Trans-Pacific View

Should the US Initiate a New Round of Backroom Diplomacy With China?

Recent Features

Trans-Pacific View | Diplomacy | East Asia

Should the US Initiate a New Round of Backroom Diplomacy With China?

The political conditions in the U.S. aren’t quite right – and China doesn’t seem receptive to such outreach, rendering it an unnecessary option for the time being.

Should the US Initiate a New Round of Backroom Diplomacy With China?

U.S. President Joe Biden hosts a bilateral meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Filoli Estate in Woodside, California, Nov. 15, 2023.

Credit: Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz

Backroom diplomacy has long been a key element in China-U.S. relations. Since U.S. National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger’s secret visit to China in 1971, the United States has employed this discreet approach to ease tensions between the two nations several times. Compared to formal diplomacy, backroom diplomacy often yields unexpected positive outcomes as its high level of secrecy fosters an environment conducive to more efficient and flexible negotiations, particularly in times of heightened tension when formal channels may be less effective.

U.S. leaders often prefer to keep discussions with China secret, notably when policies face criticism from Congress, the media, and public opinion. However, not all diplomacy occurs behind closed doors. Formal diplomacy is necessary for great powers like the United States and China to demonstrate their capability to shape negotiations and outcomes. Diplomacy is perhaps the most misunderstood instrument employed to manage foreign relations, as it unfolds out of sight and out of mind, yet in democracies like the United States, formal diplomacy also embodies policy transparency. As advocated by former President Barack Obama, practicing openness in diplomacy helps showcase legitimacy to partners and the public and ensure government accountability.

Hence, astute U.S. leaders recognize that backroom diplomacy should be used judiciously. Successful backroom diplomacy hinges on finesse, politesse, and perhaps most importantly, timing. For U.S. presidents to initiate backroom diplomacy with China, two key conditions must be met: they must have a strong political determination to improve China-U.S. relations, and there must be substantial domestic pressure opposing such improvements.

One of the most prominent examples of backroom diplomacy is then-President Richard Nixon’s effort to reopen relations with China. Once an ardent anti-communist senator, Nixon evolved into a grand strategist prioritizing geopolitics upon taking office. Recognizing that China could be leveraged against the Soviet Union and that both Moscow and Beijing could pressure North Vietnam, he took steps toward China-U.S. normalization. First, he relaxed the trade and travel restrictions that had been imposed on China in 1950, and then he resumed Sino-American talks in Warsaw in December 1969 after a two-year suspension.

In the meantime, despite a growing congressional trend toward being more receptive to China policy reform in the late 1960s, resistance to opening up to China still prevailed in America. For example, when Representative Paul Findley proposed the “East-West Trade Relations Act of 1969” to use trade as a means to normalize relations with China, it was never passed.

Confronted with significant domestic pressure, Nixon understood that his efforts to normalize China-U.S. relations could backfire if not carefully managed. Unlike his predecessors, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, whose attempts to shift China policy were thwarted by domestic opposition, Nixon tenaciously pursued his geopolitical ambition via backroom diplomacy. Ultimately, his approach proved successful both domestically and internationally.

Other U.S. presidents who have employed backroom diplomacy include Jimmy Carter and George H. W. Bush. Like Nixon, they demonstrated strong political determination to improve China-U.S. relations despite facing significant domestic pressure. Now, as the bilateral relationship reaches another critical juncture, the question arises: should the current U.S. president, Joe Biden, initiate a fresh round of backroom diplomacy?

The crux still rests on the two aforementioned conditions. First, does Biden possess the strong political determination to improve the Sino-American relationship? Yes and no. 

In the short term, the Biden administration is actively navigating the United States’ China policy from “decoupling” to “de-risking.” This strategic shift is not solely driven by the necessity for a stronger economic rapport with the world’s second-largest powerhouse to stabilize the U.S. economy. It also reflects a desire for a more collaborative China in the Indo-Pacific, aimed at dampening tensions surrounding the Ukraine-Russia war and the Taiwan Strait.

In the longer term, Biden’s stance on fundamentally reshaping China-U.S. relations remains ambiguous. Not only has his administration retained Trump-era China tariffs and enacted China-countering bills such as the CHIPS and Science Act, it also strengthened U.S. alliances in the Indo-Pacific in response to China’s increasing assertiveness. In contrast with the overt “all-encompassing decoupling” policy toward China in the final year of the Trump administration, the Biden administration has employed a more flexible and nuanced approach to China, described by Secretary of State Antony Blinken as being “competitive when it should be, collaborative when it can be, and adversarial when it must be.”

Second, does Biden face significant domestic pressure against improving the Sino-American relationship? Not necessarily. While anti-China sentiment may appear pervasive, partisan divisions over China are becoming increasingly evident, both within the general public and among political elites. Despite claims that Congress has generated around 400 anti-China bills in recent years, the majority of these are merely “performative legislation” with little impact.

Moreover, despite the purported bipartisan tough stance on China, the Biden administration’s efforts to ease tensions with China find greater acceptance among Democrats. Unlike Nixon, Carter, and the senior Bush, Biden encounters less ideological resistance against China as he seeks to improve bilateral ties. In an era of deep economic interdependence between the two countries, Biden’s China policy might even attract support from Republicans.

In addition to the two aforementioned conditions, another crucial factor is the anticipated response from Chinese leaders. U.S. leaders are more likely to initiate backroom diplomacy when they anticipate at least receptive, if not entirely positive, reactions from their Chinese counterparts, no matter how small those responses are.

When Nixon was laying the groundwork for opening back channels to China through the U.S. ambassador to Poland, Walter Stoessel, Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai responded cautiously by approving the release of two Americans who had been detained in China for months after their yacht had strayed into Chinese territorial waters near Hong Kong. Recognizing this signal from across the Pacific Ocean, Kissinger swiftly moved forward with Nixon to the next step. Similar receptive responses could also be found when Carter and the senior Bush sought backroom dialogues with China.

The unfortunate reality is that both countries are currently gripped by nationalistic sentiments. The United States emphasizes its global leadership in defending democracy against authoritarianism, while China challenges the global order with its “China Model.” Controversial issues such as Taiwan and human rights have become unavoidable topics in nearly every recent bilateral talk, with neither side willing to yield ground. As the areas of irreconcilability widen, the likelihood of American leaders expecting receptive responses from their Chinese counterparts sharply declines, rendering backroom diplomacy an unnecessary option for the time being.

As the 2024 U.S. presidential election approaches, both Democrats and Republicans are expected to double down on their use of the “China Card” to avoid appearing weak on China issues and score political points. With limited incentives to change the status quo, perhaps a major breakthrough in the current bilateral relationship will only emerge after the election, whether through formal or backroom diplomacy.