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Politics & Security

When It Comes to US-China Relations, Sometimes Silence is Golden

A former United States Marine looks at 40+ years of US-China dialogue to find how talks have benefitted China but not the peace and stability of the region.

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US President Joe Biden meets with Chinese President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the G20 leaders' summit in Bali, Indonesia, November 14, 2022. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

US President Joe Biden and Xi Jinping may not have agreed on much when they met for a US-China dialogue in Bali this week. But they did agree that both sides would start talking again. 

A United States military officer serving in the Pacific asked if this at least was a good thing?

My answer: Yes, it is better than thermonuclear war, but not as important as one might think.

One fairly asks how 40+ years of unrestrained engagement and communication with the People's Republic of China worked out? 

There were basically no limits to our communications with the PRC during that 40 years' time ー until the Trump administration came along.

During this multi-decade gabfest, the Chinese communists built a nation and a military that potentially can defeat the United States. That didn't happen by accident. It was Beijing's objective all along. 

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So if we start talking again, is this supposed to lead to improved Chinese behavior?  If so, someone needs to explain how.

Recognizing Divergent Goals

Will China give up on its goal of pushing us out of the region and ultimately dominating the United States?  Unlikely. And nobody imagines these days it will lead to a liberalized China – as all the earlier talk and getting to know each other was supposed to do.

But at least it "stabilizes" the US-PRC relationship, doesn't it? 

No. That's a fallback rationalization when you've achieved nothing much and are out of ideas. Sort of like claiming 20 years, $2 trillion USD, and thousands of casualties in Afghanistan was a success because the "homeland was never attacked."

Who Wins with Talk?

One really can't blame the Chinese. They are just doing what works. 

You see, they figured out a long time ago (as did many other countries) that if you really want to perplex Americans....just don't talk to them. 

The Yankees will squirm and wonder what they did to get you mad at them.

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And then they start making concessions and giving away things to get back on speaking terms.

A man at a newspaper stand in Beijing uses a magnifying glass to read a headline reporting on US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's Asia visit to Taiwan and other parts of Asia. Sunday, July 31, 2022. (AP Photo/Andy Wong)

Panic Mode at the White House

It does indeed appear that the Biden Administration went into panic mode to restart communications after Beijing gave it the cold shoulder last summer after Nancy Pelosi's visit to Taiwan.

There seems to be a sense on the US side that if we aren't talking we are sure to be fighting. An anthropologist might suggest this is also an American conceit that any problem can be resolved via dialogue.

So the Chinese are glad to let the Americans yap and to meet and talk about whatever (other than COVID and Fentanyl) and they might even get some "presents" to boot. 

Washington thinks it's progress, or at least not failing.  But Beijing sees an ever-hopeful enemy that is always willing for one more round of talks. 

Meanwhile, China improves its position and gets ready for the day kinetic action comes, assuming that's even necessary.  

At most this latest Xi Jinping-Joe Biden talk in Bali is a tactical pause ー to lull the Americans into thinking some deal might be cut. And to get the Americans to ease up on the PRC. 

The Chinese communists are not hard to figure out, if you pay attention. But neither are the Americans. 

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What's Lost by Not Talking

Finally, it's worth looking back a few months and considering what we're missing by not talking with the Chinese communists.

When the PRC stopped talking to Team Biden in the summer of 2022, miffed at Pelosi's Taiwan visit, one observer looked through the list of things China canceled and remarked on what the meetings might have been like.

US President Joe Biden meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the G20 summit on Monday, November 14, 2022, in Bali, Indonesia. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Following the list of 8 topics on which China curtly canceled dialogue, the observer imagined the conversation might have gone this way anyway: 

  1. Canceling China-US Theater Commanders Talk.
  2. Plus canceling China-US Defense Policy Coordination Talks (DPCT).
  3. And canceling China-US Military Maritime Consultative Agreement (MMCA) meetings.

United States: Let's talk about ways to reduce tensions and unexpected events.

China: Sure. Let's start by you telling us all your plans, and then clear out of the South China Sea (and the Western Pacific) and don't come back.

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Moving on: 

  1. Suspending China-US cooperation on the repatriation of illegal immigrants.

United States: Please take back your bad guys.

China: No.

On cooperation concerning criminal activities:

  1. Suspending China-US cooperation on legal assistance in criminal matters.
  2. And Suspending China-US cooperation against transnational crimes.

United States: Let's work together to lower crime.

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China Sure.  Send us all the people who have taken refuge from the CCP in the United States. And then tell us all you know about our criminals and how you found out. And ignore the "overseas police station" we've set up in New York.

  1. Suspending China-U.S. counternarcotics cooperation.

United States: Please stop sending us fentanyl and killing 100,000 Americans a year.

China: What's fentanyl?

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On other current issues affecting the bilateral relationship:

  1. Suspending China-US talks on climate change.  

United StatesReduce your greenhouse gas emissions.

China: Sure, in 2087.  In the meantime, you stop all energy production, give us clean tech IP and buy all our solar panels, wind turbines, etc., and hook them up to IofT (internet of things) grids that have Chinese components in them.

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Note to Washington: 

When they refuse to talk, the Chinese are doing us a favor and helping us avoid our self-destructive behavior. 

Sometimes it's good to keep one's mouth shut.

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Author: Grant Newsham

Grant Newsham is a retired US Marine and a former diplomat and business executive who spent many years in Asia. Find his articles on JAPAN Forward here.

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