President Joe Biden met with President Xi Jinping before the 2020 G20 Bali summit. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Presidents Joe Biden and Xi Jinping may not have agreed on much when they met for a US-China dialogue in Bali last week. But they did agree that the two sides would start talking again. A US military officer serving in the Pacific asked if this at least was a good thing.

My answer: Yes, it is better than thermonuclear war, but not as important as one might think.

One fairly asks how more than 40 years of unrestrained engagement and communication with the People’s Republic of China worked out. 

There were basically no limits to America’s communications with the PRC during that 40 years’ time – until Donald Trump’s administration came along.

During that multi-decade gabfest, the Chinese communists built a nation and a military that potentially can defeat the United States. That didn’t happen by accident. It was Beijing’s objective all along. 

So if the two countries start talking again, is this supposed to lead to improved Chinese behavior? If so, someone needs to explain how.

Recognizing divergent goals

Will China give up on its goal of pushing the US out of the region and ultimately dominating the United States? Unlikely. And nobody imagines these days it will lead to a liberalized China – as all the earlier talk and getting to know each other was supposed to do.

But at least it “stabilizes” the US-PRC relationship, doesn’t it? 

No. That’s a fallback rationalization when you’ve achieved nothing much and are out of ideas. Sort of like claiming 20 years, US$2 trillion and thousands of casualties in Afghanistan represented a success because “the homeland was never attacked.”

Who wins with talk?

One really can’t blame the Chinese. They are just doing what works. 

You see, they figured out a long time ago (as did many other countries) that if you really want to perplex Americans … just don’t talk to them. 

The Yankees will squirm and wonder what they did to get you mad at them.

And then they start making concessions and giving away things to get back on speaking terms.

US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her delegation leave Taipei on August 3, 2022. Photo: Taiwanese Foreign Ministry / Handout

Panic mode at the White House

It does indeed appear that the Biden Administration went into panic mode to restart communications when Beijing gave it the cold shoulder last summer after Nancy Pelosi‘s visit to Taiwan.

There seems to be a sense on the US side that if we aren’t talking we are sure to be fighting. An anthropologist might suggest this is also an American conceit that any problem can be resolved via dialogue.

So the Chinese are glad to let the Americans yap and to meet and talk about whatever (other than Covid and fentanyl) and they might even get some “presents” to boot. 

Washington thinks it’s progress, or at least not failing. But Beijing sees an ever-hopeful enemy that is always willing for one more round of talks. 

Meanwhile, China improves its position and gets ready for the day kinetic action comes, assuming that’s even necessary.  

At most this latest Xi Jinping-Joe Biden talk in Bali is a tactical pause – to lull the Americans into thinking some deal might be cut. And to get the Americans to ease up on the PRC. 

The Chinese communists are not hard to figure out, if you pay attention. But neither are the Americans. 

What’s lost by not talking

Finally, it’s worth looking back a few months and considering what we’re missing by not talking with the Chinese communists.

When the PRC stopped talking to Team Biden in the summer of 2022, miffed at Pelosi’s Taiwan visit, one observer looked through the list of things China canceled and remarked on what the meetings might have been like.

Following the list of eight topics on which China curtly canceled dialogue, the observer imagined the conversation might have gone this way anyway: 

  1. Canceling China-US Theater Commanders talk
  2. Plus canceling China-US Defense Policy Coordination talks (DPCT)
  3. And canceling China-US Military Maritime Consultative Agreement (MMCA) meetings.

United States: Let’s talk about ways to reduce tensions and unexpected events.

China: Sure. Let’s start by you telling us all your plans, and then you clear out of the South China Sea (and the Western Pacific) and don’t come back.

Moving on: 

  1. Suspending China-US cooperation on the repatriation of illegal immigrants

United States: Please take back your bad guys.

China: No.

On cooperation concerning criminal activities:

  1. Suspending China-US cooperation on legal assistance in criminal matters
  2. And Suspending China-US cooperation against transnational crimes.

United States: Let’s work together to lower crime.

China:  Sure. Send us all the people who have taken refuge from the CPC in the United States. And then tell us all you know about our criminals and how you found out. And ignore the “overseas police station” we’ve set up in New York.

  1. Suspending China-US counternarcotics cooperation

United States: Please stop sending us fentanyl and killing 100,000 Americans a year.

China: What’s fentanyl?

On other current issues affecting the bilateral relationship:

  1. Suspending China-US talks on climate change  

United States: Reduce your greenhouse gas emissions.

China: Sure, in 2087. In the meantime, you stop all energy production, give us clean tech IP and buy all our solar panels, wind turbines etc, and hook them up to Internet of Things grids that have Chinese components in them.

Note to Washington: 

When they refuse to talk, the Chinese are doing you a favor and helping you avoid self-destructive behavior. 

Sometimes it’s good to keep one’s mouth shut.

Grant Newsham is a retired US marine and a former diplomat and business executive who spent many years in Asia. This article was first published by Japan Forward. It is republished with permission.