The U.S. and China Are Talking Again. Where It Will Lead Is Unclear.

When Gina Raimondo, the commerce secretary, visited China this week, she joined a long line of U.S. politicians who have come to the country to try to sway Chinese officials to open their market to foreign businesses and buy more American exports, in addition to other goals.

Ms. Raimondo left Shanghai on Wednesday night with no concrete commitments from China to treat foreign businesses more equitably or step up purchases of Boeing jets, Iowa corn or other products. In a farewell news conference, she said that hoping for such an outcome would have been unrealistic.

Instead, Ms. Raimondo said her biggest accomplishment was restoring lines of communication with China that would reduce the chance of miscalculation between the world’s two largest economies. She and Chinese officials agreed during the trip to create new dialogues between the countries, including a working group for commercial issues that American businesses had urged her to set up.

“The greatest thing accomplished on both sides is a commitment to communicate more,” Ms. Raimondo said on Wednesday.

She had also delivered what she described as a tough message. The Biden administration was willing to work to promote trade with China for many categories of goods. But the administration was not going to heed China’s biggest request: that the United States reduce stringent controls on exports of the most advanced semiconductors and the equipment to make them.

“We don’t negotiate on matters of national security,” Ms. Raimondo told reporters during her visit.

While she called the trip “an excellent start,” the big question is where it will lead. There is a long history of frustrating and unproductive economic dialogues between the United States and China, and there are not many reasons to believe this time will prove different.

Forums for discussion may have helped resolve some individual business complaints, but they did not reverse a broad, yearslong slide toward more conflict in the bilateral relationship. Now, the U.S.-China relationship faces a variety of significant security and economic issues, including China’s more aggressive posture abroad, its use of U.S. technology to advance its military and its recent raids on foreign-owned businesses.

Ms. Raimondo says she has the backing of the president and U.S. officials. And Biden administration officials argue that even the shift to begin talking has been significant, after a particularly tense period. Relations between the United States and China became frosty last August when Representative Nancy Pelosi, the House speaker at the time, visited Taiwan, and they froze entirely after a Chinese surveillance balloon flew across the United States in February.

Ms. Raimondo’s trip capped a summer of outreach by four senior Biden officials. R. Nicholas Burns, the U.S. ambassador to China, who took office in January 2022 and accompanied Ms. Raimondo on the trip, said on Tuesday that American officials “literally were not talking to the Chinese leadership at a senior level, my first 15 months here.”

“In a very, very challenging relationship, intensive diplomacy is critical,” he added.

Not everyone views re-engagement as a good thing. Republican lawmakers, in particular, increasingly see the conflict between the United States and China as a fundamental clash of national interests. Critics view the outreach as an invitation for China to drag out reforms, or a signal to Beijing that the United States is willing to make concessions.

“Of the more than two dozen great-power rivalries over the past 200 years, none ended with the sides talking their way out of trouble,” Michael Beckley, an associate professor of political science at Tufts University, wrote in Foreign Affairs this month. He added, “The bottom line is that great-power rivalries cannot be papered over with memorandums of understanding.”

The space for compromise also seems narrow. Both governments have little desire to be seen by domestic audiences as making concessions. And in both countries, the share of trade that is considered off limits or a matter of national security concerns is growing.

Ms. Raimondo expressed wariness at being drawn into unproductive talks with China — a persistent issue over the last several decades. But she also described herself as a pragmatist, who would push to accomplish what she could and not waste time on the rest.

“I don’t want to return to the days of dialogue for dialogue’s sake,” she said. “That being said, nothing good comes from shutting down communication. What comes from lack of communication is mis-assessment, miscalculation and increased risk.”

“We have to make it different,” Ms. Raimondo said of her new dialogue, adding that the U.S.-China relationship was too consequential. “We have to commit ourselves to take some action. And we can’t allow ourselves to devolve into a cynical place.”

Kurt Tong, a former U.S. consul general in Hong Kong who is now a managing partner at the Asia Group, a Washington consulting firm, said Ms. Raimondo had offered China half of what it wanted. She sent a clear message that many American companies should feel free to do business in China, after years of receiving criticism for doing so during the Trump administration and still from many Republicans in Congress. But she did not agree to relax American export controls.

“China is essentially forced by circumstances to accept that half a loaf,” Mr. Tong said, adding, “I do sense there is a real desire in Beijing to stabilize the relationship, both because of the geopolitical relationship but also, perhaps more important, the doldrums on the economic side.”

The recent weakness in the Chinese economy may create some opening for compromise. The Chinese economy has only limped back from its pandemic lockdowns. China’s youth unemployment rate has risen, its debt is piling up, and foreign investment in the country has fallen, as multinational companies look for other places to set up their factories.

In a meeting with Ms. Raimondo on Wednesday, the Shanghai party secretary, Chen Jining, admitted that the sluggish economy made business ties more crucial.

“The business and trade ties serve the role as stabilizing ballast for the bilateral ties,” Mr. Chen said. “However, the world today is quite complicated. The economic rebound is a bit lackluster. So stable bilateral ties in terms of trade and business is in the interest of two countries and is also called for by the world community.”

Ms. Raimondo responded that she was looking forward to discussing “concrete” ways they might be able to work together to accomplish business goals and “to bring about a more predictable business environment, a predictable regulatory environment and a level playing field for American businesses here in Shanghai.”

Some of the issues that Ms. Raimondo raised during her visit — including intellectual property theft, patent protection and the inability of Visa and Mastercard to receive final approval for access to the Chinese market — are the very same ones that were discussed in economic dialogues with China more than a decade ago, including under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

For instance, China promised in 2001 as part of its entry into the World Trade Organization that it would quickly allow American credit card companies into its market, and it lost a W.T.O. case on the issue in 2012. But 22 years later, Visa and Mastercard still do not have equal access to the Chinese market.

For more than three decades, commerce secretary visits to China followed a familiar script. The visiting American official would call on China to open its markets to more American investment, and to allow more equal competition among foreign and local companies. Then the commerce secretary would attend the signing of contracts for exports to China.

That included Barbara H. Franklin, who in 1992, at the end of the George H.W. Bush administration, oversaw the signing of $1 billion in contracts and the re-establishment of commercial relations with China after the deadly Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989.

Gary Locke of the Obama administration oversaw the signing of a broad contract in 2009 for the provision of American construction services. And Wilbur Ross, who went to China on behalf of President Donald J. Trump in 2017, came back with $250 billion in deals for everything from smartphone components to helicopters to Boeing jets.

These deals did little to erase China’s enormous trade imbalance with the United States. China has fairly consistently sold $3 to $4 a year worth of goods to the United States for each dollar of goods that it purchased.

In a sign of how much the focus of the relationship has shifted, Ms. Raimondo’s trip contained more discussion of national security than of new contracts. She gave her final news conference in a hangar at Shanghai Pudong Airport near two Boeing 737-800s, but did not mention the contract for several Boeings that China has yet to accept, much less any new sales.

China, the world’s largest single market for new jetliners in recent years, essentially stopped buying Boeing jets during the Biden administration and switched to Airbus planes from Europe to show its unhappiness with American policies. Ms. Raimondo said on Tuesday that she had raised the lapse of Boeing purchases with Chinese leaders during her two days in Beijing.

“I brought up all those companies,” Ms. Raimondo said. “I didn’t receive any commitments. I was very firm in our expectations. I think I was heard. And as I said, we’ll have to see if they take any action.”

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