In addition to ongoing, unprecedented military drills surrounding Taiwan, China has unveiled another element of its response to U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan earlier this week. China’s Foreign Ministry announced on Friday that it was cancelling or suspending talks and cooperation with the United States in eight different areas, as “countermeasures” to Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan.
The Foreign Ministry announcement is brief, so I will include the full text below:
In disregard of China’s strong opposition and serious representations, Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi visited China’s Taiwan region. On 5 August, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced the following countermeasures in response:
1.Canceling China-U.S. Theater Commanders Talk.
2.Canceling China-U.S. Defense Policy Coordination Talks (DPCT).
3.Canceling China-U.S. Military Maritime Consultative Agreement (MMCA) meetings.
4.Suspending China-U.S. cooperation on the repatriation of illegal immigrants.
5.Suspending China-U.S. cooperation on legal assistance in criminal matters.
6.Suspending China-U.S. cooperation against transnational crimes.
7.Suspending China-U.S. counternarcotics cooperation.
8.Suspending China-U.S. talks on climate change.
In essence, China is unilaterally cancelling engagement with the United States on issues of top priority to the Biden administration. In that vein, it’s worth pointing out that talks on economic and trade issues — arguably China’s top priority in the relationship — are spared.
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Climate change has been one of the few areas that could be considered a bright spot in the current China-U.S. relationship. John Kerry, the U.S. presidential envoy for climate change, is the only Cabinet-level member of the Biden administration to have visited China – and he has made the trip twice, in April and September of 2021. Li Shuo, senior climate and energy policy officer at Greenpeace East Asia, described those trips as leading to some notable outcomes, demonstrating “the value of engagement.”
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Now China has slammed that door shut entirely, although this is categorized as a “suspension,” implying it could be temporary.
Similarly, getting China’s cooperation in stemming the flow of illegal opioids like fentanyl – many of which involve components synthesized in China – has been a major priority of both the Biden and Trump administrations. Both had secured commitments of cooperation from China, although Washington continued to complain about implementation. Now Beijing is pulling the plug.
Suspending legal cooperation will set back several other priority areas for the Biden administration. China has long been accused of slapping unjustified travel bans on American citizens visiting or living in China, and detaining others for political reasons. Now it appears Beijing will no longer engage with Washington to discuss these cases.
Two American citizens were allowed to travel back the United States in September 2021 after years of trying; another returned home in November 2021. At the time, it was seen as welcome progress in the China-U.S. relationship. “In recent months, [China] has been more willing to engage in working-level channels of communication focused on specific bilateral issues where we have faced long-standing roadblocks and had long-standing concerns,” a State Department official told NPR at the time, pointing to issues like the unofficial exit bans and the repatriation of Chinese nationals who illegally migrated to the United States. That nascent progress is now on hold – again, at least temporarily.
China is “canceling” – rather than “suspending” – its participation in several military dialogues meant to build confidence and bolster crisis management potential. That’s a dangerous step at a time when the risk of an inadvertent escalation is higher than it has been in decades, as the Chinese military maneuvers close to Taiwan.
One of the Biden administration’s mantras for the China-U.S. relationship is to speak about the importance of “guardrails,” a theme brought up both in conversations between Presidents Joe Biden and Xi Jinping and at the recent meeting between their defense ministers. The Biden administration has repeatedly called for “common sense guardrails” to help prevent and manage a potential crisis between the two.
However, in July China began warning that its interpretation of “guardrails” was different. “The US keeps calling for ‘guardrails,’” Zhao Lijian, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson, said ahead of a meeting between the Chinese foreign minister and U.S. secretary of state. “The ‘guardrails’ for China-US relationship already exists — the three China-US joint communiqués.” The joint communiques address other issues but are most remembered for their approach to Taiwan. China has directly and repeatedly accused the United States of breaking those commitments since Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan. China’s reframing of the “guardrails” issue earlier this summer indicated that Beijing considered U.S. Taiwan policy to be the most important factor in preventing the relationship from falling off a cliff.
While establishing “guardrails” for the relationship is a Biden administration mantra, preventing an unexpected crisis – or preventing an accident from sparking outright conflict – is very much in both parties’ interest. China may be trying to send a message to Washington, but stopping defense officials from working out clear channels of communications is just as harmful to Beijing.
It’s worth noting, however, that China unilaterally severing bilateral dialogues, especially military-to-military contacts, is not unprecedented. This has long been China’s go-to response to perceived provocations related to U.S. Taiwan policy. In 2010, following the then-Obama administration’s first arms sale to Taiwan, Beijing severed all military-to-military contacts, including cancelling a planned trip to China by Defense Secretary Robert Gates. Gates complained at the time about China’s willingness to sacrifice security discussions, saying, “Only in the military-to-military arena has progress on critical mutual security issues been held hostage.”
In that case, the cancellation lasted roughly a year. Gates finally traveled to China in January 2011, part of a broader attempt to repair ties.