The flurry of behind-the-scenes meetings and messages — between government officials, business executives, former officials and academics — has ground to a halt as a result of the rising hostility and travel restrictions caused by the pandemic, according to people usually involved in the discussions.
“The pandemic has cut off personal meetings. That is very bad,” said Wang Huiyao, director with the Center for China and Globalization, a Beijing-based think tank that includes former Chinese officials and prominent Chinese scholars.
“Many messages can only be conveyed indirectly by spokesmen and media, which could compromise the effectiveness of the communication and easily lead to misunderstanding,” said Wang, who also sits on the advisory panel to the State Council, China’s cabinet.
The bravado is not just bad for diplomacy. Also at stake is a $200 billion trade deal, which Trump wants to use to boost the fortunes of U.S. farmers, energy companies and other exporters.
Nevertheless, he has threatened to “cut off the whole relationship” — including the trade deal — and take additional actions against China over accusations that it covered up the initial outbreak of the virus.
“The big thing is they should have never let this happen. So I make a great trade deal, and now I say it just doesn’t feel the same to me. The ink was barely dry and the plague came over,” he said on Fox News last week. “We’re not going to renegotiate. Look, I’m not happy about anything having to do with that particular subject right now.”
Trump, no longer able to tout a strong economy going into this year’s election, is also seizing on a tough-on-China message to boost his support among voters.
In recent days, the administration decided to take a number of actions against China that had been in the works for months, including pressuring the federal government retirement fund to halt investments in Chinese companies and further tightening export restrictions against telecommunications company Huawei.
Congress is preparing to roll out a barrage of legislation targeting China. The Senate last Thursday passed a bill that would sanction Chinese officials involved in the mass imprisonment of Uygur Muslims and other ethnic minorities. The FBI and the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency also recently warned that Chinese hackers were targeting U.S. research into vaccines and treatments for Covid-19.
Travel restrictions as a result of the pandemic have made face-to-face interactions all but impossible, making it more difficult to stave off tensions.
“The Chinese government is never great at phone conferences or digital video conferences, or I assume Zoom calls, these days. That’s kind of not the way they operate,” said James Green, a senior adviser at McLarty Associates who was the top trade official at the U.S. embassy in Beijing through the first year of the Trump administration.
Green said the message he has heard from China within the few nongovernmental channels that are still active is a basic one: “At this point the Chinese side doesn’t have a message other than we need to talk. That’s not a particularly compelling message,” he said.
“The goal should be, here are two things we really need to work on, vaccine development and restarting our economies.”
How problems were once worked out
Henry Kissinger, former secretary of State who helped then-President Richard Nixon blaze the trail of bilateral ties with Chinese Communist Party chairman Mao Zedong, is still considered by the Chinese side to be an important role model for communications.
Kissinger visited Beijing and met with Chinese President Xi Jinping last November. The former U.S. top diplomat encouraged the two sides to improve communication and resolve their differences.
Before the disruption of the coronavirus pandemic, former Chinese officials who had dealt with the U.S. for decades were still on friendly terms with former American officials and business leaders.
For instance, during the U.S.-China trade talks of 2018 and 2019, Stephen Schwarzman, head of the investment firm Blackstone Group; Hank Paulson, a former Treasury secretary and Goldman Sachs CEO; and John Thornton, a former Goldman Sachs president, formed a trifecta of interlocutors between Wall Street, Washington and Beijing.
Now, as companies face massive economic disruption on both sides of the Pacific, focus has shifted to short-term concerns.
“There is definitely communication going on, but the CEO-Chinese leadership engagement I’m familiar with is largely tactical as opposed to strategic,” said a U.S. business source, who wanted to remain anonymous because of the sensitivity of the discussions. “There is so much commercial chaos that folks are focused on the trees, not the forest.”
Although leaders of multinationals are still trying to intervene, their counsel may be falling on deaf ears in both countries.
“There is still a strong Wall Street-to-Beijing channel. The question is, is it effective? I think the answer is demonstrably no,” said Jude Blanchette, a China scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “The conversation is no longer prefaced on, how do we boost economic growth and integration.”
With the relationship now focused on strategic competition and national security, “it’s going to be very hard to keep these discussions going because they’re going to be looked at as suspect in both countries,” he added.
Shi Yinhong, a U.S. affairs specialist with Renmin University in Beijing and another adviser to the State Council, said back channels between the two countries were now having little impact because of a lack of political determination on both sides.
“It is useless, even if there are tens of thousands of people traveling between the two countries, and even when there are plenty of capable people from both sides as messengers,” Shi said.
Susan Shirk, former deputy assistant secretary of State responsible for China policy in the Clinton administration, found China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi much less at ease and candid about his personal views than previously when she met him last March.
Wang called in photographers and a note taker, and said little beyond official stances. That was in contrast to the more personal communications and candid discussions of the past, said Shirk, who has known China’s second-most-senior diplomat for more than two decades.
“The Chinese foreign policy process is so secretive and it’s really such a black box that we don’t know if he really makes a report to the higher level and gives advice,” she said. “We have big difficulties on the U.S. side taking the advice, as well.”
Jun Mai and Wendy Wu report for the South China Morning Post from Beijing. Adam Behsudi reports for POLITICO from Washington, D.C.
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