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Biden appears to be making an effort to quell growing tensions with China

ASMA KHALID, HOST:

There is not a lot of high-level contact between Washington and Beijing these days, especially after the shoot-down of that Chinese balloon earlier this month. But yesterday, President Biden said he plans to speak with Chinese leader Xi Jinping soon. And he also made clear those three other objects that were shot down in the sky did not appear to be operated by the Chinese. Well, to tell us what Beijing thinks about all of this, we are joined by NPR's John Ruwitch, who is in Beijing.

John, has the Chinese government said anything about this possible conversation between Joe Biden and Xi Jinping?

JOHN RUWITCH, BYLINE: Well, yes and no. Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin was asked about this today, and he said China has no information to share on whether or not there will actually be a conversation between the leaders. So he didn't fully dismiss the idea, but he did take the opportunity to do a little finger wagging.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WANG WENBIN: (Speaking Mandarin).

RUWITCH: He's saying that the U.S. can't try to get communication and dialogue going while at the same time doing things to intensify the conflict and escalate the crisis. Instead, he says, Washington should work with China to manage their differences, to properly handle the situation and to avoid misunderstanding and misjudgment.

KHALID: Interesting. So, John, that doesn't sound like a soft, or even conciliatory, tone.

RUWITCH: No, not at all. He said the balloon incident was really a test of the sincerity of the U.S. and its ability to properly manage the crisis and stabilize China-U.S. relations. So he's putting the blame on the U.S. for where things are at at this point. You know, I also asked him about a possible meeting between Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Wang Yi, who's China's top foreign policy official. Both of them will be in Munich for a security conference that starts today and runs through the weekend.

He said he doesn't have any information to share about that meeting either. You know, starting to have some of these discussions would probably be a good thing for the relationship, but we just don't know if they can get there at this point. And that really tells you how tough things are in U.S.-China relations now.

KHALID: Right. Right. So the other day, the Chinese government imposed sanctions on Lockheed-Martin and a subsidiary of Raytheon. Is it safe to say that those actions taken by the Chinese government were retaliation for U.S. sanctions on companies linked to the balloon?

RUWITCH: Well, the Ministry of Commerce announced these new sanctions on Thursday, and it did not mention the balloon episode by name when it announced these sanctions. Instead, it said they were putting sanctions on the companies because of arms sales to Taiwan that these two companies were allegedly involved in. They've been subject to sanctions from China a few times before. So these are largely seen as symbolic. You know, the timing will not have been a coincidence, though. As you say, these come just days after the U.S. slapped sanctions on six Chinese companies following the whole balloon episode.

KHALID: Yeah. John, we've got less than a minute left, but I wanted to ask you about the broader relations between China and the United States. It did seem like there was beginning to be this bit of a thaw before the balloon incident. How would you describe the relationship now, you know, both with the Unites States, but broader with Western countries?

RUWITCH: That's a great question. We'll see what happens with Blinken and Wang Yi, if they meet. If Xi Jinping and Biden have a discussion, that could help put a floor under the relationship. China has not rolled over on this balloon episode, you know? But from Beijing's perspective, there are still arguably pretty good reasons to seek better relations with the U.S. The biggest, according to a lot of analysts, is the economy, which is struggling in the wake of "zero-COVID" policies that were in place for three years. You know, Beijing wants to woo foreign investors back, rebuild some credibility there and minimize the sort of potential for conflict with the West while it's trying to get its economy back on its feet.

KHALID: All right.

Thanks for your reporting, John.

RUWITCH: Thank you.

KHALID: That's NPR's John Ruwitch in Beijing. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Asma Khalid is a White House correspondent for NPR. She also co-hosts The NPR Politics Podcast.
John Ruwitch is a correspondent with NPR's international desk. He covers Chinese affairs.