China must show it is not an ‘agent of instability’ in Taiwan, says US ambassador to China

“We don’t believe there should be a crisis in US-China relations because of the visit – the peaceful visit – of the Speaker of the House of Representatives to Taiwan…it was a crisis fabricated by the government in Beijing .was an overreaction,” Burns told CNN Friday from the U.S. Embassy.

It is now up to “the government here in Beijing to convince the rest of the world that it will act peacefully in the future,” the ambassador said.

“I think the world is very worried that China has become an agent of instability in the Taiwan Strait and it’s not in anyone’s interest.”

Burns, a career diplomat and former U.S. ambassador to NATO, arrived in Beijing in March to take up what is arguably America’s most important diplomatic post – navigating U.S.-China relations ever strained by tensions over a range of issues, including human rights in China. record, business practices and military expansion in the South China Sea.

China’s strict Covid-19 restrictions have also curtailed diplomatic travel to and from China, putting Burns even more squarely at the forefront of managing the increasingly contentious relationship between the world’s two largest economies. .

That was clear on the night of Aug. 2, when Burns received a summons for a meeting with Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Xie Feng at what he describes as the exact moment the plane carrying Pelosi and his delegation Congress landed in Taipei.

China conducts new military drills around Taiwan as US Congress delegation visits

“We had a very heated, I would say rather contentious meeting,” Burns said, describing in detail for the first time that discussion, which was confirmed by both Washington and Beijing at the time.

“I stood up for the speaker. I stood up for her right to travel to Taiwan. I stood up for the peace and stability we have in the Taiwan Strait for almost six decades,” Burns said, adding that he had challenged Xie to ensure that the Chinese government would act in a way that would “promote peace and stability.”

Instead, Burns said, Beijing designed its response, including sending missiles over Taiwan, to “intimidate and coerce Taiwanese authorities” and “led a global campaign” accusing the United States of what he sees as undermining stability in the Taiwan Strait.

“We have been very, very clear about (maintaining our policy). The problem is this: is a government going to react in an aggressive and violent way to disturb the peace? This must concern everyone in the world. “, did he declare. .

Nancy Pelosi received Taiwan's highest civilian honor from Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen at the President's Office on August 3, 2022.

Diplomatic fallout

The United States maintains a “One China” policy, but has never accepted the ruling Chinese Communist Party’s claim to sovereignty over Taiwan. Washington maintains “strategic ambiguity” over whether it would come to Taiwan’s defense in the event of a Chinese attack.

The Communist Party has long vowed to “reunify” the island, which it never controlled, with mainland China, by force if necessary.

China has denounced Pelosi’s visit as a violation of its “sovereignty and territorial integrity”, Burns’ counterpart, the Chinese ambassador to America’s Qin Gang, said earlier this month that the United States had to “take responsibility” for the situation they created.

Beijing’s diplomatic retaliation included the cancellation of future phone calls and meetings between Chinese and US defense leaders and the suspension of bilateral climate talks between the countries, the world’s two biggest carbon emitters.

Those moves, and Pelosi’s visit, followed a phone call between Chinese leader Xi Jinping and US President Joe Biden in late July, in which both sides said their teams would stay in touch on cooperation, including – according to the White House – on a possible face-to-face meeting. The two did not meet in person during Biden’s tenure as president, with Xi conducting most of his Covid-era diplomacy via video link.

Burns said Beijing’s diplomatic moves following Pelosi’s visit could have global effects, adding that China’s suspension of climate talks would impact the South and countries most sensitive to climate change. .

“We strongly urge (China) to return to the table in climate negotiations with the United States,” Burns said.

“We should have regular conversations at the top level on the issues that separate us because it is in the best interest of both countries and certainly in the best interest of the world,” he said, adding that although there were official contacts through their embassies, there was “no substitute” for high-level conversations at cabinet level.

Asked if the lessons Beijing may have learned from observing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine could be applied to Taiwan, Burns said the United States is “watching China very carefully in the conduct of its relations with Russia”.

China has refused to condemn the invasion or refer to it as such.

“We have been very clear that there will be consequences if there is systemic Chinese government support for Russia’s brutal war in Ukraine,” he said, adding that they do not hadn’t seen such support.

Make connections

Burns has presented sensitive memoirs in the past. He was a key figure in negotiating thorny issues such as Iran’s nuclear program, military assistance to Israel and the US-India civilian nuclear deal. And this time, he says the US mission in China is doing its best to “connect” with its counterparts.

Connecting with the Chinese public was another “major ambition”, said the ambassador, who has visited China several times since his first trip in 1988, including a visit for the handover of Hong Kong from the United Kingdom. United with China in 1997.

But Burns said his work connecting with the Chinese, both in person and through the embassy’s social media channels, has also been challenged by China’s zero-Covid screening measures – which may making domestic travel and in-person meetings difficult – and its regular censorship of embassy posts on Chinese social media platforms.

“We believe that it is our duty to go out and visit people and to conduct diplomacy with the Chinese people, as well as with the Chinese government. So we certainly want to see the day when zero-Covid is end, but it’s really a decision not for us, it’s for the Chinese government,” said the ambassador, who spent more than 30 days in a Chinese government-mandated quarantine while there.

Chinese authorities’ ‘pernicious censorship’ saw embassy social media posts, including those on US China policy, Hong Kong, NATO and support for LGBTQI pride, censored, a said Burns.

At the same time, Burns said, he was “disturbed” by accounts of the Chinese government blaming the US and NATO for the war in Ukraine, not Russia, which launched the invasion – a problem. which he said he raised with his Chinese counterparts. .

Despite these challenges and the United States’ commitment to “compete responsibly” with China, Burns called on China to meet with the United States “halfway”, both to discuss their differences and to discuss issues. on which they might be able to work together for the greater good: “You have to come to the negotiating table to cooperate,” he said.

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