In a Troubled U.S.-China Relationship, Moments of Pragmatism Emerge

Deal for Huawei executive’s release follows other actions suggesting a willingness on both sides to grab at green shoots

By James T. Areddy
and Andrew Restuccia

Sept. 26, 2021

Behind-the-scenes dealings that freed a Chinese executive from U.S. prosecution removed a stumbling block between the nations and demonstrated a little-noticed pragmatic dimension to the relationship.

The U.S. and China are at loggerheads on numerous fronts, from technology and human rights to Beijing’s territorial claims; the United Nations secretary-general this month termed the nations’ relationship as “completely dysfunctional.”

Yet, a growing list of actions—including on climate cooperation and the granting of visas—since Joe Biden assumed the U.S. presidency indicates the two sides are willing to grab at green shoots.

The actions are happening at the margins of a deeply strained Sino-U.S. relationship; there is no sign of a thaw over major disputes, such as China’s claims involving Taiwan or the South China Sea, that some fear risk putting the countries on a path toward military conflict.

Still, the biggest sign yet of a pragmatic dynamic came on Friday, in what looked like a carefully choreographed prisoner swap.

Under an agreement with the U.S. Justice Department, Meng Wanzhou, a senior executive of Huawei Technologies Co., conceded that she had made untrue statements relating to the Chinese telecom giant’s business in Iran. In exchange, the U.S. agreed to defer and later drop criminal charges against Ms. Meng, freeing her to fly to China from Canada, where she had been fighting extradition to the U.S.

As Ms. Meng neared departure, Chinese authorities released two Canadians jailed days after Ms. Meng was first detained in 2018, Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig, and they boarded a Royal Canadian Air Force jet bound for Calgary, ending a three-year ordeal for the two and for Ottawa, a critical U.S. ally.

The Huawei developments were unrelated to broader diplomatic efforts to ease tensions, according to a person familiar with the Biden administration’s thinking, saying that the Justice Department makes its decisions independently from the White House.

In China, state media reports said the Canadians were paroled for health reasons.

That it appears to have taken a high-stakes deal to spring the Canadians from Chinese jails is a worry for some expats in China, who say Beijing may be emboldened to detain other foreigners in future spats. Others say they saw problematic aspects in the U.S. case against Ms. Meng, though business executives and organizations also expressed relief that the standoff seems over.

“I see all the things that are not going right. I’ve seen a few good things, but it’s limited. This is the biggest for sure,” said Stephen A. Orlins, president of the New York-based advisory National Committee on United States-China Relations. “I hope this drives positive momentum.”

In recent months, each side has tackled irritants in the relationship: U.S. consulates in China have approved tens of thousands of visas for Chinese students; the Justice Department in July withdrew charges against five visiting researchers accused of hiding their affiliations with China’s military; and U.S. agencies have halted actions against Chinese technology products the Trump administration had labeled national-security risks, including Tencent Holdings Ltd. ’s WeChat messaging app and ByteDance Ltd.’s TikTok.

Meanwhile, President Xi Jinping this month said China will no longer build coal-fired power plants abroad, addressing one of a number of climate goals pursued by the Biden administration. China also stepped up imports of American corn, barley and sorghum this year, according to the U.S. Grains Council. And China recently installed a new ambassador in Washington who has been telling visitors two-way communication is beneficial.

Friday’s breakthrough came as Mr. Biden wants Beijing’s support for a global climate deal at a Glasgow summit in November, for instance, and as China’s Mr. Xi looks to avoid any boycott unpleasantness at Beijing’s Winter Olympics.

Since taking office, Mr. Biden has sought to ease tensions with China, while working to counter its growing global influence, including by working with allies to put pressure on Beijing.

In his Tuesday address to the U.N. General Assembly, Mr. Biden detailed a foreign-policy world view rooted in alliance-building and diplomacy, asserting that he was uninterested in another Cold War.

The Chinese and U.S. presidents have also kept communication channels open, speaking at length by telephone twice this year—even as the two sides have sometimes talked past each other. The White House described a 90-minute call earlier this month between the two leaders as part of a continuing effort by the U.S. to “responsibly manage” the relationship and to “ensure competition does not veer into conflict.”

Despite assurances from the nations’ leaders that neither wants conflict, their deputies have locked horns in public settings like an Alaska meeting in March that turned acrimonious. Their militaries regularly cross paths in and over the contested waters of the East and South China Seas.

In the Biden administration’s view, most of Beijing’s actions have been incremental and reflect pressures it faces rather than a fresh spirit of cooperation, according to the person familiar with the administration’s internal discussions on China. The relationship is hugely complex and for every positive development, there are many more thorny issues that have yet to be resolved, the person said.

China’s embassy in Washington and its Foreign Ministry didn’t respond to questions over the weekend.

While the Biden administration has pursued cooperation on specific subjects, Beijing has sought talks with the U.S. that address the overall relationship. That point was made clear by its foreign minister, Wang Yi, during a visit this month by Mr. Biden’s climate envoy John Kerry, when he said, “cooperation on climate change cannot be divorced from the overall situation of China-U.S. relations.”

The question is how much the steps matter.

“There are some eddy currents, mini pools and ripples, but the sea change is toward a more truculent, belligerent and arrogant policy on the part of Beijing,” said Matt Pottinger, who served as the deputy national security adviser in the Trump administration and now chairs the China program at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a conservative-leaning Washington think tank.

In some cases, actions have defused plans set in motion by the Trump administration, which spent much of its energy pursuing a trade deal signed in early 2020 and then grew distrustful of Beijing as the Covid-19 pandemic spread.

But Mr. Biden has also kept in place several other pressure points inherited from Donald Trump, including tariffs on Chinese steel and aluminum, washing machines, solar panels and other goods. The administration is still reviewing its economic and trade policy for China.

That review is expected to be completed in the near future, according to the person familiar with the administration’s internal discussions on China.

And despite Friday’s deal over Ms. Meng, a U.S. squeeze on Huawei remains broad-based and intense.

One sign of a willingness to compromise appeared this month at the U.N., when the U.S. backed a critic of Myanmar’s military regime in his bid to remain the country’s ambassador. China, one of a handful of states to engage the junta since it took power, didn’t block the move. Under the arrangement, the Myanmar representative, Kyaw Moe Tun, made no speech to the General Assembly but remained the country’s representative during key proceedings pending a final decision later over the seat.

Episodes of harmony have benefited both China and the U.S. Visas open educational opportunities to Chinese students and boost revenue at American colleges, for instance. And grain purchases by large Chinese state enterprises help Beijing rebuild the nation’s pork population while signaling good faith to Washington. Both have an interest in pressuring Myanmar’s military regime, though for different reasons.

The official rhetoric for now remains harsh.

Ms. Meng was hailed as a national hero upon her arrival back in Shenzhen on Saturday. Government-run China Central Television credited her release to “the strong will of the Chinese people to defy power and oppose hegemony,” while avoiding specifics. State media called Ms. Meng’s initial detention illegal.

Some watchers still said the breakthrough may signal cooler heads prevailing. “The immediate release of the Michaels gives me greater hope that this is merely the first step in joint efforts to get better relations back on a somewhat smoother, at least less dangerous, track,” said Jerome Cohen, a New York lawyer who has worked on several high-profile legal cases involving the two countries.