On the surface, the low-profile meeting between the top diplomats of China and the United States in Hawaii last week was notable mostly for its being held, showing that despite bilateral relations being at its lowest ebb in four decades, the two can still talk to each other.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo hosted Yang Jiechi, a member of the Chinese Communist Party's Politburo and Director of the party's Foreign Affairs Commission, at Hickam Air Force Base and the two spoke for six hours over two days, topped by a dinner.
China's state news agency, Xinhua, reported that "this was a constructive dialogue." The State Department spokesperson, Morgan Ortagus, issued a one-paragraph readout simply saying that Pompeo had met Yang "to exchange views on U.S.-China relations." But Xinhua's use of "constructive" was approved by the U.S.
This was the second Pompeo-Yang dialogue. The first was held last August in New York. Little progress was made during that session but the two sides agreed to stay in touch.
Interestingly, China insisted that it did not request the latest meeting, implying that the United States asked for it because it needed Chinese cooperation. The fact that Pompeo was the host suggests that the U.S. did, indeed, initiate the dialogue.
The Ortagus readout contained only one topic of discussion: Pompeo's call for transparency and information sharing to combat the Covid-19 pandemic and prevent future outbreaks. Yang's response, according to the Chinese foreign ministry, stressed that "China's prevention and control measures are open, transparent, rapid and effective." But he also called on the U.S. to work with China to strengthen anti-epidemic cooperation and, generally, "contribute to cooperation in global health security."
That suggests that Covid-19 is an area of possible cooperation.
Pompeo brought up North Korea, calling it an area of "obvious cooperation." But Yang took the standard Chinese line, calling on the U.S. and North Korea to "meet each other halfway, accommodate each other's legitimate concerns, and take concrete steps to advance the political process." In other words, China wasn't going to help the U.S. out.
The Chinese side disclosed three other topics discussed: Taiwan, Hong Kong and Xinjiang.
According to Zhao Lijian, a foreign ministry spokesman, Yang had "expounded China's basic attitude towards developing China-US relations and its positions on important and sensitive issues concerning Taiwan, Hong Kong and Xinjiang." No doubt, Pompeo was told that those issues were China's internal affairs. Still, it doesn't rule out China adopting a more moderate stance if it considers that in its own interests.
No progress was reported on any of these issues. The only positive outcome from the dialogue was announced by Pompeo in a tweet: "During my meeting with CCP Politburo Member Yang Jiechi, he recommitted to completing and honoring all of the obligations of Phase 1 of the trade deal between our two countries."
This, in fact, was a substantial win for Washington. Many analysts have said that, in the wake of Covid-19, China is simply unable to deliver what it promised in the January deal, under which it pledged to buy an additional $200 billion of U.S. goods in 2020-2021.
John Bolton, President Donald Trump's former national security adviser, reveals in his new book that Trump personally asked his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, to help him win the 2020 election by getting farmers' support through increased Chinese purchases of soybeans and wheat. This is exactly what China has done, by pledging to purchase American agricultural products, thereby delivering farmers' votes in key Midwestern states.
This Chinese pledge is creating unhappiness in Europe. One unidentified European Union diplomat was quoted as saying that Yang's pledge to Pompeo "has effectively sucked most of the air from the room when it comes to agricultural deals, and left firms and governments frustrated."
The pro-Trump China stance may seem counter-intuitive since the Trump administration is seen as taking a tough stand on China and Trump himself continues to taunt China, using the term "kung flu" for Covid-19 at his Tulsa rally last weekend. But Trump, as usual, carefully avoided any personal criticism of the Chinese leader.
Besides, from China's standpoint, Trump's antics really hurt America more than China. He is tarnishing America's image, demeaning the presidency and damaging American leadership worldwide. In the last three years, Trump has helped Beijing achieve key Chinese political ambitions that previous American leaders had frustrated. That includes seriously weakening America's alliances, not only the trans-Atlantic alliance but, more particularly, the crucial ones in Asia with Japan and with South Korea.
With Trump, perhaps unwittingly, doing China's work, there's every reason for Beijing to help him win votes in November.