When Gina Raimondo, the secretary of commerce, left China this week, it marked the end of a three-month diplomatic blitz by the Biden administration to try to stabilize ties with Beijing and arrest a free fall in the relationship that had raised concerns about the risk of conflict.
President Biden had bet that high-level dialogue could help manage an escalating rivalry over trade, technology and the status of Taiwan. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken was the first to make the trip to the Chinese capital in June, followed by Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen and the presidential climate envoy, John Kerry, in July.
After logging all those miles, the question now is whether China will reciprocate by sending senior Chinese ministers to Washington. The United States has publicly invited China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, but he has yet to accept. The last senior Chinese official to travel to Washington was China’s commerce minister, Wang Wentao, who visited in late May.
China has much to gain from dispatching officials to the United States. It would signal to the world it was making an effort to ease tensions with Washington, particularly at a time when China needs to bolster confidence in its shaky economy. A visit could also help lay the groundwork for a potential, highly anticipated meeting between President Biden and China’s top leader, Xi Jinping, at a forum in San Francisco in November.
Beijing, however, has been noncommittal. Its approach could reflect internal disarray following the unexplained, abrupt dismissal of its former foreign minister, Qin Gang, in July. Or it could be a hardball tactic aimed at conveying Mr. Xi’s displeasure over what he regards as an effort by the United States to contain China’s rise.
It could also suggest that Beijing sees no upside in traveling for talks, given how unlikely it is that the Biden administration will ease up on its tough policies.
“Visits to the U.S. carry political risk, particularly if they do not produce the results that China seeks,” said Danny Russel, a vice president of the Asia Society Policy Institute and a former U.S. assistant secretary of state.
Those risks include exposing envoys to criticism and protests. China places great importance on the optics of its official visits overseas. Since lifting “zero Covid” last year, Mr. Xi has traveled only to countries where he has been assured a friendly welcome like Saudi Arabia, Russia, and most recently, South Africa for the summit of the BRICS group of emerging nations.
Mr. Xi emerged from the meeting in Johannesburg seemingly triumphant, having succeeded in persuading the four other members — Brazil, Russia, India and South Africa — to expand the grouping. That decision allowed Mr. Xi to burnish his image back home as a global statesman despite China’s weakened standing with the West over its support for Russia.
He Lifeng, a vice premier overseeing economic policy, meanwhile, went to Pakistan in July. Mr. Wang, the foreign minister, traveled to Cambodia, Malaysia and Singapore in addition to Johannesburg in August.
The foreign ministry has said only that China and the United States were “in touch” about exchanges. Mr. Wang was invited a month ago to visit Washington, a trip that has been seen as crucial for the planning of a possible visit by Mr. Xi to San Francisco for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, and a meeting with Mr. Biden.
China may not intend to schedule any U.S. visits. Holding meetings exclusively in Beijing could give Mr. Xi’s government more control over the talks, to push back against the United States on issues like trade and investment restrictions.
“Making the ‘barbarians’ come to Beijing as supplicants is a tried and true Chinese power play tactic,” Mr. Russel said.
That matters to the Chinese because the Biden administration, which has described China as “America’s most consequential geopolitical challenge,” has remained unrelenting on the issues that frustrate the Chinese leadership the most.
Topping that list is Washington’s continued support for Taiwan, a self-governed island claimed by Beijing. China perceives exchanges between U.S. and Taiwanese officials, arms sales and joint statements with allies about preserving peace in Taiwan as tantamount to supporting the island’s independence.
Additionally, China wants Washington to lift restrictions on access to advanced U.S. chip technology, and to stop deepening security ties with allies around Asia — moves Mr. Xi has said amounts to “all-around containment, encirclement and suppression of China.”
China has also denounced a summit Mr. Biden held at Camp David with the leaders of Japan and South Korea to boost security cooperation, calling it “a deliberate attempt to sow discord between China and our neighbors.”
“The Camp David meeting of the three leaders is having a very negative impact on China’s perception of the three powers,” said Zheng Yongnian, an influential political scientist at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, Shenzhen. “It is seen as dividing Asia, and leading Asia into another Cold War.”
Beijing could also be withholding visits to the U.S. to express its unhappiness over the reported barring of Hong Kong’s Beijing-backed chief executive, John Lee, from the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit. China’s Foreign Ministry demanded that Mr. Lee be invited, and that the United States lift sanctions it imposed on him for implementing a national security law that drastically limited freedoms in the city.
“The U.S. wants President Xi to attend APEC, but then they take such an action with the Hong Kong chief executive,” said Wu Xinbo, dean of international studies at Fudan University in Shanghai. “The policy is contradictory.”
China’s biggest qualm about holding talks with the United States in recent months was that engagement would amount to nothing if it was not backed by action. In his meetings with Ms. Raimondo on Tuesday, Chinese Premier Li Qiang called on the United States to “meet China halfway” and “take more practical and beneficial actions.”
Ms. Raimondo used her meeting to assure Beijing that the United States did not want to sever trade ties, and also to share concerns by American businesses that China was becoming “uninvestable” because the environment seemed fraught with risks. She cited government raids on businesses, a new counterespionage law and the imposing of exorbitant fines without explanation.
Nicholas Burns, the U.S. ambassador in Beijing, said in an interview on Wednesday that the visits to China by U.S. officials enabled Washington to deliver “direct and often tough messages to senior Chinese leaders on issues critical to our national security.”
The access to senior leadership was a far cry from earlier in the year when a Chinese surveillance balloon episode set off a tense diplomatic impasse.
Still, the two sides remain far apart on issues like military-to-military communication, which have been frozen by Beijing since Nancy Pelosi, then the speaker of the House of Representatives, visited Taiwan last August.
“U.S. efforts shouldn’t be measured by how many reciprocal visits China makes, but rather whether or not its engagements with Beijing communicate hard truths to Beijing while also attempting to find paths to avoiding conflict,” said Jude Blanchette, who holds the Freeman Chair in China Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
“If Xi and his deputies only feel comfortable discussing these matters within the confines of Communist Party property,” he added, “then that says more about them than it does the White House.”