Diplomatic acumen — or lack thereof — in U.S.-China relations

Foreign Affairs

Susan Thornton, former Acting Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, offers a compelling case for shrewd diplomacy in U.S.-China relations in light of the Russo-Ukrainian war.

Illustration for SupChina by Derek Zheng

Below is a complete transcript of the Sinica Podcast with Susan Thornton.

Kaiser Kuo: Welcome to the Sinica Podcast, a weekly discussion of current affairs in China, produced in partnership with SupChina. Subscribe to SupChina’s newly-designed China Access newsletter to keep on top of all the latest news from China, from hundreds of different news sources. Or check out all the original writing on our website at supchina.com. We’ve got reported stories, essays and editorials, great explainers and trackers, regular columns, and of course, a growing library of podcasts. We cover everything from China’s fraught foreign relations to its ingenious entrepreneurs, from the ongoing repression of Uyghurs and other Muslim peoples in China’s Xinjiang region, to the tectonic shifts underway as China rolls out what we call the Red New Deal. It’s a feast of business, political, and cultural news about a nation that is reshaping the world. We cover China with neither fear nor favor.

I’m Kaiser Kuo, coming to you from Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

By the time most of you hear this podcast, the Russo-Ukrainian war will be entering its fifth week. For listeners to this show who are keenly interested, as I think many of us are, in how the war is being processed in Beijing, the impact that the war and Beijing’s stance on it have had on U.S.-China relations, on China’s relations with other nations, you have doubtless closely followed the flurry of diplomatic activity involving China, including the Rome meeting between U.S. National Security Advisor, Jake Sullivan, and China’s top diplomat, Yáng Jiéchí 杨洁篪, on March 14th, and the phone call, or the video call four days later between presidents Joe Biden and Xí Jìnpíng 习近平.

But what did it all mean? How do we interpret the readouts, for example, published in China and in the U.S.? How do we decode the language that Beijing uses, or for that matter, the language that the U.S. uses when they talk about these things? How much backchannel conversation is actually going on, and does that matter at all?

Well, my guest today can help us sort through all of this. As a seasoned diplomat whose three-decade career culminated in her serving as Acting Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and Pacific Affairs, Susan Thornton is someone I often turn to for her deep practical knowledge of how diplomacy works and for her excellent insights on Chinese foreign policy. Susan is now senior fellow and visiting lecturer in law at the Yale Law School Paul Tsai China Center. She’s also the director of the Forum on Asian Pacific Security at the National Committee on American Foreign Policy and a non-resident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Susan, welcome back to Sinica. Great to see you.

Susan Thornton: Great to be with you again, Kaiser.

Kaiser: Yeah, it’s always lovely. So last week when I was being asked a lot about where I thought China stood after the Xi-Biden video call, I was saying, oh, I think China has clearly picked a side: China. And I could be read as a little too flippant, but actually, I meant it. I think everything, and this should surprise nobody or should really offend nobody, either, is that it’s about China’s interest. But where are you on this when asked the same question, as I’m sure you have? Broadly speaking, how do you characterize where Beijing is at right now? Now, we’re recording on March 21st. Because it changes a lot.

Susan: Yeah. Kaiser, I did see your quote and I have to admit, I thought that’s exactly right.

Kaiser: Oh really?

Susan: Yeah. And people have been asking me about the China-Russia relationship for a long time. And certainly after this February 4th joint declaration that Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping signed off on the day before the Olympics opened, I mean, there was a lot of talk about China being in an alliance with Russia, what was China going to do to back Russia, all of these things. But really, my sense is that China doesn’t feel that it owes Russia anything. China will enter into a relationship with Russia that satisfies its long-term interest, and let’s face it, I mean, it has an interest in managing its relationship with Russia well.

And that’s really what diplomacy is all about. I mean, you talked at the top about diplomacy. Diplomacy is about managing relationships with other countries, and this is something that I think we’ll get into, but the idea of managing a relationship with another country, especially a country whose government we don’t particularly admire or even like, has become pretty unfashionable, I think, in the corridors in Washington these days. And we’re seeing, I think, some of the deleterious effects of that attitude be borne out in a lot of the things that are going on in the world right now.

But management of a relationship is very important, and when it’s not managed well, the little perturbations sort of build up into this formidable kind of crust that’s very hard to break through. And so I think we really need to get back to this notion of how to manage our diplomacy and our foreign relations in a way that suits better the U.S. long-term national interest.

Kaiser: And so, I mean, you started off talking about how Beijing’s efforts are simply to manage its relationship with Russia well. What are some of the challenges that it faces in that? I mean, obviously I think it’s facing an enormous challenge right now that, I mean, if it wants to hold onto good ties with Russia, it really risks doing a lot of diplomatic damage to its relations with other countries, and especially with the EU and the U.S. How is it, looking at that management problem right now?

Susan: Well, this is I think a longstanding problem in the China-Russia relationship, in that Vladimir Putin has always been much more risk-tolerant than I think the Chinese leadership is. And you see the Russian government going around the world, doing things like poisoning dissidents in a park in London. Things like that are looked on quite askance in the halls of Zhongnanhai in Beijing. And it is hard to manage, but also you have to remember, there are a lot of countries in the world and there are a lot of them that have sort of unsavory governments. And there are a lot of people with whom people have relationships, and they manage them.

And it’s not always the case that just because a country has a relationship with someone we don’t like, we then ostracize the country that has that relationship. It’s kind of funny that we are holding China responsible for everything that Russia is doing right now, actually, in international relations. It’s kind of strange that we’re blaming China for what Russia has done in Ukraine, but that is, I guess, a characteristic of where we’ve come lately in the U.S.-China relationship and how toxic that relationship has become.

Kaiser: Yeah. And it’s almost become normal to think in this way. I don’t think it’s just because I live in this world that’s focused on China. I wander out there and listen to other people. And there is this idea, I think, that there’s this axis of authoritarianism, that ultimately China is the senior partner and Russia is just the junior partner. Yeah, it’s bizarre that it’s come to that.

Susan: Yeah. I actually don’t agree that China is the senior partner and Russia is the junior partner. I think it’s the other way around.

Kaiser: Yeah, neither do I. Yeah, yeah, yeah. It seems like, yeah, Russia is more leading China around by the nose on this.

Susan: Definitely. Yeah. That’s always been my view.

Kaiser: But we seem to demand a kind of condemnation from China. It seems to be like, I don’t know if you saw the Sunday shows, but on Face the Nation, Qín Gāng 秦刚, the Chinese ambassador to the United States, was interviewed by Margaret Brennan, and when pressed on why China has not condemned the invasion, he shot back something along the lines of, “Don’t be naive. Condemnation does not solve the problem.”

I mean, should we be pressing for a condemnation of the invasion by Beijing? And what in fact would that actually do? I mean, Ambassador Qin, it strikes me, is right, that it won’t cause Russian troops exactly to turn around and go home. But wouldn’t it at least maybe help abate the withering criticism that Beijing, like it or not, has endured since February 24th?

Susan: Well, again, this is kind of the difference between journalism, I guess, and diplomacy. In journalism, people want you to say the truth, what you really feel, something incendiary, something that gets clicks, but in diplomacy, you try to preserve as much space as possible for maneuver. You try not to paint yourself or your adversary into a corner from which it’s going to be very difficult for you or them to escape. And I think this is the part of the art that’s been completely lost. And maybe it has something to do with the information environment. I think we’re still kind of working through the changes that have taken place in diplomacy and how much harder it is to preserve that diplomatic maneuvering room amid this sort of constant media scrutiny and very adversarial type information environment.

But it’s definitely very hard to preserve space and balance and to hold your cards close to the vest. And I think that’s what Qin Gang was reflecting in that interview, which I did see, in which I thought he did a good job in trying to say, there’s an advantage in maintaining a sort of semi-balanced position, if you want to have someone that has the credibility to go in and be a mediator, or try to contribute to a diplomatic settlement. If you’ve already burned all your bridges with the one of the sides, then you can’t very well be a mediator.

And China’s one of the few countries — I mean, there are several other countries that have actually been trying to walk this fine line and not burn their bridges with Moscow, but China’s the one with, I think people believe the most influence over Vladimir Putin, I guess. I mean, I would also hasten to add that I’m not sure how much actually China’s influence is with Vladimir Putin, and to the extent that the U.S., I mean, the China-Russia relationship for China is about China. The China-Russia relationship for Russia is about Russia. So they’re both quite self-absorbed in looking at the relationship and what they can get out of it. And I think there’s not a lot of values sharing or a lot of friendship and deep commitment there in that relationship.

Kaiser: So Susan, I’ll cut straight to the real question, which is how would you like to see us approach things with China when it comes to Russia and the Ukrainian war? Where should we set our targets? I mean, what realistically can we hope for from Beijing? I mean, is something like sanctions compliance, is that sufficient or should we want more? Should we expect more?

Susan: Well, I think it’s really complicated because the picture is changing every single day and the war is still unfolding, but we certainly want China to make it clear that it does understand how much of a transgression Russia has committed here in terms of the international system and the most cardinal rule of the international order, which is you can’t go around pursuing territorial conquests and try to wipe other countries off the map. So that is something, the principle is extremely important. And I think China could be very clear in stating its opposition to the fact that this principle has been very seriously violated, obviously.

Of course, the atrocities and the civilian casualties and the way Russia is prosecuting the war, I think China has commented on the humanitarian situation. They’ve been pretty elliptical about the way they talk about it, but they’ve made clear that they do understand that this is a real violation, also, of sort of 21st-century norms of warfare, if you will. And they are trying to show support for Ukraine, show that they stand on their principles, but still not alienate completely the Russians, and of course, Vladimir Putin.

And that is making a lot of people very angry. And I think it makes also Ukrainians very angry at the Chinese government when they’re seeing a couple of reactions from various officials in the Ukrainian government to things the Chinese have said. And it’s very hard for the Chinese at this point to walk this fine line. I think we should be trying, though, to use, if the Chinese are trying to walk this line, we should be trying to use their offering that they could maintain this balance and be a mediator, we should test that. We should really push them to actually step up and try to be a mediator.

And if they do so, if they show that kind of responsible action, if they take that kind of a risk, which is very unlike the Chinese government to want to do, then we should be prepared to offer them some kind of reward for that. I mean, some kind of a carrot. Right now all we’re using is sticks and threats. And I don’t think that’s going to get us very far.

Kaiser: It almost feels to me like there’s an implicit carrot being offered with the way that the readouts from the two meetings so far have been so larded up with Taiwan talk, but we’ll get to that in a second. I get asked a lot about what, if any, diplomatic role China could play in a peace process, international peace process. And I guess I’ve been pretty skeptical for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the fact that few would see China as an honest broker in it.

I mean, I know there was a call for China to step up and play a role in it. But I spoke, for example, last week to Dingding Chen (陈定定 Chén Dìngdìng), and he was skeptical too, that China would want to insert itself. It’s just geographically so distant and it feels like they feel like there’d be little upside for them in it. What’s your sense of that, the capability of China?

Susan: Well, I think there are two issues. There’s the question of would the Chinese want to take the risk and do this? It’s definitely not like them to do so, but on the other hand, they are kind of advertising themselves as being available for this. They are saying they want a peaceful settlement. They’re pushing diplomatic talk. So if push came to shove and somebody wanted them to participate, it would I think be difficult for them to say no, they’re not going to. And we have seen them be helpful in various other kinds of diplomatic negotiations.

For example, right now we have the renewal of the JCPOA agreement with the Iranians on their nuclear agreement, with Chinese and Russian participation continuing to go forward. And the Chinese are helpful there. And I think that they in recent years have been willing to dip their toe in the water and do a bit more on this, but it’s still not a comfortable place for them to be.

On the question of whether they are a neutral mediator or an unbiased mediator, they wouldn’t be, but almost nobody is in the current situation. So you’ve got the Israeli prime minister trying to pursue mediation efforts, even though of course Israel is a very close ally of the United States and has voted in the UN against the Russian invasion. So I think what we would want to see from the Chinese is to add their efforts to the efforts of others.

Of course, the French and the Germans have been actively involved. The Turks have been involved in mediation efforts. But for the Chinese to come in, it would be with the understanding, I think, that they would be brought in in order to put pressure on the Russians. And so you don’t have to necessarily be an unbiased mediator to affect that. You have to bring pressure to bear on the side that you have the relationship with. And in this case, we need somebody to bring pressure on the Russians.

Kaiser: Yeah. I think that it’s a possibility, of course, and you’re right, they have sort of advertised themselves as this, as you talking directly about the six-party talks in the Korean peninsula, which of course is a lot closer to home.

Susan: I’ll tell you, Kaiser, I am pretty skeptical and a little bit dubious, I guess, because what I think they’re going to try to do, the Chinese, is advertise themselves as a mediator, but not really get involved. They advertise themselves as a mediator in order to not have to condemn because they don’t want to take that step. But then, if you want to be a mediator, you have to actually step up and do it. And I wonder if this is their way of sort of avoiding the whole taking sides thing.

Kaiser: Right, right. That’s very plausible to me. So I want to go back and look at this last week. Again, we’re recording on the 21st, but starting on last Sunday, right before Jake Sullivan flew off to Rome, we saw a bunch of leaks. There was the leak to the Washington Post and the FT from the administration about a Russian request for military assistance from China. Is there any reason to get conspiratorial about this? I mean, what was your reaction to this and how have you thought about it since?

Susan: Well, I think this was certainly a leak that was meant to put the Chinese on notice that we knew that they had gotten this request and that we were going to be watching carefully what they did, and they weren’t going to get away with supplying the Russians in this war without it costing them a lot. And I don’t know about the timing. I mean, I wouldn’t be too conspiratorial about it. We’ve had a lot of leaks about intelligence on China over the last five years, more than usual even. And we’ve always had a lot of leaking when the Chinese were deemed to be doing something either that was against U.S. interests or particularly egregious.

And so I don’t think that the timing here was necessarily something to be suspicious about, but it certainly did provide the whole backdrop for the meeting in Rome and made it much more difficult to have that meeting come out well, frankly, because you’re going into it with in the backdrop is this idea that the U.S. is going to be threatening China over this revelation. And the meeting was supposed to be more of a full spectrum review of U.S.-China relations, all the issues, and a follow-up to the previous Biden-Xi video meeting. So it wasn’t necessarily supposed to be only about weapons to Ukraine. A lot of the subject of that meeting and then the subsequent meeting, the Biden-Xi video meeting last Friday, was also on that subject,

Kaiser: Which is why maybe the more conspiratorially-minded thought that it was maybe a deliberate thing to undermine Sullivan or to make sure that the subject of it was, or that, you know, no concessions were given to China or anything like that. There were other people who said, they read the whole thing as completely implausible because how could Russia, it’s three weeks into the conflict, already need military assistance from China? This incredibly well-armed country, why would it need material already? So I don’t know. Obviously none of this, I have no knowledge, but…

Susan: Yeah. I mean, it’s really, you know, we’re not going to know much about the actual specific context of this request. I mean, you can imagine as the Russians are seeing all these sanctions windows close down on them that they’re pretty worried about supplies, and could be somebody just putting out feelers. I mean, we don’t know. But clearly the leak was meant, and not just the leak, but also sending this notification out of this intelligence to all the allies and people who don’t normally or wouldn’t normally be sharing in it, was also to sort of spread the word that this was afoot.

I mean, it’s unusual, I would say. And it fits with the pattern of what we’ve seen in sort of prior to big diplomatic meetings with China, bad news always comes out on the eve of it, so I can see why people would be conspiratorial about it. And this gets to the issue of diplomacy. Again, we are not really managing a relationship with China at this point. There is so little contact and so little management that these meetings that are set up become like this upside-down pyramid focus for the entire relationship, which is not how things are supposed to work in good diplomacy. I mean, yes, high-level meetings are important, but it’s much more important to have a broad spectrum of lower-level contacts, experts working together on technical issues. And that’s where you sort of manage the relationship. You don’t want to be managing the relationship in a two-hour video call between leaders with consecutive interpretation. That’s not really what’s supposed to happen, and it’s not really the makings of a productive exchange, as I think we’ve seen.

Kaiser: Yeah, no, indeed. Yeah. I mean, they’ve become so freighted these meetings, I mean with expectation and symbolism and all that. And I guess most of us can’t be blamed for trying to read the tea leaves in the readouts that come out. From that first, that Sullivan and Yang Rome meeting, there was an extremely terse American readout. The Chinese readout was mostly about Taiwan. There was a paragraph about the other perennial problems in the bilateral relationship, like Xinjiang, Hong Kong, and Tibet, and then just kind of a perfunctory mention of Ukraine in a list of miscellany, alongside Afghanistan and North Korea and Iran, all of which are of course important issues. But the idea that this seven-and-a-half-hour-long meeting was mostly about Taiwan from the Chinese perspective, or could be summed up in 82 words in the American perspective, it was sort of bizarre. What’s going on there and how should we understand this whole process on both sides, in Beijing and in DC?

Susan: Well, it is a mark of the new toxicity in U.S.-China relations, that this is how the readouts have been coming out. It’s not the way it used to happen. We used to have the two sides sit together and prepare and let each other know what we were going to prepare as the outcome of the meeting, what kind of things we were going to announce, what kind of fact sheets we were going to put out, et cetera. And there was this policy of no surprises, because what you don’t want coming out of a meeting is you don’t want to put something out in your readout that the other side is going to refute and say, no, that’s not what we said, or no, that didn’t happen.

So in terms of the misunderstanding and miscommunication that happens all the time between the U.S. and China, we had always felt that it was better to make sure that they knew what we were going to say after a meeting and that we knew what they were going to say, because then you wouldn’t have the delta creating such a firestorm in media circles and elsewhere. So that’s not happening now. My understanding is what is happening, and this has also always been a longstanding principle in U.S.-China readouts, there’s been expressions of dissatisfaction, I guess, with Chinese or U.S. characterizations of what the other side said. And the agreement is, therefore, that you will only talk about what your leader said. You won’t talk about what the other leader, you know, you won’t characterize the other side’s comments or discussions, which makes for a very weird readout. And you see these now all the time from the Chinese side, where they say, you know, there’s a long soliloquy about what Xi Jinping said, or what Yang Jiechi said, and there’s no apparent response on the U.S. side. That’s because they’re not supposed to be characterizing our positions. But you see more recently, I guess from the Chinese standpoint, they’re trying to also manage their public opinion. So they are repeating some things that the U.S. side says that are sort of these longstanding formulations.

So you see that in these so-called “five nos” that Biden or someone issues we’re not seeking conflict, we’re not seeking a new Cold War, we’re not trying to contain you with our allies, we do not support Taiwan independence, and we have no intention of seeking a conflict with China. So they’ve been repeating that, and I think that’s more for the Chinese domestic audience than anything else.

Kaiser: Right, right, right. Right. And what about the Biden and Xi call? That lasted a while. It was over two hours. Again, we had that really terse readout from the White House, and a much longer Chinese one. It didn’t directly contradict, at least they seemed to have abided by that thing. There was a little bit of characterization of what the other leader said in the Chinese readout, of course, said that Biden had committed to the One-Child policy, One China, I always, the One-

Susan: One-Child policy’s history, dude.

Kaiser: The One China policy. Can you talk about this instance and maybe what we should know about what happens at these presidential level summits? I mean, what is the mechanics of this? I mean, what should we actually expect from these? And how far did this deviate from or adhere to what ordinary expectations are?

Susan: Well, you started the program by saying about the China-Russia relationship, who wins, Russia or the U.S., and your answer is China wins. And in these meetings, I like to think of it in sort of the same way. From the Chinese perspective, it’s about China. So from the U.S. perspective, if you look at the readouts, you can tell that Biden focused overwhelmingly on the issue of Ukraine and Russia and the current crisis du jour, which is what the U.S. pretty much always does. We’re always obsessed with the current crisis du jour in our meetings with China, and trying to get the Chinese to do something usually about it, or blame China for it, or whatever we’re trying to push the Chinese to do at that moment.

Susan: And on the Chinese part, okay, they’ll talk about that for a short period of time, but what they really want to talk about is all of the complaints they have with U.S.-China relations, what the U.S. is doing to China, how we should work to improve U.S.-China relations, and what the U.S. should stop doing in U.S.-China relations.

So it’s a very odd and imbalanced kind of conversation. And I think, I mean, in particular, this one was so in part because it was a two-hour video meeting, but with consecutive translation, so you’ve got to wait. So it’s less time than you would think. And then because of the crisis and the focus that the U.S. was obviously going to have on that and telling China what it hoped China would do, but mostly probably what it hoped it wouldn’t do, and saying what consequences there would be if those things happened, that eats up a lot of time on the U.S. presentation. And the Chinese presentation almost always goes longer than the U.S. presentation too. So that’s another factor to keep in mind. I would say in a two-hour meeting, I would be surprised if Biden’s comments took up more than a third of the time.

Kaiser: That would be the ratio I would guess, two-thirds, one-third.

Susan: At least.

Kaiser: So I guess I’m curious what you think the Chinese strategic perspective is right now on this. I mean, what do you think the optimal end game is for China right now? Does it see this as even potentially weakening the United States? Because obviously, if the shared world view of opposition to American hegemony is what’s driving this relationship between China and Russia in the first place, then obviously the outcome they hope for is one where America is weakened. But this does not look like a likely outcome right now. The outcome looks to be like a United States that actually has a kind of restored position of unity or hegemony, with a stronger sanctions weapon at its disposal, with more unity with the EU. How does China see this playing out?

Susan: Yeah, it’s so interesting that you see so many American writers writing about how this crisis is going to pay off for Beijing. They’re going to be able to import cheap Russian oil and wheat, and they’re going to resurface all their links with various and sundry economies around the world. And they’re going to move out in this area and that area undercover of this conflict, and China’s going to be the net winner.

But you see in the Chinese writings, just the opposite, right? They say that this is all going to very much benefit the United States. It’s making the U.S. closer to Europe and has really cemented the NATO alliance in place for the foreseeable future. It’s definitely looking at how the sanctions tools are working and how the U.S. is able to get its allies to line up behind it on sanctions, and basically reinvigorates the entire U.S. kind of Pax Americana U.S. military hegemony around the world, and makes countries seek American protection in a way that maybe they weren’t before. And this is all not to mention, of course, the issue of Taiwan, which has been looked at with great scrutiny over the last few weeks, since the invasion of Ukraine. But I think the Chinese are definitely not clear themselves that this is going to be a net benefit for them and a net loss for the U.S.

I do think though, the Chinese are quite savvy opportunists. So they are maybe feeling not a hundred percent confident that this is going to be better for them than it is for the so-called West and their kind of current challenger, the United States. But I do think that they may see some opportunities here that they might try to move to exploit. On the whole, though, I think they see that this instability really threatens the international system. It threatens the global economy. It rolls back globalization in many ways, and it sort of rolls out this new role for sanctions, which has to be quite alarming to the Chinese.

Kaiser: Absolutely. So I completely agree with you. And I think that I see a lot more sort of sanity and clarity in this Chinese pessimistic view than I do in these, well, in the U.S. pessimistic view that says that the winner of this is China. I think that China is obviously calculating with Chinese interests in mind, but I don’t think that it’s assuming that this plays out well for China.

There’s one area though, where I do think China does stand maybe to gain. As you probably know, Wáng Yì 王毅, foreign minister Wang Yi, is now in Africa. He was in Algeria, and he’s visiting a few other capitals in the continent. And the subject of the Russian war on Ukraine is obviously a subject that’s been coming up a lot. One of the co-hosts of our sister show, the China and Africa podcast, Cobus van Staden, he said something in their newsletter this morning that I think was really astute about this current diplomatic push in Africa, and in the Global South more broadly, he said that basically, China is trying to parlay its neutral position into a kind of third way with echoes of Bandung, that’s neither pro-Putin nor pro-NATO, that they’re framing this talk of global south solidarity by invoking the specter of the sanctions, which is going to hit a lot out of African countries that are dependent on grain imports from Russia. It’s going to hit them really hard. Pushing this idea that you can actually be outraged by the naked aggression of Putin and still see NATO and the West as having double standards in what it ultimately cares about. You can see it cares so much more about this than the horrible wars that were happening in Congo from the mid-nineties, in the DRC for so very long and in West Africa. What, what do you make of the timing and intention of this diplomatic initiative in Africa?

Susan: Well, I think you’re absolutely right. I mean, China’s line out there in the Global South is going to be where the good non-hegemonic major power that has represented the interests of the developing world faithfully and consistently on the world stage. And by the way, the developing world is about to get slammed with huge hikes in commodity prices. And it is going to have a very negative effect.

I mean, Europeans are talking about the negative effect of this conflict on their economies, but that’s probably nothing in comparison to what’s hitting the global south right now. Nobody’s really even talking about that. So the Chinese are out there, letting the countries that they have projects in and that they’ve paid a lot of attention to over the last few years when no one else was really out there paying attention to them, telling them that China’s going to be there for them, that they are not a colonial, not an imperial power, they have win-win solutions to offer, et cetera. And this is probably going to be fairly, I think, seductive for a lot of these countries.

Kaiser: Yeah, I think you’re right. The other thing that I keep wondering about is Beijing must be looking at November 2022, not just because of the 20th Party Congress in China, but also our election. They are watching American politics very closely. They were disappointed that the Biden administration didn’t move away from Trump’s policies toward China as much as they would’ve liked, but they must be slightly terrified that the GOP will come back into power in Congress, and then in 2024 win the White House again. Mike Pompeo is running. He just came back from Taipei, where he said things that would genuinely alarm Zhongnanhai, were he actually in the Oval Office.

What’s the Chinese take right now on American electoral politics? And I keep asking this of different guests. I worry. The thing that keeps me up is I worry that Beijing or a kind of critical mass of elites in Beijing have now concluded that irrespective of who’s in power in Congress, who’s in the White House, that the American objective vis-a-vis China is simply to keep it on its knees, to prevent its rise and to stymie its development. So are we closer to that now?

Susan: I mean, I do think that the February 4th joint declaration with Vladimir Putin was a sign that we’re very close to that now, if not already past that milestone, frankly. I think they were trying to keep the door open. There were a lot of people who were saying, let’s give Biden time because he’s faced with a lot of problems and he’s not really turning to foreign policy yet. And yet, he has to make his mark on domestic policy, etc.

But I think over the last several months, the Chinese could not be blamed, frankly, for thinking that this was something that is just a bipartisan baked in containment strategy now going forward, and there’s really nothing they could offer or do to try to move the needle or change the course. And so they have to just fend for themselves, put up their defenses, insulate themselves, and try to court other countries. And I think in addition to the diplomatic boycott of the Olympics, that explains more than anything else that joint declaration with Vladimir Putin.

Kaiser: Right, right, right. So going back to how you characterized how diplomacy should be run, you talked about how we should be about not painting one another or not painting ourselves into a rhetorical corner or painting our counterparty into a corner. We’re obviously not doing that, right? What ought we be doing instead? Are there are concrete measures that you think we should be taking right now to give China the room that it needs to make decisions that are more simpatico with our position?

Susan: Well, one of the problems of course is that to some extent over the last five years, the Overton window has moved. There were so many things previously in managing a prickly diplomatic relationship like that between the U.S. and China, which people understood, but we didn’t actually say. But now in the last five years, we’ve pretty much gone and said all kinds of things, including Mike Pompeo on his visit to Taipei last week. Even though he is not the current secretary of state, but he still said, oh, the U.S. should go ahead and recognize Taiwan independence. For a former secretary of state to visit the island and say that, it’s a huge move.

So how would you come back from that? You’d have to basically get a lot more political support and political will around having discussions in which you could actually put some things on the table, try to have a bit of a give and take with the Chinese, and have a negotiation. I mean, even in the Trump administration, in spite of Trump’s very hostile approach to China, especially in the last year, I mean, nevertheless Robert Lighthizer and Steve Mnuchin were constantly negotiating, and their teams were negotiating with the Chinese. We don’t have anything like that even going on now.

So ironically, I mean, the diplomacy in the Trump administration was actually to some extent more vibrant and more hands-on than what we have going on now, which is just an episodic, once-a-year television meeting between the two leaders. So I mean, this relationship is way too complex, I mean, on so many issues. We can’t do anything, to some extent, without China. So the fact that we’re just not engaging them across the board and that it’s become so toxic is really unprecedented at this point. And it’s kind of surprising. I mean, I don’t think anyone thought that the Biden administration, with all these former high-level foreign policy, professionals would be in this situation with China, but here we are.

And we’re going to have a situation now with Russia where, I mean, both these very important countries in the international system are going to kind of be persona non grata and sat over there in the time out box for I don’t know how long, for a long, long time. And I don’t know how the international system is going to function with that, when you have two of the members, the permanent members of the UN Security Council, that no one wants to meet with or talk to. It’s not going to go well.

So I think there’s just a lot of things that haven’t been considered in our approach up to now, and a lot of political expediency without a lot of thinking about long term, what is the game plan here and how is this going to look? And can we get it in a better place for our own interests? There’s been very low tolerance to zero tolerance for offering anything that would look like or sound like cooperation or a carrot or anything. It’s just all been sort of sticks and threats, and the Chinese don’t respond well to that. Kaiser, you probably can attest to that as much as I can.

Kaiser: I sure can.

Susan: It’s not going to get us anywhere, but maybe we don’t want to get anywhere. And that’s sort of been, I think, the conclusion that a lot of people have drawn, especially in China.

Kaiser: Yeah. I mean, that’s what I worry about, is that we don’t actually seem to want to get anywhere, or I mean, people like you wouldn’t be shut out the way that we’ve been.

Susan, are there some considerations that you think might be entering into Beijing’s calculus on this that we don’t see, that aren’t obvious, that haven’t been brought up enough in discussions that we’re having here in this country about China’s involvement? What are the things that we might be missing in the Chinese calculation?

Susan: Well, clearly there are a lot of things in the Chinese calculation that are relevant to their own situation vis-a-vis their relations with the West. And that’s how they are identifying so closely, I think, with the Russian position in all of this, much to our chagrin. But what they see is this slow accumulation over years of this kind of very derisive and disrespectful attitude from the West toward them, toward their government, and toward the government in Russia. And it’s not the same, obviously, and these are two separate relationships, but they certainly have a lot of common complaints about the lack of legitimacy that we regard them with in the international system.

And I think if we don’t understand that, it’s very hard to understand what the Chinese are talking about in a lot of the talking points they use on the Ukraine conflict, with the way they blame the U.S. and NATO for the outbreak of hostilities here and this kind of thing. I mean, what they’re talking about is this kind of, it’s a layered and accumulation of low level, chip on the shoulder, insult, disrespect kind of things.

And the Chinese government also, rightly or wrongly, I mean, depending on how you look at it, but they certainly can very much identify with that feeling on the part of the Russians, which gives rise to this sort of finally frustration about we’re not getting the kind of acknowledgement or respect or accorded legitimacy that we deserve, and so therefore we’re going to lash out or not cooperate or whatever it is. And it’s very hard for people, I think, in the U.S. government and in the West to see this, because it’s been a buildup over a couple of decades now.

Kaiser: Yeah, yeah. Yeah, I mean, it takes us right back to my old mantra about cognitive empathy. We really do need to put ourselves in their shoes and understand the view out Beijing’s windows and the mental furnishings that sort of populate their whole cognitive apparatus. Susan, as depressing as this is, it’s always just such a delight to talk to you and to hear such clear thinking on all these very complicated issues. What a treat.

Let’s move on to recommendations. But first, a quick reminder that the Sinica Podcast is powered by SupChina. And if you want to support the work that we do with the podcast, the best way to do so is to subscribe to our new China Access daily newsletter. Not only do you support our podcast, but you also get this great newsletter, which really does have a great in-depth roundup of all the important China-related news of the day from all these different news sources that’s delivered right to your inbox every evening.

All right. So let’s go to recommendations. Susan, what do you have for us?

Susan: Let’s see, so many things to recommend, but I guess I’ll go with one that’s a little offbeat. I had the chance to watch a short film that was given one of the Cannes Film Festival prizes. It’s in Tibetan with French subtitles, but you can make it out. It’s a very short film and it’s just wonderful, these scenes of people in Tibet at a photographer’s studio. And it’s a really clever reality TV show, but really poignant about these people’s lives and interactions. So it’s called Butter Lamp.

Kaiser: Butter Lamp. Oh yeah, like yak butter lamp. Yeah, okay, I get it. Cool. Butter Lamp. Cool. Do you know how we can see it? I mean, is it on one of the streaming services?

Susan: Yeah, I think it’s on YouTube. If you just Google Butter Lamp, you can get it.

Kaiser: Oh, cool. I will do that right after this. Thanks. It’s an excellent recommendation. All right, so I’m going to do a food one. I was actually recently in Pecos, Texas, which is way out in west Texas, kind of between, well, Austin, like six hours west of Austin, and near to El Paso. But I’m working on a documentary film, a couple of films, and our crew kept eating at the same amazing taco truck in Pecos because they served fantastic birria de res tacos. If you have not had these, you’ve got to find them. Look it up. Some taqueria near you, if you’re in the United States, almost doubtlessly now sells them because they’ve gotten really popular in the last couple of years. They were originally made from goat. But I haven’t tried those actually. I’ve got to find those somewhere, but the beef ones are just amazing. It’s like tender shredded beef that’s just slow-braised and intensely flavorful, with lots of red chilies in it. And so they put the beef in there with cheese, a little bit of onion and cilantro. Then the taco itself is dipped in the braising sauce. So it’s like a wet taco. And then fried in beef fat or lard until it’s crispy on the outside. And when you eat it, you actually dip it in beef consommé before each bite. And it’s just insane. It’s one of the most flavorful, delicious things ever.

Susan: Very low cholesterol, obviously.

Kaiser: Oh, just it’s so bad for you. It’s unbelievable. Eat them in moderation, and exercise, but really, really so good. I made them actually last night at home. They turned out really great. I know some tweaks I’m going to use for next time. But I did them a couple of weeks ago using chicken thighs and Chili Verde, and it was really also really yummy. The secret is in the dipping them in the gravy, whatever, and then frying them. It just turns out fantastic that way. So try them: Birria tacos.

Susan: You’ll have to put the recipe in the show notes, I guess. Yeah.

Kaiser: Oh yeah, I could do that. I could actually do that. Yeah, that would be fun. I’ll be like the first non-food podcast to have recipes in the show notes. Susan, that was a lot of fun, depressing, but also full of wonderful insights. So thank you.

Susan: Save diplomacy.

Kaiser: Yeah. Let’s save diplomacy. Seriously, I’m going to put that whole first answer on a t-shirt and wear it around because it’s important. Thank you so much.

Susan: Good to be with you.

Kaiser: The Sinica Podcast is powered by SupChina and is a proud part of the Sinica network. Our show is produced and edited by me, Kaiser Kuo. We would be delighted if you would drop us an email at sinica@supchina.com, just to tell us how we’re doing, or give us a rating and a review on Apple Podcasts, as this really does help people discover the show. Meanwhile, follow us on Twitter or on Facebook at @supchinanews and be sure to check out all the shows on the Sinica Network. Thanks for listening, and we will see you next week. Take care.