China Seeks to Calm U.S. Tension Even While Firing Back at Trump

Even as China continues to return fire at the Trump administration, leaders in Beijing are also signaling they want to ease tensions with the U.S. as the clock ticks down to the presidential election.

Trump’s moves to ban popular Chinese apps TikTok and WeChat ahead of sending the highest-ranking American official to Taiwan in 40 years — which included a meeting with President Tsai Ing-Wen on Monday — drew a relatively muted response from China’s foreign ministry and its top diplomats.

Even its response to U.S. sanctions on Chinese and Hong Kong officials, including Chief Executive Carrie Lam, was somewhat mild: It avoided targeting any Trump administration officials directly.

The shift in tone follows comments on Friday by Yang Jiechi, China’s top diplomat and a Politburo member, who said the door for talks with the U.S. remained open. His statement sought to appeal to a broader spectrum of American policy makers, blaming current tensions on a “small group” of U.S. politicians.

The moves indicate Beijing is trying to find the balance between sounding tough while avoiding triggering the sort of action by President Donald Trump that could be detrimental both to China’s economy and its national pride. If China can keep things from blowing up entirely before Nov. 3, the strategy potentially leaves some room to negotiate with whoever wins the presidential race after the pressure of the campaign.

“The tone is definitely much more civilized and polite,” said Shi Yinhong, director of the Center on American Studies at Renmin University of China. Still, he added, China’s calls for dialogue appear to be “too ambiguous” and he expects “nothing substantial” will happen for at least six months.

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China’s approach comes with risks, and could change if the Trump administration continues to ratchet up its pressure against Beijing. A major test will be whether the two sides keep alive a phase-one trade deal reached in January, with a high-level discussion on compliance expected for later this week.

Even while clobbering China repeatedly, Trump has shown some restraint. When sanctioning China over Hong Kong, he stopped short of hitting those close to President Xi Jinping. And while Secretary of State Michael Pompeo referred to Taiwan as a “country” in remarks on Monday — a statement that could imply the U.S. sees it as an independent nation — he also said the administration will uphold “the historical understandings between the United States and China on Taiwan.”

“We’ve already responded in many ways,” Trump said when asked Monday about China’s latest sanctions. “We’re talking a lot about China, we shouldn’t have been talking about China — we did a phase one deal and it was a wonderful deal and all of the sudden it means very little in the overall import of things.”

Robert Daly, director of the Wilson Center’s Kissinger Institute on China and the United States, said Trump’s actions against China were “unprecedented in its pace and scope — it is dizzying, reckless, and deliberate.” The goal, he said, is to “generate constant chaos to maximize the president’s scope for action and improve his re-election chances.”

‘Reset’

China’s more conciliatory comments began to emerge in earnest last week, when it said a “new Cold War” should be avoided. At the same time, its so-called “Wolf Warriors” — ambassadors and senior diplomats who have taken an increasingly assertive stance on social media in advocating for Beijing’s policies on issues like Hong Kong and the coronavirus pandemic — have gotten a little quieter.

“China has no intention to fight a ‘diplomatic war’ with the U.S. as it will only hurt the interests of the two peoples even more,” Foreign Minister Wang Yi told the official Xinhua news agency. China’s ambassador to Washington, Cui Tiankai,wrote in Axios it was time for a “reset” in ties. “We are still willing to grow China-U.S. relations with goodwill and sincerity and hope the U.S. will return to the right track.”

Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian echoed those sentiments on Monday, saying the government “would like to advance with the U.S. side a China-U.S. relationship featuring coordination, cooperation and stability.”

“But in the meantime, we are prepared for some obstacles and setbacks in our bilateral relations,” he said, adding that Beijing would not let the U.S. get away with its “wrong words and deeds.”

‘No Bottom Line’

Some talks are still taking place. In late July, Vice Commerce Minister Wang Shouwen held discussions with a group of American executives and the following week Shanghai mayor Gong Zhengmet with U.S. ambassador Terry Branstad. U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper spoke about Taiwan in a phone last week with Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe, with the Pentagon saying “both leaders agreed on the importance of maintaining open channels of communication and developing the systems necessary for crisis communications and risk reduction.”

“The speeches made by top Chinese diplomats came at a time when areas of China-U.S. disputes continued to expand — from trade, humanities to diplomacy and ideology — fueling concerns even for a ‘hot war,’” said Shen Yamei, deputy director of the Department for American Studies at the China Institute of International Studies under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “China will of course not sit and let U.S. politicians lead and direct where the bilateral relations are heading.”

Even so, Xi can’t afford to look weak at home. Nationalists who are vocal on China’s social media notice when government statements are mostly boilerplate, or issues are buried on the inside pages of newspapers like the official People’s Daily, as happened with U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar’s trip to Taiwan.

“China’s bottom line is that there is no bottom line,” Weibo user 273zero commented on a post about his trip to Taiwan, which Beijing considers a breakaway province. “China’s red line is constantly moving,” wrote Xiaolululanse, another user.

‘Canceled Out’

While the worst of the pandemic may have passed China, Xi faces the task of restoring growth to an economy that has been hit hard, and avoiding social unrest bubbling over. It’s in his interest to bang the nationalistic drum, as long as those moves don’t spill over into a trade war or military confrontation.

The impact is sometimes hard to predict. While the arrest Monday of Hong Kong media tycoon and pro-democracy activist Jimmy Lai was celebrated on China’s social media, it was roundly condemned in the U.S. and Europe.

“Beijng’s intended audience with its conciliatory rhetoric is not the Trump administration, but the American public and the rest of the world,” said Minxin Pei, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College in California.

“The question is whether it is succeeding,” he added. “I am afraid this message is being canceled out by other Chinese actions, such as the arrests of Jimmy Lai and others in Hong Kong. What China does gets a lot more attention here than what it says.”

— With assistance by Colum Murphy, Jing Li, and Peter Martin

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