POLITICO: China is ghosting the United States

The Biden administration called off Blinken’s planned trip to Beijing in February after a Chinese spy balloon traversed U.S. skies, but has since been trying to restart high-level talks, POLITICO writes. That includes rescheduling the Blinken visit, and setting up other trips by top U.S. officials and a phone call between President Joe Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping, a current U.S. official and a former State Department official said.

But China is rebuffing the U.S. efforts, the people said, and its willingness to fully engage may hinge on the drama around Wednesday’s meeting in California between Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen and Republican House Speaker Kevin McCarthy. If the Tsai-McCarthy visit comes across as too formal and elaborate, casting Tsai in a head of state role that China denies exists, Beijing could further extend its freeze-out of high level U.S. representatives.

Beijing’s current aversion to sustained high-level engagement underscores the particularly fraught nature of U.S.-Chinese relations over the past few months. What was a two-sided desire to stabilize an increasingly volatile relationship is becoming much more about Washington reaching out and the Chinese government demurring.

Beijing is increasingly resentful about U.S. arms sales to Taiwan and official contacts that China says encourage Taiwan’s pro-independence elements.

There’s always a certain degree of diplomatic theater to the canceling of high-level meetings between the United States and China. But ensuring stable communications with major adversaries like China and Russia has long been a U.S. preference. Some U.S. officials worry Beijing’s thin-skinned diplomacy is hampering crucial communication between the rivals in a way that could have global fallout in a major crisis.

China also is pressing back particularly hard on the proposals for a Xi-Biden call. U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters last month that the White House was hoping to nail down a call following the March 13 closure of the annual meeting of China’s parliament.

China’s Foreign Ministry responded by making clear that Beijing was in no hurry to reconnect the two leaders. “Communication should not be carried out for the sake of communication,” Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin told reporters. The White House needed to “show sincerity … to help bring China-U.S. relations back to the right track,” Wang said.

National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby refloated the U.S. desire for a Biden-Xi call a week later. Beijing hasn’t responded publicly. Kirby said Biden’s administration also wants to broker a visit to China by Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen and Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo and get Blinken’s Beijing trip “back on the calendar.”

China’s Commerce Ministry has said it “welcomes Secretary Yellen’s hope for a visit to China” and that it’s “open to Raimondo’s wish to visit,” but had yet to receive formal notification of Raimondo’s intentions. But the Chinese government hasn’t indicated any timetable for when Yellen, Raimondo or Blinken may travel to China.

The snubs have been accumulating. As tensions spiked in early February over the U.S. shootdown of the spy balloon, Chinese officials declined a U.S. request to have Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin speak with his counterpart.

And bilateral military crisis communications remain hamstrung due to what senior administration officials say is Beijing’s refusal to engage with the U.S. on the development of reliable systems that could help prevent an incident in the South China Sea from spiraling into a military crisis.

Getting the Chinese to stay in regular, meaningful communication has been a challenge for the administration since Biden took office. And even when there are communications, they have often produced little substance, leading U.S. officials to crave higher-level contacts, especially with Xi, POLITICO stresses.