China’s top diplomat bashes Trump policies, warns Biden to respect ‘redline’ issues

Foreign Affairs

Top Chinese diplomat Yang Jiechi warned the Biden administration against making the “strategic misjudgment” of treating China as an adversary. The issues of Taiwan, Hong Kong, Tibet, and Xinjiang all “constitute a redline that must not be crossed,” he added.

Fluent English-speaker Yáng Jiéchí 杨洁篪 stuck to Chinese yesterday. (Photo from 2019) Andrea Verdelli/Pool via REUTERS

In the first two weeks of the Biden administration, U.S.-China relations are off to a wobbly start. Senior officials on both sides seem to be talking past each other. Last week, for example, the Chinese Foreign Ministry threw cold water on the suggestion of Biden’s climate envoy, John Kerry, that climate change should be a “standalone issue” for Beijing and Washington.

The awkward new phase of relations between the world’s two most powerful countries continued yesterday. China’s top diplomat, Yáng Jiéchí 杨洁篪, made a video address to the National Committee on United States-China Relations (video recording, full transcript), which generally took a nationalistic line. The major points of the address included:

  • Bashing Trump policies and attitudes: “The previous administration has pursued some misguided policies toward China. The root cause, I would say, is a strategic misjudgment by some in the United States — they view China as a major strategic competitor, even an adversary. That, I am afraid, is historically, fundamentally and strategically wrong.”
  • Urging Biden to reverse Trump policies: “I hope that the new administration will remove the stumbling blocks to people-to-people exchanges, like harassing Chinese students, restricting Chinese media outlets, shutting down Confucius Institutes and suppressing Chinese companies.”
  • Denying malign influence ambitions: “China never meddles in the internal affairs of the United States, including its elections. China never exports its development model or seeks ideological confrontation. China has no intention to challenge or replace the U.S. position in the world, or to carve out a sphere of influence.”
  • Warning of four “redline” issues: Yang said that China will “expect the United States to…respect China’s position and concerns on the Taiwan question. The United States should stop interference in the affairs of Hong Kong, Tibet and Xinjiang…They constitute a redline that must not be crossed.”

Only after the hard-nosed reiteration of Beijing’s core interests and demands did Yang list a number of possible areas of U.S.-China cooperation:

  • COVID-19 response and global public health.
  • Climate change, renewable energy, and low-carbon, sustainable development.
  • Macroeconomic policy coordination.
  • Military and law enforcement, including in “drug control and cyber security.”
  • Major “global challenges such as poverty reduction through development, counterterrorism and nonproliferation.”
  • Global governance at multilateral forums, including the UN, WHO, G20, and APEC. 

Yang’s address was a “lead balloon,” said Ryan Hass, former Director for China on the National Security Council, in a Twitter thread. The speech “felt like it was more carefully calibrated for a Chinese audience than an American one,” Hass commented, despite it being billed as an address “to an American audience.” 

  • Beyond the content, the language perhaps indicated that the real intended audience was not American: The address was delivered entirely in Chinese, with simultaneous translation, despite Yang having previously been Ambassador to the U.S. and having the ability to make speeches in perfect English

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