US President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping have finally spoken in a much anticipated call. Photos: AFP / Mandel Ngan and Anthony Wallace

US President Joe Biden spoke over the phone with Chinese leader Xi Jinping on Monday.  The Chinese dictator might have been on the other end of the line, but he probably wasn’t listening.

About a decade ago, Singapore was criticizing the US government for some failing or other. This writer had occasion to ask an official at the US Embassy why the Singaporeans weren’t also chastising the People’s Republic of China – since the Chinese were doing the same thing as the Americans.

He said he had asked, and the Singaporeans told him: “They [the Chinese] won’t listen to us.”

The Americans should have figured this out long ago. China rarely listens to the United States.

But it’s hard for zealous Americans to overcome their uniquely American conceit that if they can just talk with China – about anything, climate challenges for example – that will eventually establish a rapport that will then open the door for discussing other issues … that will then lead to a negotiated agreement.

No. It’s not going to happen. China will not listen to us Americans. There is a reason a state of war still exists on the Korean Peninsula (just a 68-year-old armistice to cease combat operations). China will not listen to us – unless it has to.  

When do the Chinese listen to the US? One American observer with four decades of frontline experience in China puts it this way:

  1. When we are stronger than China in the categories of wealth and power;
  2. When we have something they want;
  3. When we can reduce the value of a key asset (or assets) they hold.

If the US is not on course to any one of the three above (all three would be great) China will not listen to us.  

What is China doing when it “listens”?

Even when China “listens,” it is not the way Americans think of “listening.”

China waits patiently for the US finally to arrive at its own self-discovery that the Chinese side is “correct thinking.”

Noticed Xi Jinping’s remarks last week about “working with” the US to re-establish mutual relations? In Beijing-speak “working with” means we will help you to accept what we want.

And sometimes China “listens” when it wants to know what words we want to hear from it in order for us to give it what it wants. What are those words? “Win-win,” “mutual respect,” “mutual benefit,” “new great-power relationship,” “good for American farmers/consumers/etc,” to name a few.

In other words, when the Chinese listen, it’s just to be better equipped to get the jump on us. So it’s not just useless, it can be harmful.

But what about all those painstakingly negotiated agreements?

Even if the US has the upper hand and the Chinese do talk and negotiate, and agree to do something, there is scant evidence they keep their promises.

To name a few examples:  

  • Xi Jinping promising Barack Obama at the White House in 2015 that China would not “militarize” its artificial islands in the South China Sea;
  • Xi’s promise to do something about Fentanyl flows into the US that are killing tens of thousands of Americans every year;
  • The Genocide Treaty that Beijing has signed;
  • The People’s Republic of China’s commitments to obey World Trade Organization rules;
  • The PRC’s commitments to abide by the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea;
  • Climate-change agreements. Just look at the recent US-China agreement on climate. The vague promises to do nothing in particular and are made by people who won’t still be alive when the commitments come due and who know they won’t be held accountable – including by “climate activists” (who know China won’t listen to them).

The list of commitments they have kept is much shorter. Maybe the only international agreement the Chinese Communists have kept is the PRC-North Korea treaty. They’ve kept the North Korean regime afloat for nearly 70 years. Yet the Americans still haven’t given up trying to get Beijing to “listen” to them about North Korea.

Back to talking the talk

Despite the hard lessons of decades of experience – and the Donald Trump administration’s successful, if short-lived, attempts to turn the tables on the PRC and not waste time talking when the Communists weren’t listening – the Americans of all stripes are once again hell-bent on talking with the Chinese.

US military commanders are hot to re-establish communications with the People’s Liberation Army – as if they can “talk” their counterparts into good (by US standards) behavior. The chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, seems keenest of all – including to tipping off Beijing if Biden is planning something he doesn’t approve of.

US business is insisting the Biden administration start talking – and do whatever is necessary to give the Chinese what they want so they can get back to “business as usual” with the PRC. And Team Biden probably will. US Trade Representative Katherine Tai and Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo are both eager to “recouple” with China – and chart a “middle way.” Presumably they mean “win-win”? 

John Kerry, the “climate czar,” apparently has never stopped talking – and giving the Chinese (and other American enemies) what they want.

Will we ever learn that the Chinese won’t listen? And that when they do they aren’t listening for the reasons we think they are? And when they are negotiating they’re just wearing us down and setting us up? 

Probably not.

Some Americans just can’t help themselves.

Grant Newsham is a senior research fellow at the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies in Tokyo with more than 20 years’ experience in Japan and elsewhere in Asia as a US diplomat, business executive, and US Marine Corps officer.