Nicholas Burns, US ambassador to China, stresses need to find common ground amid tense relations

  • Burns also counters the claim that US policy is designed to keep China down and prevent it from developing. ‘The evidence doesn’t bear that out,’ he says
  • He cites his frustration at not being able to meet ordinary Chinese because of strict Covid-19 lockdowns and censorship of some of his social media posts

US-China relations are at their lowest point in 50 years, marked by intense competition, growing tension over Taiwan, and Beijing’s aggression in the Asia-Pacific region, but Washington is committed to finding common ground despite the difficulties, its ambassador to China said on Thursday.

Nicholas Burns, the ambassador to Beijing since March, said it was important that the two economic and military giants build in guardrails

“It doesn’t mean the bottom is falling out of the relationship,” Burns said, speaking by video from the US Embassy. “We are in a largely competitive mode here, and we’ve made no secret of that in our government. But there are areas where we ought to be engaged with each other and that’s one of my jobs, along with a lot of my colleagues in Washington, is to find those areas and try to push them forward.”

Burns also countered a common narrative repeated by Chinese officials and others on social media, namely that US policy is designed to keep China down and prevent it from developing.

“The evidence doesn’t bear that out,” he said, citing shared efforts by former president Barack Obama and President Xi Jinping to address climate change; their common efforts to craft an Iran nuclear deal before former president Donald Trump withdrew the US from the pact; and the hundreds of US companies that have invested in China over decades of economic engagement.

“I don’t think it’s accurate,” he added during an event hosted by the Brookings Institution. “I don’t buy it.”

Areas of potential common ground include climate change, global food supplies and illegal drugs, as seen with earlier efforts by the two governments to address Chinese exports of the powerful opioid fentanyl “that are shipped not by the Chinese government but by black-market Chinese companies”.

Evan Medeiros, a Georgetown University fellow and former National Security Council official, said one problem was the very different lens through which the two countries view cooperation.

Beijing assesses what kind of payment it can extract from Washington for its cooperation, he said. “Of course the US view is, cooperation is not a gift to the United States, it’s a recognition of shared interests.”

On Thursday, Bloomberg reported that US officials were trying to arrange a phone meeting between Xi and Biden this summer, citing sources.

The ambassador, who held postings at key points in recent history, including during the fall of the Berlin Wall and the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, said China was seeing a rise in nationalism and aggression toward its neighbours that was concerning not only in Washington but in many European and Asian capitals.

Examples, Burns said, include China’s aggressive moves toward India along their extended border; its bullying behaviour toward Vietnam, the Philippines and in the South China Sea; conflict with Japan in the East China Sea; and the unfair use of state subsidies and unfair competition in the economic realm.

“I don’t think we have had a relationship in the last 50 years that is similar to this in the degree of intensity of competition,” Burns said. “I think the Chinese have produced, by the behaviour of the government here in Beijing, a lot of concern in this region.”

China said this week that any conflict with Japan was Tokyo’s fault, the result of meddling in the region. “The Japanese side needs to do more things that would enhance mutual trust,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said on Monday.

Another change in recent years, Burns said, has been greater inconsistency in Chinese economic policy, a cornerstone of the nation’s sustained, historic rise.

Beijing has tightened and loosened policies toward the technology sector and tried to reduce foreign sourcing under the banner of self-sufficiency – potentially a bid to inoculate itself from the sort of sanctions imposed on Russia after it invaded Ukraine, he said.

“There’s been a back-and-forth quality over the last few months or so. Are they cracking down or not?” Burns said. “I think if anyone in the relationship was pulling back, it might be the Chinese right now, the Chinese government, so that is something to watch. It’s unclear to me, frankly, whether this is going to continue post-Covid.”

The Chinese embassy in Washington disputed Burns’s assessment and said it remains peaceful, open and economically sound. “China follows a peaceful foreign policy of good-neighborliness and friendship,” said spokesman Liu Pengyu.

“A militaristic country that launched more than 200 wars in the world after world War II is not qualified to make such an assessment of China,” he added, without providing details on the 200 figure.

Burns cited some of the frustrations of living in Beijing during China’s strict quarantine and zero-Covid policies, which have locked down Shanghai, Beijing, Wuhan and other entire cities.

This has left him largely unable to meet average Chinese people, go to restaurants or walk in the park since he arrived, and also halted most ordinary meetings between US and Chinese students, business executives and political leaders – occasions that can improve bilateral communication.

China’s zero-Covid policy could remain in place until late 2023, he said, adding that he did not know whether personal contacts between the two nations will return to pre-Covid levels after the pandemic because of strains between them.

In the face of the forced isolation, the ambassador said he has tried to reach out to ordinary Chinese, an important part of his job, through the embassy’s Weibo and WeChat accounts and other social media.

Several of the posts – including his visit to the Forbidden City and the gardening of his wife, Elizabeth Baylies – have been well received.

But his posting of Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s recent policy speech on China – which said the United States would compete with confidence, cooperate wherever it could and contest where it must – met with many official complaints and was taken offline by Chinese censors within two and a half hours.

A second attempt to post it a few days later saw it disappear within 20 minutes.

“So that’s the game that they play,” he said. “I’m absolutely disappointed in this, I’m not surprised. We don’t censor President Xi Jinping’s speeches and foreign minister speeches in the United States.

“God forbid, we would never do that, never could do that, nor do we have the capacity to do that.”

Burns said there is a long road ahead in an increasingly complex relationship. “To be realistic, we can’t get our hopes up too high.”

Author: Cheryl Heng, SCMP

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