Changing the face of Sino-American relations

The Sino-American relationship is at its lowest point in decades. Following last month’s bilateral summit in Alaska—the first high-level talks since President Joe Biden took office—it is far from clear whether the new US administration understands what it will take to revive it.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said that, while America’s relationship with China has some ‘adversarial’ aspects, it also has ‘cooperative ones’. At the Alaska summit, however, there was little sign of the latter, with Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan publicly trading barbs with Chinese officials.

Biden said he was proud of Blinken for sitting through an anti-American tirade, but acknowledged that it was not a great start to his administration’s relationship with China. The hope now, it seems, is that John Kerry, US Special Presidential Envoy for Climate, will have more luck at upcoming talks with his Chinese counterpart in an area where both sides have expressed a willingness to cooperate.

But what is really needed may be a much broader dialogue. At the last meeting of the US–China Strategic and Economic Dialogue, held in Beijing in 2016, the large US delegation, led jointly by the secretaries of state and the Treasury, included officials responsible for issues such as climate policy, ocean health, counterterrorism, non-proliferation, food security and mineral supply-chain practices. Agreements were reached in every area.

If this kind of broad US–China dialogue were to be held today, imagine what the US side of the table would look like. Alongside Blinken and Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, we could expect to see Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo, Trade Representative Katherine Tai, Chair of the Council of Economic Advisers Cecilia Rouse, White House National Climate Advisor Gina McCarthy (the first woman to hold that position) and Samantha Power, the incoming administrator of the US Agency for International Development. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan, Secretary of Health and Human Services Xavier Becerra, and Attorney General Merrick Garland would join them.

That would be a far better picture to present to the world—a diverse array of US officials, more than half of them women, confronting a phalanx of Chinese men—than the images from the Alaska summit, which could have been taken anywhere between 1972 and the present.

In a similar vein, the United States could propose a bilateral dialogue exclusively on cybersecurity and data-privacy issues, alongside planned dialogues on issues like climate change. Here, again, women would dominate the American side of the table. They include Anne Neuberger (deputy national security adviser for cyber and emerging technology), Jen Easterly (awaiting Senate confirmation as the national cyber director), and Mieke Eoyang (deputy assistant secretary of defense for cyber policy). Shannon Coe, Jennifer Daskal, Melanie Hart, and Cynthia Carras would also be in attendance.

Making these women the public face of the American half of a US–China cyber-policy dialogue would be good for women everywhere. Moreover, much like a single broad dialogue, the simultaneous pursuit of multiple targeted dialogues would highlight the complexity of the bilateral relationship and the importance of cooperation on a wide range of issues.

To be sure, simply replacing male officials with women will not bring about harmony in Sino-American relations. Just ask Canadian Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland, who has been locked in unproductive negotiations to free Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig since they were arrested in China and charged with espionage, apparently in retaliation for Canada’s 2018 arrest of Meng Wanzhou, Huawei’s CFO, at the request of the US.

But as Biden well knows, foreign policy—like politics more broadly—is based on relationships created not only at the negotiating table, but also after hours, unwinding over an informal meal and finding common interests and identities. These relationships are necessary to build actual trust and convince senior government officials to drop their figurative masks and reveal the real person.

When Hillary Clinton was secretary of state, she forged a relationship with Chinese state councilor Dai Bingguo, based partly on their shared commitment to their children and grandchildren. That relationship helped the US and China to weather a major diplomatic crisis.

Today, building such relationships, which are essential to foster trust between high officials, should be a top priority of US leaders, regardless of gender. Such an effort could build on the ties being created through unofficial dialogues.

For example, as the Alaska summit was unfolding, women from the US, China and Europe gathered via Zoom for a private discussion about internet censorship. This group includes government officials, academics, business leaders, investors and journalists, and meets regularly for candid, off-the-record conversations about some of today’s most pressing topics, from artificial-intelligence start-ups to export controls and biotechnology. These relationships could prove very useful to governments.

As Kerry has noted, the US will never accept China’s violations of human rights and trade abuses in exchange for climate cooperation. This is the right approach, particularly while the atrocities in Xinjiang continue. But cooperation on climate change—as well as pandemics, cybersecurity and other shared threats—remains critical. Only with a broad (or multi-pronged) dialogue, led by a different set of faces and fortified by deeper personal relationships, can the US strike the right balance between—to use Blinken’s words—the adversarial and cooperative aspects of its relationship with China.