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

“We don’t think 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 manufactured by the government in Beijing. it was an overreaction,” Burns told CNN on Friday from the US embassy.

Now “it is 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 there is a lot of concern around the world that China has now become an agent of instability in the Taiwan Strait and that is in nobody’s interest.”

Burns, a career diplomat and former US ambassador to NATO, arrived in Beijing in March to take on what is arguably the most important US diplomatic post: navigating US-China ties. , which are already strained by tensions over a variety of issues, including China’s human rights. registration, 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 directly on the front lines of handling the increasingly contentious relationship between the world’s two largest economies. .

That became clear on the night of August 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 her delegation from the Congress landed in Taipei.

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“We had a very lively, I would say quite 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 defended the speaker. I defended her right to travel to Taiwan. I defended the peace and stability that we have had across the Taiwan Strait for nearly six decades,” Burns said, adding that he challenged Xie to make sure the Chinese government it 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 Taiwan authorities” and has “led a global campaign” blaming the United States for what it sees as undermining the stability in the Taiwan Strait.

“We have been very, very clear about (upholding our policy). The problem is: is a government going to react in an aggressive and violent way to disturb the peace? That has to worry everyone in the world,” he said. .

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

diplomatic consequences

The US maintains a “One China” policy, but has never accepted the Chinese ruling Communist Party’s claim of sovereignty over Taiwan. Washington maintains a “strategic ambiguity” about 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 has never controlled, with mainland China, by force if necessary.

China denounced Pelosi’s visit as a violation of its “sovereignty and territorial integrity,” and Burns’s counterpart, Chinese Ambassador to the United States Qin Gang, said earlier this month that the United States must “take responsibility” for the situation you have 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, came on the heels of a phone call between Chinese leader Xi Jinping and US President Joe Biden in late July, in which both sides had said their teams would stay in touch to cooperate. , even, according to the White House, about a possible face-to-face meeting. The two have not met in person during Biden’s time as president, with Xi conducting most of his Covid-era diplomacy via video link.

Burns said diplomatic moves by Beijing in the wake of Pelosi’s visit could have global effects, adding that China’s suspension of climate talks would affect the Global South and countries that are most susceptible to climate change.

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

“We should have regular high-level talks about the issues that drive us apart, because that’s what’s best for both countries and certainly what’s best for the world,” he said, adding that while there was official contact through their respective embassies, ” there was no substitute” for high-level cabinet-level talks.

Asked if the lessons Beijing may have learned from watching Russia’s invasion of Ukraine could apply to Taiwan, Burns said the United States is “watching China very carefully as it conducts its relationship with Russia.”

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

“We have made it very clear that there will be consequences if there is systemic support from the Chinese government for Russia’s brutal war in Ukraine,” he said, adding that they had not seen such support.

building connections

Burns has submitted sensitive reports in the past. He was a leading official in negotiating thorny issues such as Iran’s nuclear program, military assistance to Israel and the US-India Civil Nuclear Agreement. And this time, he says the US mission in China is doing its best to “connect” with its counterparts.

Making connections with the Chinese public was another “great ambition,” said the ambassador, who has traveled to China several times since his first trip in 1988, including a visit for the UK’s handover of Hong Kong to China in 1997.

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But Burns said his work connecting with the Chinese people, both in person and through the embassy’s social media channels, has also been called into question by China’s zero-Covid control measures, which can make domestic travel more difficult. and in-person meetings, and its regular censorship of Embassy posts on Chinese social media platforms.

“We strongly believe that it is our need to go out and visit people and conduct diplomacy with the Chinese people as well as with the Chinese government. So we certainly want the day to come when covid zero ends, but that is really a decision”. not for us, that’s for the Chinese government,” said the ambassador, who has spent more than 30 days in a Chinese government-mandated quarantine during his time there.

“Pernicious censorship” by Chinese authorities has led to Embassy social media posts being censored, including those on US policy toward China, Hong Kong, NATO, and support for LGBTQI Pride Burns said.

At the same time, Burns said, he has been “disturbed” by Chinese government narratives blaming the war in Ukraine on the United States and NATO, and not on Russia, which launched the invasion, an issue he said he raised with his Chinese counterparts. .

Despite these challenges and the US promise to “compete responsibly” with China, Burns urged China to meet with the US “halfway” both to discuss their differences and the issues they face. they could work together for the common good: “You have to come to the negotiating table to cooperate,” he said.

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