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Biden refuses to lift sanctions on Chinese defense minister

So why is Washington surprised it can't get a meeting at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore this week?

Analysis | Asia-Pacific

The Biden administration’s attempt to thaw U.S.-Chinese relations has hit a significant snag.

The Chinese government said Monday that it has declined a U.S. request for Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to meet with his Chinese counterpart, Li Shangfu, after Beijing had said several times that no meeting will be forthcoming as long as Li remains under U.S. sanctions. 

There have been no direct communications between top military officials from the two governments for the last six months, and the hoped-for meeting on the sidelines of the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore was supposed to be the way to begin repairing ties. Contrary to President Biden’s statement in Japan last week that U.S.-Chinese ties would begin improving “very shortly,” the two sides seem as far apart as ever. 

The sanctions on Li were imposed in 2018 under the previous administration in response to Chinese purchases of Russian arms. Since his elevation to defense minister earlier this year they have become an additional obstacle to stabilizing bilateral relations. The U.S. position is that the sanctions do not technically prohibit a meeting between Austin and Li, so there is no need to remove them, but this misses the real reason why the sanctions grate on the Chinese government. It is a question of status and being treated as an equal by the United States, and Washington’s insistence on viewing it strictly in terms of legalities misses the point completely. 

The disagreement over sanctions reflects a larger failure to understand how the Chinese government sees the world and how it interprets U.S. actions.

Rohan Mukherjee recently wrote in Foreign Affairs about what he called China’s status anxiety: “For a rising power such as China, an intolerable sense of inequality is created when an established great power bends or breaks international rules without allowing Beijing the same privilege. China wants to be recognized as an equal of the world’s preeminent great power, the United States.” 

As a great power, the Chinese government expects to be treated with the respect that it believes its position demands, and it will bristle at any hint of being relegated to a lower tier. The U.S. sanctions on one of its ministers are a small example of being accorded less-than-equal status by Washington. As they see it, the sanctions on Li are demeaning, and if the U.S. wants to improve relations China is not going to play ball if this is the way that the U.S. is going to act.

One recurring problem in U.S.-Chinese relations is that China perceives a wide gap between what the U.S. says it wants from the relationship and what it does. Washington professes to value the status quo, but it takes actions vis-à-vis Taiwan that seem to erode it. The U.S. and its allies claim that they don’t seek to harm the Chinese economy while the U.S. implements export controls that are clearly designed to kneecap China’s technology sector. 

The administration then says that it wants to stabilize relations, but then it turns around and produces a communique with its G-7 partners that attacks China in the sharpest terms and faults China for coercive behavior that the U.S. and its allies also engage in.

It is natural that the Chinese government sees U.S. policy as an effort to contain and “suppress” China, because that is what the U.S. has been seeking to do. Under these conditions, repairing ties becomes much more challenging if it is even possible.

The Biden administration frequently likes to pose as being open to diplomacy with other states while putting the burden on the other state to take the initiative. In negotiations with Iran, the standard line from U.S. officials for most of the last two years has been that the “ball is in their court.” The administration has said the same thing about possible talks with North Korea. This week U.S. officials repeated it in connection with China. 

This creates the impression here at home that the administration is the reasonable party willing to talk while making no effort that might involve politically risky concessions. Diplomatic outreach is rarely successful without sustained effort and at least some risk-taking, so it is no surprise that this approach has been fruitless in every case. 

The administration is also very stubborn in its refusal to offer any sanctions relief, no matter how minor, to facilitate diplomatic progress. As they see it, sanctions relief should only be granted after the other side yields. The trouble is that the other side just digs in its heels and refuses to budge, and the administration refuses to show the sort of flexibility that might end the impasse. The administration can blame the other government for the lack of progress, but the reality is that the U.S. chooses stalled diplomacy over making any goodwill gestures that might lead to reciprocal moves. 

The U.S. might be able to tolerate failed outreach with Iran and North Korea for a while, but the relationship with China is too important for both countries and for stability in East Asia to be allowed to drift aimlessly for months or years at a time. The administration needs to go the extra mile and find a way to accommodate Chinese concerns so that our governments can resume regular, direct communications between top officials. That won’t produce a constructive relationship, but it should at least restore a minimally stable one.

It is a measure of how poorly U.S.-China relations have been managed in recent years that this is the best that we can realistically expect right now.

Targeted sanctions may sometimes be appropriate, but when they become obstacles to necessary diplomatic engagement they should be removed for the sake of advancing U.S. interests. In this case, it is difficult to see what benefit the U.S. gets from keeping sanctions on Li Shangfu in place, and we can already see that they are hampering the effort to repair ties with China. To the extent that individual sanctions serve a purpose, they are still just a tool to achieve other ends and not an end in themselves. 

If the U.S. and China miss the opportunity for this meeting in Singapore, it could be another six months or a year before another one presents itself. There is no telling what other incidents might occur in the meantime, and our governments need to have better crisis management measures before the next one happens. 

The U.S. and China are the two most powerful states in the world, and they have an obligation to manage their relationship responsibly to preserve international peace and security. The bare minimum requirement for managing the relationship is to maintain regular contacts between our governments, and facilitating this meeting between Austin and Li would be an important part of that.

Minister of Defense of the People's Republic of China, Colonel-General Li Shangfu (Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation ), and US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin (DoD photo by Lisa Ferdinando)
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