This article was updated August 13, 2021.
After speaking with her Chinese counterparts in Tianjin, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman told reporters she privately conveyed to the Chinese government recent public remarks by top American officials regarding U.S.-China relations. Although the Biden administration vowed to charter new domestic and foreign policy courses during the 2020 election, President Biden has yet to overturn many decisions by the Trump Administration towards China. In other words, U.S. policy toward China has been consistent since the trade war began in 2018—maximum and all-around pressure on China in order to change its behavior both domestically and abroad.
Conventional wisdom holds that has China engaged in a tit-for-tat tactic in response—it is not going to allow Washington to run roughshod over Beijing. In the words of many Chinese diplomats, the days during which Washington could ‘dictate’ world affairs and ‘bully’ weak nations are long gone. The Chinese counteroffensive against the U.S.’ confrontational strategy now bears ubiquitous influence across all facets of the relationship.
Vice Minister Xie Feng told Wendy Sherman the United States is the “inventor” and “intellectual property owner” of coercive diplomacy. After President Biden signed a memorandum to offer a safe haven to Hong Kong residents, Chinese MFA spokeswoman Hua Chuying urged “the US side to truly respect China’s sovereignty, abide by international law and basic norms governing international relations….”
Not too long after Wendy Sherman left China, Xinhua published a long expose titled “The Seven Sins of the US Alliance.” No authors were listed, indicating it may be a group project similar to the task force at the State Information Office that churns out a white paper on America’s human rights abuse every year. The seven sins described by the report are destruction, plunder, rights violations, regime change, lying, coverups, and infighting. Each section is backed up by detailed examples and statistics. In the 1960s, Beijing repudiated Moscow the same way, accusing it of betraying Marxism and selling out world revolution. That debate eventually spilled into armed conflict in March 1969.
Later, on August 9, three Chinese think tanks issued a joint report entitled “The Truth about America’s fight against COVID-19.” In its executive summary, the authors declare,
Objective facts have shown that the U.S. is well deserved to be the world’s No.1 anti-pandemic failure, the world’s No. 1 political blaming country, the world’s No. 1 pandemic spreader country, the world`s. No. 1 political division country, the world’s No. 1 currency abuse country, the world’s No. 1 pandemic period turmoil country, the world’s No. 1 disinformation country, and the world’s No. 1 origin tracing terrorism country…”
From “America Ranked First”?! The Truth about America’s fight against COVID-19
Read the full report here.
While the think tanks are at least nominally private, the news about the issuance of the report was plastered over China’s official television, print, and social media outlets.
But careful observers of U.S.-China relations may have noticed a subtle change in China’s recent signaling, which come from its new ambassador to the U.S.
Ambassador Qin Gang arrived in the U.S. on July 28 and immediately set up his Twitter account. From his Tweets and other sources, we learned that before Qin left China, he talked extensively to Chinese America-watchers along with a large number of American business representatives in Beijing and Shanghai. He also visited the hotel where the Shanghai Communique was signed in 1972. His tweet about the visit to the hallowed hotel was in both English and Chinese. It seems to be a reminder to both Chinese and American bilateral relationship managers that it may take another herculean effort consisting of figures like Edgar Snow, Glenn Cowan and Zhuang Zedong, Henry Kissinger, and Zhou Enlai to improve the battered relationship.
On the first day of his arrival in DC, Qin spoke in both English and Chinese to Chinese and American media representatives. Notably, nothing in this short speech sounded remotely similar to the rhetoric from his fellow colleagues in the Chinese Foreign Ministry. He said,
I will follow through on the spirit of the phone call between the two Presidents on the eve of the Chinese New Year and seek to build bridges of communication and cooperation with all sectors of the United States. I look forward to working closely with them to safeguard the foundation of China-U.S. relations, uphold the shared interests of the two peoples, and endeavor to bring China-U.S. relations back on track, turning the way for the two countries to get along with each other – mutual respect, equality, win-win cooperation and peaceful coexistence – from a possibility into a reality.
At the end of his speech, Qin stated, “As the United States is fighting hard COVID-19 and reviving the economy under the leadership of President Biden, I wish the country an early victory against the pandemic, and I wish the American people all the best.”
Since his arrival, Qin has been in quarantine. No other notable activities have occurred on his part other than the brief encounter with the media and him presenting his letter of credence to the U.S. State Department. However, he appears to be using his new social media platform to extend an olive branch to the American government and the American people. On August 8, after the closing ceremony of the Tokyo Olympic Games, Qin sent out a tweet to congratulate the American team for “ranking the first on the medal tally.” Compared to the anger expressed by many Chinese over American athletes’ surprise catch up on the last day (and comments that China got the most gold medals when its tally included those won by Hong Kong and Taiwan), Qin’s salute to the American athletes feels like a breeze across the rhetorical battlefield that is now U.S.-China relations.
Two days earlier, Qin commented on President Biden’s goal that half of vehicles on the road in the U.S. be electric by 2030, remarking that this policy initiative contains “great potential for cooperation.” There is consensus among both Chinese and American officials that confronting global and regional crises like climate warming, nuclear proliferation, Iran, North Korea and Afghanistan require collaboration between Beijing and Washington, but fighting global warming together is apolitical and necessitated by natural disasters like the Dixie fire in the U.S. and Henan flooding in China.
Perhaps the most important tweet from Qin, however, was published on August 5. He commented that, due to Delta variant, “Infections in the US are resurging, and there’re local outbreaks in China.” He went on to ask, “How about our two countries working together on solutions, e.g. more effective vaccines & helping other countries?”
Potential cooperation between the U.S. and China on this front is obvious and should be the easiest to implement. Viruses have no borders, and the entirety of humankind is at their mercy. This is especially true for COVID-19. However, the decline of the bilateral relationship and mutual trust has further politicized global health and prevented the two nations from coordination and collaboration. Now, some American leaders are obsessed with the lab leak theory while many Chinese leaders and state media have propagated a wild claim that the virus may have originated from Fort Detrick in the U.S. In either case, both distract from the more pressing matter which is to jointly contain COVID-19.
Previously, Qin was Director-General of the Protocol Department at the Chinese Foreign Ministry and traveled with President Xi Jinping to the U.S. in 2015. It was during this visit that the two sides convened a meeting to review and celebrate their joint fight against Ebola in West Africa. A MOU was subsequently signed between USAID and the Chinese Ministry of Commerce to coordinate their development assistance to Africa. Most of the joint initiatives in the MOU focused on empowering African countries to monitor and contain diseases like Ebola. This largely bilateral effort led to the creating of African CDC, which is playing a critical role in Africa’s fight against COVID-19. But African countries, like many in Latin America and South and Southeast Asia, need the U.S. and China work together with them to stop further spread. I hope that Ambassador Qin will work with his American counterparts and take public health cooperation out of the playbook of U.S.-China rivalry.
Lastly, on August 9, Qin sent a letter to former President Carter. After thanking President Carter for his historical and contemporary contribution to the bilateral relationship, Qin wrote, “the sound and stable growth of China-U.S. relations serves the fundamental interests of the two peoples and meets the overall expectation of the international community.”
Seen in the context of the accelerating anti-America storm in China, Ambassador Qin’s words contrast sharply from current narratives in China about the U.S. If China’s hate America campaign is understood as a giant stack of hay, Qin’s lone voice appears to be a needle.
At the very least, Qin is no ordinary needle. He is Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the People’s Republic of China to the United States of America. And his voice cannot be ignored or dismissed.
Edit: This article initially stated that no Trump administration policies towards China had been overturned by the Biden administration. As Scott Kennedy (@KennedyCSIS) on Twitter pointed out, it replaced the TikTok/WeChat Executive Order and removed Xiaomi from the Department of Defense list of Communist Chinese military companies. This has been corrected.