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Senate delegation throws new twist into US-China ties

Senate delegation throws new twist into US-China ties

Lawmakers led by Chuck Schumer arrived for visits in China, Japan, and South Korea this week. Will they reduce tensions or turn them up a notch?

Analysis | Asia-Pacific

UPDATE: 10/9: Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and a bipartisan delegation of Senators met with Chinese President Xi Jinping today in Beijing. Among the issues addressed: the U.S. fentanyl crisis, human rights and "economic reciprocity" between the two countries. The meeting was overshadowed however, according to Bloomberg News, by Schumer's stated disappointment with China's response to the Hamas attacks on Israel over the weekend. China called for a ceasefire and for a two-state solution, with an independent state for Palestinians.

A bipartisan senate delegation led by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) touched down in Shanghai on Sunday, the first stop in a diplomatic mission that also includes Japan and South Korea.

“We are prepared to compete but we do not seek to conflict,” Schumer told a Chinese official, reflecting the Biden administration’s continued attempts to strike a balance between engagement and competition with Beijing even as relations between the world’s two leading powers have sharply declined over the past several years.

In an earlier statement this week, China said it hoped the visit would “contribute to a more objective understanding of China in the U.S. Congress.”

The high-level talks are accompanied by fresh affirmations from the White House that there is tentative agreement on a Biden-Xi summit in San Francisco, with officials adding that plans for the meeting will take a more concrete form after Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s upcoming visit to Washington.

“It’s pretty firm” that there will be a face-to-face meeting between the two leaders, an administration official told the Washington Post.

The Senate delegation trip comes on the heels of Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s meeting with Xi earlier this summer. The Blinken-Xi talks, which were followed by Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen’s four-day visit to China in July, are part of an ongoing effort by the Biden administration to stabilize U.S.-Chinese relations amid mounting military tensions over Taiwan, U.S. allegations of Chinese human rights abuses, and simmering frustration that China’s booming trade with Russia is hobbling the Western sanctions regime established in response to Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine.

The Biden administration has tried to balance its mounting competition with Beijing by seeking out areas of bilateral cooperation, particularly including a suite of climate change initiatives being championed by John Kerry, U.S. special envoy on climate change.

The full scope of the Senate delegation’s mission to China has not been revealed. Senator Bill Cassidy (R- La.), one of the group’s republican members, reiterated hopes that the delegation will be able to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping, clarifying that such a meeting has not been scheduled.

“If the talks proceed well, there is the possibility that President Xi will meet Schumer,” said Wang Yiwei, director of the Institute of International Affairs at Renmin University of China, to the Associated Press. “If their meeting is realized, the chances for a Xi-Biden meeting will become greater.”

The senators are widely expected to raise thorny issues of human rights and what U.S. officials have described as deadly inflows of fentanyl from China. There is little to suggest that the delegation’s Chinese interlocutors will reciprocate positively on either issue. Beijing has vigorously rebuffed accusations of systemic abuses carried out against China’s Muslim Uyghur population in the northwestern Xinjiang region, with top Chinese officials previously denouncing such claims as malicious slander.

Attempts by Blinken to broach the human rights issue at a 2021 bilateral summit in Anchorage, Alaska prompted a “lecture” from Chinese diplomat Yang Jiechi. “The United States does not have the qualification to say that it wants to speak to China from a position of strength,” Yang said, adding that it is “important for the United States to change its own image and to stop advancing its own democracy in the rest of the world.”

Beijing has adopted a similarly defensive posture on “fentanyl-related issues,” dismissing them as a smear against China and a pretext for “illegal sanctions on Chinese counter-narcotics institutions” in a heated response to recent Justice Department charges against China-based companies accused of being involved in the fentanyl trade.

“They are fueling the fentanyl crisis that is poisoning communities across the United States,” said Schumer, referring to the Chinese producers in question. “Every one of us knows families who have lost young men and women to fentanyl.”

China has forcefully and consistently rejected Washington’s positions on human rights and fentanyl issues; there is nothing to suggest that the upcoming Senate delegation can yield a different result. An aide to Schumer said the senators plan to “raise concerns related to global competition and what many of them considered China’s unfair business and trade practices,” according to The New York Times. Here, too, the two sides are unlikely to find common ground, as successive waves of new U.S. export controls --with similar measures being considered by the EU — auguring an expanding trade war between Washington and Beijing.

The Senate delegation will also visit Japan and South Korea, key players in East Asia that have found themselves increasingly at odds with Beijing in recent months. The agenda for these two stops is less clear, but they come amid attempts by the White House to corral Tokyo and Seoul into a regional bloc with the purpose of thwarting Chinese ambitions in the Indo-Pacific.

Beijing has previously responded to what it sees as grievous missteps by U.S. officials and politicians by cutting off bilateral contacts, as it did shortly following former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan. Stable channels of military communication between Washington and Beijing have still not been restored despite repeated appeals by Blinken, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, and President Joe Biden.

There is scant basis for anticipating, nor has Schumer or any delegation member promised, concrete bilateral agreements or other propitious developments from the senators’ upcoming China trip. It is, however, easy to see how bilateral relations could further deteriorate, with Beijing in no hurry to restore diplomatic contacts or to work with Washington in the few remaining areas where cooperation still seems feasible.

The White House, meanwhile, is increasingly coming under fire from congressional Republicans arguing that the administration has little to show for its efforts to calm tensions with China.

The delicate balancing act between competition and engagement with Beijing appears increasingly difficult to sustain in the absence of clear diplomatic results. It is unclear if the upcoming senate delegation will prove to be a step in the direction of breaking the emerging diplomatic impasses that exist between the two countries, or make it worse.

Photo credit: U.S. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), U.S. Senator Mike Crapo (R-ID) and other members of the delegation arrive at Shanghai Pudong International Airport in Shanghai, China October 7, 2023. REUTERS/Aly Song/Pool
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