Sullivan's remarks suggest softer tone on US-China ties, but 'words alone are not enough'
Experts warn of duplicity of Washington's China policy
Published: Nov 08, 2021 09:53 PM
U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan (Rear) addresses a press briefing at the White House in Washington, D.C., the United States, on Aug. 17, 2021.(Photo: Xinhua)

US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan Photo: AFP 

The latest remarks of US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, which claimed that the Biden administration is not seeking a fundamental transformation of the Chinese system, appeared to signal a softer rhetoric of the Biden administration on bilateral relations, but experts warned that China should remain vigilant on the duplicity in US' China policy and potential flip-flops. 

Sullivan told CNN that the goal of America's China policy is to create a circumstance in which two major powers are going to have to operate in an international system for the foreseeable future. "And we want the terms of that kind of co-existence in the international system to be favorable to American interests and values," he said, noting that under such a circumstance, the rules of the road reflect an open, fair, free Indo-Pacific region and an open, fair, as well as free international economic systems. 

The senior US official admitted that the Chinese government does have a different approach to many of those issues, and the goal of America is not containment and not a new cold war. Sullivan also pointed out that "one of the errors of previous approaches to policy toward China has been a view that through US policy, we would bring about a fundamental transformation of the Chinese system," which is not the object of the Biden administration. 

Those remarks showed that the Biden administration tried to play down its rhetoric on US-China relations compared to earlier this year, as it understood that consistently emphasizing confrontation or rivalry doesn't benefit long-term bilateral relations, Lü Xiang, a research fellow at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, told the Global Times on Monday. 

"In diplomacy, the current US government is also trying to distinguish itself from the former Trump administration, and we welcome this change," the Chinese expert said. 

From high-level meetings between US and China officials in Alaska in March to Tianjin talks in July, to the latest face-to-face interaction between senior diplomats of the two countries in Zurich, Switzerland in October, there have been positive signals from the frank conversations and interactions between the two countries. 

The US appeared to have adjusted its reckless and unrealistic strategy of dealing with China from the position of strength, especially after it corrected one mistake on the two lists that China presented to the US in July by resolving the issue of Huawei's senior executive Meng Wanzhou, some experts said. 

From an objective perspective, the US has no ability to change China's political system, and Sullivan's remarks also showed that the US government has given up on the fantasy of changing Chinese system through keeping in touch with the country or suppressing it, Xin Qiang, deputy director of the Center for American Studies at Fudan University, told the Global Times on Monday. 

But US political elites, especially in the Biden administration, have aspired to change China's political system for a long time. Then they gradually found out that it's a "mission impossible" whether by means of pressure from the Trump administration or a cooperative rivalry strategy from the Biden administration, Xin noted. 

"The problem is not that the US government does not want to change China, but the US does not have the ability to do that, and would only hit a bumpy road if not working with China," he said. 

The two countries have multiple fronts to work on together including some urgent issues such as climate change, COVID-19 epidemic prevention and economic recovery. 

"For example, on trade, the Biden administration had planned to continue pressuring China with added tariffs imposed by his predecessor. But those tariffs hurt America amid the epidemic," Xin said, noting that Sullivan's words could be seen as a strategic pledge that the US is willing to respect China's core interests.

Although the objective of the Biden administration is not to change the Chinese system, Sullivan pointed out that it is to shape the international environment so that it is more favorable to the interests and values of the US, its allies and partners 

"Although Sullivan tried to play down the rhetoric on China, he indicated the purpose of the Biden administration is to create an environment that is unfavorable to China," Lü said. 

On cross-Straits tensions, Sullivan said that the US government has no intention of changing the status quo, claiming that the US government continues to adhere to the one-China principle and the so-called Taiwan Relations Act. 

Over the past few months, the US has been advancing its salami-slicing trick in challenging China's bottom line on the Taiwan question. For example, US Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Mark Milley recently claimed that the US has the ability to "defend Taiwan" and US military aircraft landed on the island, which were seen as severe provocation. 

Regarding the Taiwan question, "not changing the status quo" is just the same old story in a different context of time and space when the US is more worried about the Chinese mainland changing the status quo by force, Xin noted. "Those words were also meant for the island, that the US will not support the secessionists in the island to change the status quo of the Taiwan Straits which is a restraint to 'Taiwan independence' and the DPP authority," he said.

It's impossible for the US to abandon strategic ambiguity over Taiwan which would draw itself into a deep dilemma, the expert warned. 

US has no better choice but to stick to strategic ambiguity, which is currently the best option to meet its interests and avoid a US-China conflict, according to experts. 

"We should remain cautious on the duplicity in the US' China policy - in other words, saying one thing and doing another," Lü said.