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Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist.

Fifty years to the month after Henry Kissinger secretly visited China to end a generation of hostility between Washington and Beijing, another U.S. official, Wendy Sherman, went there – this time, to try and keep the badly tattered relationship from going off the rails entirely.

Much has changed in the intervening half-century. In 1971, the United States was the world’s most powerful country, and China was one of its poorest. Today, China boasts the second-largest economy and is a rival for world power.

In hindsight, Mr. Kissinger’s job was relatively easy. After all, then-president Richard Nixon’s national security adviser had Chinese Communist Party chairman Mao Zedong behind him. Mao had paved the way by inviting the U.S. table tennis team to China; the slogan of the visit was, “Friendship first, competition second.”

Now, no one speaks about friendship. It is competition first, last and in between – that is, if they are not already actively decoupling. President Joe Biden’s Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, has described the U.S.-China relationship as “competitive where it should be, collaborative where it can be, adversarial where it must be.”

However, in talks between Ms. Sherman and Vice Foreign Minister Xie Feng and, separately, Foreign Minister Wang Yi, China has indicated the U.S. couldn’t adopt a policy to “harm China’s interests” and then ask for co-operation when needed.

“The U.S. side has sought China’s co-operation and support on climate change, the Iran nuclear issue and the North Korea nuclear issue,” said Mr. Xie. But, he said, such co-operation requires “a favourable atmosphere in bilateral relations.”

Climate change and nuclear proliferation are existential threats to the world; combatting them wouldn’t be a favour to Washington. And yet China is withholding co-operation because the U.S. continues to criticize its policies inside and outside the country, on human rights and other grounds. However, China needs to realize that acting responsibly on global matters is what is expected of a major power, and not a chip for bargaining.

In March, when top diplomats of the two countries met in Alaska, China defended its human rights record and criticized that of the United States. At the time, Mr. Blinken said the U.S. “acknowledges that we’re not perfect,” but said that throughout its history, it has confronted “those challenges openly, publicly, transparently.”

A few months later, on July 14, Mr. Blinken announced that the U.S. had invited special United Nations envoys on racism and human rights to visit the country and report back. Clearly, that was a challenge to China to face criticism openly, rather than trying to silence critics.

During Ms. Sherman’s visit, China gave the U.S. two lists: one calling for action in certain areas, the other a list of key Chinese concerns.

The move was highly symbolic. For many years, the U.S. had provided lists to Beijing of people held in Chinese prisons, requesting that they be freed on human rights grounds, or at least to explain why they were being incarcerated. Long ago, China stopped accepting such lists. Now, it is giving its own to the U.S.

But the Americans didn’t pull any punches either. Ms. Sherman raised all the issues to which China remains the most sensitive, including Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Tibet (which China considers internal matters), as well as Chinese actions in the international waters of the Taiwan Strait, the East China Sea and the South China Sea.

On the whole, though, the visit seemed to go well. “The talks have been profound, candid and helpful for the two sides to gain a better understanding of each other’s position and seek healthy development of China-U.S. relations going forward,” said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian. Ned Price, a U.S. State Department spokesman, also praised the visit for “demonstrating the importance of maintaining open lines of communication between our two countries.”

It is clear that both sides still value the relationship and do not want to see it marred by conflict.

China should realize that it is not possible for the United States to stop its criticism on issues, even if they’re “internal” issues. Rather, Beijing should accept that candid and free comment can be the basis of a sincere and honest relationship.

And now that Beijing has given Washington its wish lists, it is up to the United States to respond. One thing that can be done relatively easily is to allow China to reopen its consulate in Houston, leading to the reopening of the American one in Chengdu. These moves would help to reduce hostility, repair some damage and provide breathing space to both sides – all important measures, if the relationship hopes to heal.

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