The stampede of senior Biden administration officials jet-setting to China continues this week with Treasury Department Deputy Under Secretary Brent Neiman’s visit to Hong Kong. The latest visit reinforces bad optics and lopsided precedent for continuing U.S.-China talks.
The Biden administration should hit the pause button on such visits until China agrees to reciprocate them – without preconditions.
Quick, when is the last time a senior Chinese official visited Washington, D.C.? Don’t feel bad if no one comes to mind. It occurred way back in May, when China allowed its commerce minister to visit D.C.
Since then, a parade of Biden administration officials has beaten a path to China, to include Cabinet Secretaries Antony Blinken, Janet Yellen and Gina Raimondo, as well as climate czar John Kerry.
The desire to visit China appears contagious, with Senator Majority Leader Chuck Shumer and California Democrat Governor Gavin Newsom announcing just this week separate trips later this fall.
There is nothing in principle against meeting with a rival’s counterparts. Indeed, such meetings can be valuable to discern intentions, convey expectations and lay the groundwork for agreements. They can even help defuse escalating tensions. As Winston Churchill said, according to his official biographer Martin Gilbert, "Meeting jaw to jaw is better than war."
Churchill’s observation is no doubt correct. But in present circumstances, war is not imminent, and U.S. officials have precious little to show for all the contrail blazing across the Pacific. You would think an Administration so concerned about its carbon footprint would think twice about greenlighting a conga line of officials to China, but this is not the case.
To be fair, the State Department invited Wang Li, China’s new foreign minister, to the United States nearly six weeks ago, and still hopes he will show up before the end of the year. But don’t hold your breath on this one. Neither he — nor any other senior Chinese official for that matter — has shown an eagerness to visit Washington, despite Foggy Bottom’s persistent pleading.
China’s refusal to reciprocate visits has nothing to do with saving money on airline tickets. Their economy is bad, but not that bad.
The fact is China loves the serial images of Biden administration officials lining up to visit China. It reinforces the idea that China lies at the center of the political universe — and the United States is just another eager supplicant.
The issue here involves more than just optics. If the Biden administration is unwilling or unable to assert itself on matters of basic diplomatic protocol, how can it expect to fare any better on matters of substance?
Ever sensitive to criticism, Biden administration officials claim their visits have succeeded in delivering "tough talk" to Chinese officials. At other times, however, they have sought to portray them as vital to "defusing tensions." The message is mixed, but the bad optics for the United States is all too clear.
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) knows how to play hardball. Sensing President Joe Biden’s infirmity, the CCP will likely hold out for concessions before allowing any of its senior officials to step foot in Washington.
The cavalcade of senior Biden administration officials jet-setting to China is bad optics and even worse precedent. There is simply no good reason to concede home field advantage to China in meeting after meeting. Diplomacy is a two-way street, after all.
Unreciprocated visits to China should stop until Beijing changes course.
In the meantime, if Biden administration officials insist on going "jaw to jaw" with their Chinese counterparts, then they should proceed "Zoom to Zoom" in neutral cyberspace.