The US and China are talking again. Where it will lead is unclear.
By Ana Swanson and Keith Bradsher
When Gina Raimondo, the commerce secretary, visited China this week, she joined a long line of U.S. politicians who have come to the country to try to sway Chinese officials to open their market to foreign businesses and buy more American exports, in addition to other goals.
Raimondo left Shanghai on Wednesday night with no concrete commitments from China to treat foreign businesses more equitably or step up purchases of Boeing jets, Iowa corn or other products. In a farewell news conference, she said hoping for such an outcome would have been unrealistic.
Instead, Raimondo said her biggest accomplishment was restoring lines of communication with China that would reduce the chance of miscalculation between the world’s two largest economies. She and Chinese officials agreed during the trip to create new dialogues between the countries, including a working group for commercial issues that American businesses had urged her to set up.
“The greatest thing accomplished on both sides is a commitment to communicate more,” Raimondo said Wednesday.
She had also delivered what she described as a tough message. The Biden administration was willing to work to promote trade with China for many categories of goods. But the administration was not going to heed China’s biggest request: that the United States reduce stringent controls on exports of the most advanced semiconductors and the equipment to make them.
“We don’t negotiate on matters of national security,” Raimondo told reporters during her visit.
While she called the trip “an excellent start,” the big question is where it will lead. There is a long history of frustrating and unproductive economic dialogues between the United States and China, and there are not many reasons to believe this time will prove different.
Forums for discussion may have helped resolve some individual business complaints, but they did not reverse a broad, yearslong slide toward more conflict in the bilateral relationship. Now, the U.S.-China relationship faces a variety of significant security and economic issues, including China’s more aggressive posture abroad, its use of U.S. technology to advance its military and its recent raids on foreign-owned businesses.
Raimondo says she has the backing of the president and U.S. officials. And Biden administration officials argue that even the shift to begin talking has been significant, after a particularly tense period. Relations between the United States and China became frosty last August when Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the House speaker at the time, visited Taiwan, and they froze entirely after a Chinese surveillance balloon flew across the United States in February.
Raimondo’s trip capped a summer of outreach by four senior Biden administration officials. R. Nicholas Burns, the U.S. ambassador to China, who took office in January 2022 and accompanied Raimondo on the trip, said Tuesday that American officials “literally were not talking to the Chinese leadership at a senior level, my first 15 months here.”
Not everyone views reengagement as a good thing. Republican lawmakers, in particular, increasingly see the conflict between the United States and China as a fundamental clash of national interests. Critics view the outreach as an invitation for China to drag out reforms, or a signal to Beijing that the United States is willing to make concessions.
The space for compromise also seems narrow. Both governments have little desire to be seen by domestic audiences as making concessions. And in both countries, the share of trade that is considered off limits or a matter of national security concerns is growing.
Kurt Tong, a former U.S. consul general in Hong Kong who is now a managing partner at the Asia Group, a Washington consulting firm, said Raimondo had offered China half of what it wanted. She sent a clear message that many American companies should feel free to do business in China, after years of receiving criticism for doing so during the Trump administration and still from many Republicans in Congress. But she did not agree to relax American export controls.
The recent weakness in the Chinese economy may create some opening for compromise. The Chinese economy has only limped back from its pandemic lockdowns. China’s youth unemployment rate has risen, its debt is piling up, and foreign investment in the country has fallen, as multinational companies look for other places to set up their factories.
In a meeting with Raimondo on Wednesday, the Shanghai party secretary, Chen Jining, admitted that the sluggish economy made business ties more crucial.
“The business and trade ties serve the role as stabilizing ballast for the bilateral ties,” Chen said. “However, the world today is quite complicated. The economic rebound is a bit lackluster. So stable bilateral ties in terms of trade and business is in the interest of two countries and is also called for by the world community.”
Raimondo responded that she was looking forward to discussing “concrete” ways they might be able to work together to accomplish business goals and “to bring about a more predictable business environment, a predictable regulatory environment and a level playing field for American businesses here in Shanghai.