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Zurich talks are optimistic sign for China-US relations

chinadaily.com.cn | Updated: 2021-10-08 15:51
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Yang Jiechi (right), a member of the Political Bureau of the Communist Party of China Central Committee and director of the Office of the Foreign Affairs Commission of the CPC Central Committee, talks with United States National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan (left) during a meeting on China-US relations at a hotel in Zurich Airport, Switzerland, on Wednesday. [Photo/Xinhua]

The "whirlwind" meeting between Yang Jiechi, member of the Political Bureau of the CPC Central Committee, and United States National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan in Zurich, Switzerland on Wednesday was a positive signal of cautious optimism that China-US relations are back on track.

The first reason for this optimism is the way the meeting was conducted. The two sides maintained a near-identical "low-profile pragmatism", with the US no longer engaging in the "microphone diplomacy" previously criticized by China, i.e. setting high-profile expectations before the talks. This practice was intended to give the outside world the impression China is agreeing to the talks under pressure from the US. After the talks, the Chinese press release and the US Readout coincided in referring to the Sept 10, 2021 call between the top leaders of China and the US, jointly acknowledging the significance of the "spirit of the September 10 call" in guiding the Zurich meeting, showing a more pronounced convergence.

The second reason for cautious optimism is the choice of venue for the meeting. The US insisted on choosing Anchorage, Alaska in early 2021, in a deliberate diplomatic gesture to gain an advantage in the talks and speak from a "position of strength", violating basic diplomatic protocol. China's acceptance of Anchorage was intended as a sign of good faith in dialogue with the US, not as an endorsement of such petty gestures. Switzerland not only enjoys a special reputation for hosting international conferences but was also the first stop in Sullivan's recent series of foreign visits. The change of venue can be interpreted, at least reasonably, as a subtle change in US attitudes, a change that at least so far has shown itself to be more positive and constructive.

The third reason is the press releases from both sides after the meeting showed a certain pragmatic change in general tone, especially from the US. The Readout released by the US after the meeting was concise and no longer featured large paragraphs of rhetoric, and the White House spokesman's expression of one of the main elements of the talks, namely the video meeting between the US and Chinese leaders within the year, was also more pragmatic, reflecting the two sides are working together toward this goal rather than making unilateral statements favorable to the views and attitudes of the US.

Obviously, the three reasons above are more conceptual. As far as the material outcome of the talks is concerned, the Chinese Foreign Ministry press release said the two sides had a comprehensive, frank and in-depth exchange of views on US-China relations and international and regional issues of common concern. Obviously, tensions are still very real, but considering the previous uncertainty was mainly due to changes in the US' attitude, the subtle but positive changes reflected in the Zurich talks provide some cause for optimism.

Overall, the most significant factor in the changes in US-China relations since the Trump administration in 2017 has been the projection of cognitive anxiety of the US strategic elite in US-China relations. This cognitive anxiety stems from a classic misperception, as the American scholar Robert Jervis points out in his book, which stems from an inappropriate interpretation of history. The Chinese side calls this "Cold War thinking". In terms of the long-term development of Sino-US relations and the bigger picture, building the right perception will be the key to continued improvement of the relationship. The Zurich talks have taken shape in such a way that the outside world has seen positive signs. It is hoped such signals will continue to emerge and push the US-China relationship back onto a healthy track, which is important not only for China and the US, but also for the world.

Shen Yi is director of he International Research Institute of Global Cyberspace Governance at Fudan University.

Sha Yue'er is a research assistant at the institute.

The views don't necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

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