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Opinion In Vienna, the U.S.-China relationship shows signs of hope

White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan at an April 24 news briefing at the White House. (Andrew Harnik/AP)
6 min

As the United States and China veered toward confrontation in recent years, both sides gave lip service to the idea that they seek cooperation on issues of mutual interest. Little came from that rhetoric until last week in Vienna, when top Chinese and U.S. officials actually seemed to be creating a framework for constructive engagement.

After two days of intense meetings Wednesday and Thursday between national security adviser Jake Sullivan and top Chinese diplomat Wang Yi, the two nations used identical language to describe the meetings: candid, substantive, constructive. For diplomats, that amounts to a rave review.

Talking about resets in foreign policy is always risky, and that’s especially true with Washington and Beijing. These two superpowers might be “destined for war,” as Harvard professor Graham Allison warned in a book with that title. What they’ve lacked, in their increasingly combative relationship, has been common ground. But some shared space seems to have emerged during the long, detailed discussions between Sullivan and Wang.

The U.S. and Chinese officials are said to have talked for hours about how to resolve the war in Ukraine short of a catastrophe that would be harmful for both countries. They discussed how each side perceives and misunderstands the other’s global ambitions. They spoke in detail about the supremely contentious issue of Taiwan.

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The frank discussion in Vienna was important because both sides have been running hard in the opposite direction in recent years. The Biden administration has concentrated on rebuilding U.S. military alliances and partnerships but has had little constructive engagement with Beijing. China has proclaimed a “no limits” partnership with Russia and has fostered an alliance of the aggrieved but, in the process, has rebuffed the superpower that matters most to its future.

What was different in Vienna? From accounts that have emerged, it was partly a matter of chemistry. Sullivan and Wang are both confident enough to talk off script. Over nearly a dozen hours of discussion, they threw schedules aside. They have the confidence of their bosses, Presidents Biden and Xi Jinping, to engage in detailed discussion about sensitive issues. They appear to have found a language for superpower discussion, like what once existed between the United States and both Russia and China but has been lost.

Sullivan and Wang are said to have discussed the Ukraine war at length. China insists it won’t abandon Russia, its longtime partner. China seems to understand that this conflict won’t be resolved on the battlefield but through diplomacy. As Ukraine prepares a counteroffensive that could push back the Russian invasion, China fears a cascading series of Russian losses could destabilize President Vladimir Putin.

China has proposed a peace plan for Ukraine and is sending a special envoy this week to Kyiv, Moscow and other key capitals. U.S. officials expect that China’s role won’t be as a mediator but a check on Russia’s actions. If Xi decides it’s time for this war to end, Putin has few alternatives. That’s why the Kremlin is said to have viewed last week’s Sino-American engagement with dread.

In the background of the Vienna discussions were two ruthlessly pragmatic questions for China. These issues form the context for a new stage in the relationship in which, as China’s foreign ministry spokesman put it, “China-U.S. relations should not be a zero-sum game where one side outcompetes or thrives at the expense of the other.”

The first baseline issue might be described as the “inevitability” question. Is the United States in inevitable decline while China is moving toward inevitable ascendancy? Xi’s policies have been premised on both outcomes, but the past several years have raised questions in Beijing. The U.S. economy and social framework have shown surprising resilience, and its technology remains supreme.

China might have imagined that it was dominant in artificial intelligence, for example, until the explosive impact of GPT-4. China, meanwhile, has faced economic and political head winds. Its global dominance is far from certain.

The Chinese leadership appears to be debating, behind the scenes, this question of America’s staying power. U.S. officials noted a blog post this month by Fu Ying, a prominent Chinese former diplomat, questioning in veiled terms whether one country should question another’s power. The post was removed from the website of the university where she teaches, and U.S. officials say they believe Fu was reprimanded. What’s evident is that the issue is being debated.

A second essential question for China is whether prolongation of the Ukraine war is in Beijing’s interest. Some Chinese officials are said to have argued that a long war is good for China, because the United States is bogged down in the conflict and Russia’s ties to China are reinforced. But there’s apparently a growing counterargument that the war strengthens America’s alliances in Europe and Asia and creates long-term trouble for China. U.S. officials say they believe the latter argument is gaining force in Beijing.

For the Biden administration, the fundamental question has been whether it is in America’s interest to accept China’s growing global role and work with Chinese leaders to accomplish mutual goals. Sino-American engagement had been focused on “soft” issues such as health, food and climate change. But Biden encouraged Sullivan to engage on core security issues such as Ukraine.

The U.S. message in Vienna is said to have been an emphatic “yes” on engagement. Sullivan praised Wang’s mediation of the bitter rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran, for example, explaining that the United States could not have played a similar role because of its mutual antipathy with Iran but welcoming China’s effort to de-escalate conflict in the region.

Biden’s opening to China has been motivated by one simple idea: The United States doesn’t want to start a new Cold War. Biden took too long to implement this insight, bowing to the new conventional wisdom in Washington that the more strident the confrontation with China, the better. But he seems to have found his voice.

A few green sprouts don’t guarantee blossoms in spring, let alone a ripe summer. But based on Chinese and American accounts, what happened last week in Vienna was the beginning of a process of regular, direct engagement that will benefit both sides.