three diplomats shake hands in front of an embassy building

‘Open lines of communication’ are crucial to improving relations with Beijing, Amb Nicholas Burns says

US Ambassador to China Nicholas Burns was in the room this week when Secretary of State Antony Blinken sat down with Chinese leader Xi Jinping. Amb. Burns spoke with The World’s Marco Werman about Taiwan, Ukraine and why US and Chinese military leaders have stopped talking to one another.

The World

Editor’s note: This interview aired in two parts on The World on June 20, 2023. Listen to part one by clicking the audio player above. And part two is below: 

For Secretary of State Antony Blinken, meeting this week with Chinese leader Xi Jinping was something of a high-wire act. 

One misstep, and the painstaking efforts to reestablish substantive communication between the two superpowers could come crashing down. 

The conversation was not a sure thing. In fact, Monday’s meeting reportedly was not even confirmed until 45 minutes before the two men shook hands.

Nicholas Burns, the US ambassador to China, had a ringside seat. He was in the room when Blinken sat down with Xi. 

The World spoke to Burns on Tuesday morning about China’s evolving relationships with Taiwan and Ukraine and what a more stable US-China relationship might look like. 

Marco Werman: Can you give us the lay of the land here?
Nicholas Burns: We have to have the capacity to be able to discuss an ongoing set of disagreements on issues that really matter in the world. You know, we don’t agree with what the Chinese have done militarily and trying to intimidate and coerce in the Taiwan Strait, for instance. We don’t believe that China should be as supportive politically of what President [Vladimir] Putin is doing in this illegal and barbaric invasion of Ukraine. We have a lot of concerns about Chinese mistreatment of American companies — punitive actions taken by the Chinese government against five American companies just in the last couple of months. And the fentanyl crisis, of course, has hit America in every town and county across the United States. And the precursor chemicals that make up most of the fentanyl are exported by black-market Chinese firms, private-sector firms to the drug traffickers in Mexico, and that fentanyl comes up. And it’s the leading cause of death in the United States between adults 18 to 49. We’re asking the Chinese — the government here — to shut down the flow of precursor chemicals. So, you can’t make progress on any of these issues if you’re not meeting. And it had been five years, which is rather extraordinary when you think about it, between the last visit by a secretary of state and this visit. So, I know that Secretary Blinken felt — I saw him off at the airport last night — and he felt really good about the visit.
You went down a long list of things there. Lots of potential to the relationship, but as you point out, there are a lot of things that hang over the US-China relationship. Most worrying, perhaps: Beijing has not agreed to resume military-to-military cooperation with the US. Why is Beijing hesitant to do that? 
The problem is, our two militaries operate in very close proximity in the Spratly and Paracel Islands of the South China Sea, in the East China Sea and in the Taiwan Strait. And we want to make sure that when our Navy operates in international waters or when our Air Force operates in international airspace, which they are legally, of course, able to do and have a right to do, that everybody plays by the rules — that there aren’t unsafe intercepts by Chinese aircraft and Chinese naval vessels. We’ve seen twice, Marco, in the last three weeks, incidents — one in the Taiwan Strait by naval vessels and one in the air — where we believe the People’s Liberation Army here in China has acted irresponsibly and threatened to cause accidents. You need these military-to-military channels because if, God forbid, there is an accident between our military forces, you want to be able to intervene, lower the temperature and defuse a crisis before it gets worse. Why are the Chinese not accepting this? It’s a very good question. We’ve asked that question. Secretary Blinken said repeatedly to the Chinese leadership: It’s in the interest of both of our countries to make sure that we have contact with each other. Now, obviously, as the ambassador here, I have the ability to call people in the government in a crisis like that, and my staff does as well. But there’s no substitute for military officers who are in close proximity to be able to have that communication at a moment’s notice. 
Looming over all of this, of course, is the war in Ukraine. How did Ukraine come up in the discussions between Secretary Blinken and Xi Jinping and where did things land? 
Well, it was a big part of the discussion with the foreign minister and with Director Wang Yi. And what we have said very consistently is that obviously, China has influence in Russia. They have a very close relationship, and we hope that the government of China will use its influence to convince President Putin to, frankly, stop the war. Now, the Chinese have launched somewhat of a diplomatic mission. Ambassador Li Hui was an experienced Chinese diplomat, took a trip to Moscow and Kyiv, to Warsaw, Berlin and Paris as an attempt to try to begin discussions for how to end the war. We don’t think they made much progress on that trip, but we said, look, if you can contribute to a peaceful resolution of this dispute that honors the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine, the victim, then, of course, we would be supportive of that. But I think it remains to be seen whether China is going to try to exercise that kind of honest broker role or whether China will continue, in essence, to provide political support to Putin.
At this point in time, do you see any indication that China might be providing Moscow with technology to help prosecute the Kremlin’s war in Ukraine?
We have not seen indications that China has provided lethal military support to the Russian government for the war in Ukraine. But we’re watching very carefully. We’re going to continue to watch it. We raised this question, as Secretary Blinken did over the weekend. The Chinese know that we’re watching, and we have a lot of concerns.
Yeah, a lot of people watching the situation look at the erosion of trust and the limited communication between Washington and Beijing and wonder what that might mean. For example, it is easy to imagine how relatively minor accidents during military exercises or surveillance operations could dramatically escalate. What are the leaders from the two countries doing to prevent that from happening?
Well, the US has taken the position that it’s precisely when we have tension in a relationship, and we do with China, when we have major differences on important issues, as we certainly do, is precisely then when you need open diplomatic channels. Now, I have the ability and my great team here at the Embassy has the ability to talk to the Chinese Foreign Ministry. There’s no problem in that. But we want to accompany that with military-to-military talks. That’s the responsible thing to do. President Biden has talked a lot about the fact that we are in competition with China, and we certainly are, and we don’t shy away from that. But he also believes — and we believe — that we’ve got to be responsible in the way that both sides wage that competition. We have a responsibility to make sure that we don’t end up in conflict. And we certainly need to be responsible to have a peaceful relationship. The way you do that is you open the lines of communication so that we can talk to each other about difficult subjects. And if a crisis occurs, we can have instantaneous communication. We will continue to press this issue with the Chinese leadership. It makes perfect sense. And if you think about it, Marco, in the old Cold War — the first 10 years of my own diplomatic career were the last 10 years of the old Cold War — we were able to get to a point 60 years ago after the Cuban Missile crisis, where President [John F.] Kennedy and then President [Lyndon B.] Johnson and their successors were able to have at least the assurance that we could reach the Soviet leadership during a crisis. We need to do that now with China. It’s an important principle for us. As Secretary Blinken said in his press conference in Beijing before he left, he was going to persist on this and in pressing for this, and I certainly am going to do that on behalf of him and President Biden. 
 Do the Chinese seem as concerned of something bad accidentally happening, as you are expressing?
Oh, I think there are many people in the Chinese system who understand how important this is. We have to convince the People’s Liberation Army and the Chinese Ministry of Defense to go along with this. But, you know, it’s something that I think sooner or later is going to happen.
So, how can the relationship — and communications — with the Chinese be improved?
We had these channels until the Chinese closed them back in the first week of August 2022 following their protest — we thought it was unjustified — but their protest over Speaker [Nancy] Pelosi’s visit. It’s just a question of turning them back on. I should say, Marco, they also froze at that time our climate change talks, and they’ve since reengaged. They froze our anti-narcotics talks — that’s on fentanyl. We’ve been having trouble talking to them about that. But they have a responsibility on an acute issue like that, that I think Americans feel very deeply about. But the government here has a responsibility to help us out and stop the flow of these precursor chemicals. So, you know, this is a very difficult relationship to manage. There are some issues where we can work well with the Chinese. There are many where we cannot, but we don’t give up. We show up at work every day, and we’re working hard to make this a more effective relationship.
Amid all of these high-level points of tension, I’m wondering where the space is now for the US to continue pressing China on human rights. For example, what’s to be done about what’s been widely called a genocide of Muslim Uyghurs in western China?
Well, Secretary Blinken raised these issues in a very forthright way on Sunday and Monday here in Beijing with the Chinese leadership. He talked about our opposition to forced labor and what they’re doing in Xinjiang. He talked about human rights violations in Tibet. He also discussed the denial of freedom to the people of Hong Kong and the dramatic change we’ve seen in the crackdown on civil liberties there. He also raised specific cases of Chinese individuals who’ve been thrown in jail for exercising rights that we think that all people should have. We don’t shy away from promoting human rights here. We’ve got a lot of issues on the agenda here that are vital to the future of America, but we are a democratic country that deeply believes in human rights for all people. And so, as a matter of course, I raise these issues on a very regular basis with the Chinese leadership, and we won’t stop doing that.
What role does the US-China economic co-dependence have in salvaging this relationship?
It’s an irony. At the same time that we’ve had so many disagreements in the relationship, our two-way trade relationship grew last year to $690 billion. China is now our third-largest trade partner after Canada and Mexico. And so, it’s actually a very important place for American businesses. The US-China Business Council in a recent report said that about a million Americans’ jobs depend on trade with China. Secretary Blinken was very open. You know, we’re not trying to decouple the American economy from the Chinese economy. We’re not trying to end all trade between China and the United States, but we are trying to “de-risk.” What does that mean? It means that, you know, we learned in COVID during the COVID years we were too dependent on China for certain critical minerals and critical materials. So, we’re trying to diversify our supply chains so that we don’t end up in a crisis, unduly dependent on China. And on technology, which is really the heart of the competition between us, we’ve taken actions over the last year or so to prevent the export of certain American advanced technologies like advanced semiconductors that could be used by the Chinese against us for military purposes, for the development of sophisticated military weapons. And there is no reason why we would want to do that. In fact, we want to shut off the possibility that American military technology could end up being used against us. So, we have a very hard-headed approach to the economic relationship. It’s important in a field like agriculture — China is our largest market for American farmers and ranchers and for the American fishing industry. But on certain technology grounds, we’re going to begin to take tough actions to block the export of technologies that could be injurious to our national security.
Which side do you think is more responsible, really, for the deterioration of the US-China relationship?
Obviously, the United States believes that we’ve tried to put our best foot forward here. You know, we look at the relationship this way, Marco: It’s a highly competitive relationship on human rights, on technology, on the lack of a level playing field for American businesses. Certainly from a security perspective, you know, we want to maintain the power of the American military working with our allies, Japan and Australia and South Korea here in the Indo-Pacific. We’re competing with China in all of those realms. But on the other hand, obviously, we’re the two largest carbon emitters, so we have a self-interest and, frankly, a responsibility to work with them on climate change. So, the relationship is a lot of competition — probably the majority of what we do. But we want to live in peace with China and cooperate when we can. It’s that kind of a relationship. And that balance is a difficult one to strike. I was back in Washington last week. I met with many members of Congress, both in the House and the Senate. And while there are some differences on Capitol Hill, in large measure, I think most Republicans and Democrats agree, we’ve got to compete, but we also have to engage at some point with the Chinese. And I think getting that balance right is tricky. But I think we’ve got it largely right. And so, we think we’ve acted in the right way here. We don’t think it’s right for the Chinese to shut down channels of communication. So, that’s our major issue right now. We’re trying to stabilize the relationship in a responsible way.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

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