(WASHINGTON) — Although U.S. officials have accused China’s military of carrying out dangerous provocations in recent days, diplomats from both countries are ramping up engagement at the same time — a two-prong approach that seems to be increasingly driven by Beijing.
On Monday, White House spokesperson John Kirby condemned a close call in the Taiwan Strait over the weekend when a Chinese warship crossed just about 150 yards across an American destroyer’s bow, a move the Pentagon described an “unsafe maritime interaction.”
“We urge them to make better decisions about how they operate in international airspace, and sea-space,” Kirby said, adding that this incident as well as a Chinese fighter jet recently coming within 400 feet of a U.S. Air Force reconnaissance aircraft in international airspace speaks to an “increasing level of aggressiveness” demonstrated by Beijing’s military.
But despite that public chastisement by the Biden administration, high-level U.S. officials from the State Department and the National Security Council held private talks in Beijing — the latest sign that tensions between the powers are easing, at least on the diplomatic front.
The State Department’s deputy spokesperson Vedant Patel described the meetings as “candid and productive discussions as part of ongoing efforts to maintain open lines of communication,” and an effort to build on other recent high-level engagements.
“President Biden has been clear we don’t seek any kind of new Cold War and our competition must not spill over into conflict,” Patel said.
While the Biden administration has been consistent in seeking to maintain open lines of communication across areas of government, Beijing’s split-strategy has become more evident in recent weeks as it apparently seeks to thaw relations with Washington while continuing to show its military might in the Indo-Pacific.
China’s reticence to participate in military-to-military communication with the U.S. across senior and working levels is a longstanding tradition, and one on display last week when Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s request for a face-to-face meeting with his Chinese counterpart at the annual Shangri-la Dialogue in Singapore was rejected.
A reason for that hesitancy, sources and experts say, is that the Chinese government sees military communication between the countries as dominated by the Taiwan issue — a matter where Beijing sees virtual zero room for compromise, and thus, little need for conversation.
But in other arenas, Beijing sees plenty of potential benefits in engaging with Washington — particularly when it comes to the U.S.-China trade relationship.
Although China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has periodically sent mixed messages about its posture towards the U.S., its actions in recent weeks have displayed a renewed enthusiasm for diplomacy. In May, Beijing appointed an ambassador to the U.S. after the post was left vacant for months and sent a delegation to Detroit to participate in trade talks.
Officials from both countries also see the recent visit by U.S. officials to Beijing as an important precursor for rescheduling Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s trip the city, which was scrapped in February after a Chinese surveillance balloon was identified over the U.S. mainland.
Sources say that getting that trip back on track is something that both countries want to see happen, and that it may be added to the calendar before the end of the summer.
While there are examples of progress in the bilateral relationship, American officials have warned that a gap in military-to-military communication may still result in a dangerous blind spot, which could lead to additional close-calls between countries and dangerous escalation.
“It won’t be long before somebody gets hurt,” Kirby said of the intercepts. “They can lead to misunderstandings. They can lead to miscalculations.”
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