There’s a steady political consensus in Washington these days, despite the steady partisan discord, on taking a hard line with China. And now a U.S. House of Representatives panel has recently recommended new confrontational policies: The Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party advocated stepping up the U.S. military’s presence in Taiwan and imposing sanctions on Chinese technology companies doing business in Xinjiang Province—where the People’s Republic is committing ongoing acts of genocide against Uighur Muslims.

These measures follow former President Donald Trump’s 2018 declaration of a trade war against China, President Joe Biden’s continuation of Trump’s tariffs on Chinese goods, and more tough moves against Beijing. These include U.S. administration agreeing to send nuclear submarines to Australia and ban the export of semiconductor chips to China. Meanwhile, Nancy Pelosi, then the speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, infuriated Beijing with a trip to Taiwan.

Last month, however, Biden predicted a “thaw” in U.S.-China relations shortly after U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan met with his Chinese counterpart in Vienna. The two countries’ top commerce officials also met last month. And, it turns out, CIA Director Bill Burns secretly traveled to Beijing in May. What’s going on?

Eyck Freymann is the author of One Belt One Road: Chinese Power Meets the World. As Freymann sees it, the U.S. is trying to create guardrails for its relationship with China, as the two countries otherwise fiercely compete for global influence. The Americans are especially anxious to establish a process for averting a crisis over Taiwan.

Washington has chosen to reach out to Beijing, Freymann says, on the belief that the U.S. can now negotiate from a position of strength. American allies worldwide mostly adopted its tough approach to China, while China struggled with an economic slowdown, a shambolic Covid response, and a blow to its international status for standing by Russia after the invasion of Ukraine. Still, Freymann says, it’s not clear how Beijing will respond to the U.S. outreach. Competing groups in the Chinese leadership hold opposing views on whether to engage with Washington—and Xi Jinping’s opinion, which will be decisive, remains as yet unknown.

Michael Bluhm: Why would the U.S. be doing this?

Eyck Freymann: Since 2018, U.S.-China relations have been in an unrestrained free fall. Security analysts have been especially worried about a breakdown in military-to-military crisis communication—but really, cooperation has broken down on nearly every issue, even ones like climate change and arms control, where both sides have common interests.

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