US snub of Chinese envoy could boomerang now that he’s a big wheel — or not
Last week Qin Gang, China’s ambassador to the United States, bid adieu to his appointment with a schmaltzy paean to his many delightful trips across America.
Recalling his visits to heartland farms and coastal container ports, ballparks and factories, he promised to hold these memories in his heart and make “the development of China-U.S. relations … an important mission of mine in my new position.”
That new position is foreign minister of China. This marks a leap in status that had only come into view in Washington late in Qin’s tenure as ambassador, after his surprise appointment to the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Committee last October. Prior to that, Biden administration officials largely ignored Qin, believing that he was not closely connected to Xi Jinping. That left Qin spending his time traveling the country rather than engaging with high-level foreign policymakers.
The Biden administration’s snub undoubtedly rankles Qin. But for once, diplomatic niceties like those contained in Qin’s farewell op-ed may be a better guide to the possibilities of great power relations than behind-the-scenes resentments. Or rather, they could be — if the deep resentments on the U.S. side that caused the missed opportunity to cultivate Qin in the first place don’t get in the way.
The reason that Qin’s friendly pieties are likely something more than empty words is that China is facing a very difficult internal situation as the new year opens, and the leadership is looking for ways to take some of the pressure off externally. The biggest immediate challenge is the enormous damage from a sudden dismantling of the three-year zero covid policy, executed in one fell swoop in early December without adequate preparation. Hundreds of millions were infected in the course of a few weeks, causing a wave of death and sickness in a country that had previously been almost completely protected from the pandemic, pushing the medical system to the breaking point in many localities, and raising serious questions about the competence of the government.
The covid wave is also exacerbating the Chinese leadership’s other urgent problem: an economy facing very difficult short-term disruptions and long-term structural dysfunctions. Economic growth was already struggling in the face of the debilitating lockdowns of prior months and as a result of efforts to gradually deflate the real estate bubble that, for over a decade, has borne the economy along even as it threatened sudden financial disaster at any moment.
The lockdowns have been lifted and, after a sharp decrease, activity is returning to the major cities that first suffered the covid wave. Policies that were slowly deflating the property bubble have been reversed. Yet covid is likely to still roil the country for many weeks as it spreads beyond the first tier cities, toward poorer cities and rural areas where the majority of the population lives with much weaker medical capacity. And even if the recovery is quick, the country must still find new drivers of growth beyond the property bubble in order to address high levels of youth unemployment (a significant factor in the nationwide anti-lockdown protests that unsettled the leadership) and a rapidly rising imbalance between the elderly and those of prime working age. That search has been seriously complicated by the Biden administration’s decision to impose a blockade on China’s access to advanced technology for computing, biotech, and clean energy.
Some commentators in the United States have suggested that China’s difficulties at home will lead it to lash out abroad in order to distract the population from the leadership’s failings. Fortunately, there is no significant precedent for such an eventuality in the history of the People’s Republic and the indications of recent weeks all point in the opposite direction.
Already in November, when Biden and Xi met for nearly three hours at the Bali G20 summit, China was trying to reassure the United States that it “does not seek to change the existing international order or interfere in the internal affairs of the United States, and has no intention to challenge or displace the United States.” (Qin himself premiered this message in his inaugural speech as ambassador in 2021.) The two sides agreed at the Bali meeting to resume their bilateral climate dialogue, which had been suspended in the fallout from Nancy Pelosi’s official visit to Taiwan in August, and to arrange a visit to Beijing by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken early in 2023.
Since these early promising signs, China has continued to signal a clear desire to reduce international tensions. In addition to Qin’s warm missives, multiple Chinese officials have conveyed to their European counterparts and to journalists that Russia kept China in the dark on its plan for a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, and they have emphasized their efforts to restrain Putin from making use of nuclear weapons in the war.
Furthermore, Beijing has ended its unofficial ban on Australian coal imports, imposed in 2020 after Australia called for an investigation into the origins of covid. And the Foreign Ministry has transferred Zhao Lijian, symbol of the vitriolic rhetoric that rose to prominence among many Chinese diplomats in recent years, from his role as Ministry spokesman to a low-visibility position in the Ocean Affairs Department.
The Biden administration seems torn on how to respond to these overtures. On the one hand, an awareness of the grave dangers emerging from a collapsing U.S.–China relationship after years of escalating hostility and coercion on both sides seems to have finally broken through last year. Biden has pressed to renew communications between the two countries and assured Xi that he sees a stable and prosperous China as good for the United States and the world. The administration’s National Security Strategy averred a desire “to avoid a world in which competition escalates into a world of rigid blocs.”
On the other hand, members of the administration like Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Colin Kahl are perfectly comfortable publicly warning other countries away from connections with China (on the grounds that China pursues its national interests in its foreign policy) and saying that our “new age of competition … is not a competition of countries, it is a competition of coalitions.” Much of the administration’s policy seems to assume a cold war-style conflict with China and so is hurrying into existence such a world.
To resolve this ambivalence, the Biden administration need look no further than the national interests of the United States. The American people have a profound interest in forestalling the transformation of China into a powerful and embittered adversary bent on sabotaging U.S. goals, and an equally profound interest in gaining China’s collaboration on confronting existential threats like climate change and pandemic disease.
China’s present internal weakness opens a brief window of opportunity in which the Chinese leadership — for purely self-interested reasons — may be willing to start rebuilding a foundation for comity and cooperation. The U.S. leadership should, for equally self-interested reasons, seize that opportunity.