National security adviser Jake Sullivan gave President Joe Biden’s China strategy a pat on the back Tuesday by proclaiming that it has successfully reduced tensions and prodded Beijing to engage on issues critical to U.S. interests.
Sullivan praised the administration’s “intensive outreach” to Beijing over the past year to lift bilateral ties from the “historic low” they hit following the Chinese spy balloon incident in February. That derailed a long-planned visit to China that month by Secretary of State Antony Blinken and stoked perceptions on Capitol Hill of Beijing’s existential threat to the United States.
Blinken’s visit to Beijing in June signaled the start of an ongoing eight-month diplomatic outreach campaign that climaxed with Biden’s meeting with Chinese leader Xi Jinping in San Francisco in November.
Sullivan pointed to the creation of a U.S.-China Counternarcotics Working Group that had its first meeting Tuesday in Beijing, the resumption of bilateral military-to-military contacts, and an agreement to discuss safe development of artificial intelligence as evidence of the value of that approach.
“Critics said at the time that this travel was one-sided — but our strategy was to use those meetings to open up a two-way flow of exchanges, and that’s exactly what happened,” Sullivan said at a Council on Foreign Relations event. That “intensive interaction” with China will continue in 2024 with Biden playing a key role.
Sullivan and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi agreed in their meetings in Bangkok, Thailand, last week that “there really is no substitute for leader-to-leader conversation — both of us agreed that we would report back to our leaders and we would get them on the phone sooner rather than later,” Sullivan said.
Sullivan’s speech marked the third briefing in four days in which senior administration officials have lauded the positive impact of their China engagement. That messaging campaign is an explicit push-back on high profile GOP detractors of that approach including Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.), chair of the House Select Committee on China, who has christened that effort “zombie engagement.”
The Biden administration is also keen to tout a diplomatic thaw with its biggest strategic competitor at a time of worsening tensions in the Middle East sparked by the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel. The Iran-backed Houthi militia in Yemen has snarled Red Sea shipping lanes with ongoing missile and drone attacks that have continued despite U.S. and British airstrikes. The risk of a wider regional conflict pulling in the U.S. rose after a drone attack by Iranian proxies killed three U.S. soldiers on a base in Jordan on Sunday. That prompted Blinken to warn on Monday that regional volatility was at its highest point since 1973.
A senior administration official admitted last week that Sullivan had failed to persuade Yi to use China’s economic influence on Iran — which funds and equips the Houthis — to stem the threat to global supply chains. The administration also remains concerned about China’s “no limits” partnership with Moscow and possible moves by Beijing to directly support Moscow’s war effort against Ukraine.
“We have not seen the provision of lethal aid but … we have seen support from Chinese companies to help Russia reconstitute its defense industrial base,” said Sullivan.
That’s a concern for the administration “because we believe that Russia’s defense industrial base is basically building up to continue to support an imperial war of conquest in Europe, and that’s a fundamental national security interest of the United States,” Sullivan said.
Sullivan said that Beijing can also expect the administration to fine-tune China-targeted export restrictions on high technology semiconductors. “As the technology evolves, our controls have to evolve,” Sullivan said.