subtext is that if the Americans stop talking, then war with China is just around the corner. 

The idea seems to be that enough talking and the right words or incantations will bring Beijing to its senses. Exactly how isn't clear. It's not as if the Chinese don't understand what the Americans are saying.

US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen talks as Chinese Premier Li Qiang listens in a meeting at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, Friday, July 7, 2023. (©Mark Schiefelbein/Pool via REUTERS)

Maybe they'll just get fed up with blabby Americans and concede? Or maybe it's Blinken, Yellen, and Kerry's sheer animal magnetism that is supposed to win over the Chinese communists? 

Add in a visit by Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin to Beijing and the animal magnetism will be overwhelming.

That said, suggest to our foreign policy elite and even our military top brass that talking for talking's sake is unproductive, and you'll get eye-rolling ridicule. 

US Defense Secretary Austin (right) shakes hands with Chinaese Defense Minister Li Shangfu at the Shangri-La security dialogue held in Singapore on June 2. (AP via Kyodo).

Thirty Years of Talks, and the Results?

However, we've been talking non-stop to the People's Republic of China for 30+ years. 

How well is dialogue and engagement working to modify Chinese behavior? 

You can make your own scorecard.

Does the PRC do any of the following:

  • Back off of Taiwan. Stop the military harassment and intimidation; let Taiwan into international organizations.
  • Back off of Japan. Lay off the Senkakus and no more hints that Okinawa and the Ryukyu Islands are Chinese. Stop demonizing the Japanese.
  • Back off the Philippines – and recognize the 2016 Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling that repudiated PRC claims to the South China Sea. Stay out of Philippine maritime territory.
  • End cyberattacks on the United States.
  • Stop stealing intellectual property from US companies. And no longer demand handing over sensitive technology as the price of foreign companies' admission to the China market.
  • Allow foreign companies to conduct due diligence in China.
  • End the requirement for Chinese Communist Party party cells in foreign companies operating in China.
  • Open the concentration camps and also stop eradicating Uyghur culture.
  • End organ harvesting from prisoners, religionists, dissidents – or anyone else.
  • Allow religious groups to operate freely.
  • Free Jimmy Lai and other Hong Kong freedom advocates. And live up to the terms of the 1984 Hong Kong handover agreement.
  • Stop fentanyl exports from China (that killed 70,000 Americans in 2022 alone).
Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Mao Ning holds a press conference in Beijing, March 27, 2023. (© Kyodo)

The List Continues

Additionally, will Beijing do the following? 

  • Change the tone of public discourse so the Chinese media and official spokesmen no longer exhibit non-stop contempt and vitriol towards the United States.
  • Enforce sanctions on North Korea (that Beijing has already agreed to). And also stop interfering with aircraft and ships that are enforcing the sanctions.
  • Rein in the Chinese fishing fleet. Make sure it follows the rules rather than vacuuming the oceans – both high-seas and in other countries territories.
  • Stop interfering with US military operations in the South China Sea and Taiwan Strait.
  • Make the RMB (Chinese yuan) freely convertible – like Beijing promised to do years ago and more than once.
  • Pull Chinese intelligence collection assets out of Cuba.
  • Cooperate in an open inquiry into determining COVID's origins.
  • Close Chinese overseas police stations or "service centers," and stop intimidating the overseas Chinese diaspora.
  • Stop taking hostages and release the ones Beijing is holding.

There's a few dozen others at least. But you get the idea.

Don't get your hopes up, however.

Everything described above that needs improvement happened during the previous 30+ years of talking, engagement, and accommodation of the PRC. That's the talking that was supposed to moderate communist Chinese behavior and turn it into a "responsible stakeholder." 

One is skeptical that more talking will improve things.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, June 19, 2023. (©REUTERS/Leah Millis/Pool)

Dialogue Versus Diplomacy

Dialogue and diplomacy are not the same thing. One observer recently described dialogue as being to diplomacy what "hyper-inflation is to money."

Talk when you have something to talk about and you are in a position to defend and enforce your interests.

The American statesman, George Shultz aptly stated: "Negotiations are a euphemism for capitulation if the shadow of power is not cast across the bargaining table."

Mr Shultz is gone. But one imagines what he would have said about talking for talking's sake. 

He might have agreed with an astute scholar of diplomatic history who recently noted that "diplomacy is not psycho-babble or social work."

Japan's Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi talks to Chinese Premier Li Qiang at Zhongnanhai in Beijing on April 2. (Pool photo)

Changing the Game Plan

We've been talking to China for a long time. Without results, for us at least. But the PRC has done quite well.

Putting it in baseball terms, the US is batting .000.

Meanwhile, the Chinese are batting about .950. Having tolerated American dialoguing over the last 50 years while using American, Western, and Japanese investment and access to markets in the democracies, they turned a dirt-poor nation into a superpower aiming for global domination.

The only exception was the Trump administration – where certain officials who understood China were finally putting some wood on the ball. And that was despite fierce opposition from the engagers and the "don't provoke China" crowd inside and outside the administration. 


But in 2021 they were sent to the showers and a team of .000 hitters replaced them in the line-up. 

So the next time you hear that talk and more talk is good, get out the above list. And see for yourself whether the People's Republic of China is doing anything differently. 


Author: Grant Newsham

Grant Newsham is a retired US Marine officer and former US diplomat. He is the author of the book When China Attacks: A Warning To America. Find his articles on JAPAN Forward.

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