In a private residential dining room in Washington’s tony Kalorama neighborhood, China’s newish ambassador to Washington warned the United States against sending warships through the Taiwan Strait, and against further military or political activities that, he said, were designed to embolden separatists and weaken the One China policy that governs Washington’s tenuous relationship with Beijing.
Qin Gang also warned American politicians to stop stoking fear of China.
Qin did it all coolly and comfortably while sipping glasses of coffee-and-cream in one of Washington’s most exclusive chambers: the dining room of power broker Juleanna Glover, CEO of public affairs firm Ridgely Walsh.
The question is: How long can he keep this up? Most Americans and politicians are still learning about China, much less Beijing’s decades-old claims about Taiwan. And in the age of instant social media and global digital communications, spinning for dictatorial, genocidal regimes is not as easy as it once was. Just ask Russia. But spin Qin did.
“The U.S. side has done too much and gone too far in this region,” said the ambassador, meeting with a small group of reporters on Tuesday morning. He’d just been asked whether China would respond more aggressively the next time the U.S. Navy exercised its right to send a warship through the strait’s international waters. Americans, he warned, should “not underestimate the strong resolve…and capability of the Chinese government and people to defend its territorial integrity.”
“Every year, the U.S. side has more than 100 navigations through the Taiwan Strait, and it intensifies tensions and it emboldens Taiwan separatist forces,” Qin said.
Those are threatening but stock remarks heard for years. The ambassador also called on Americans to turn down the heat at home, which is a more recent talking point of Chinese officials.
“I’ve been here as ambassador for a year,” Qin said, saying he was struck by the level of the “fear of China” he encounters.
“My country is being greatly misperceived or miscalculated as a challenge, or even a threat, to the United States,” he said. “This relationship, which is so important and so consequential, is now being driven by fear, not by common interests…and if you listen to the words and you see the behaviors of the politicians in this country, it’s not difficult to draw this conclusion. But I want to say China is not a threat; it’s not a challenge.” At this, two columnists at the table caught each other’s eyes and smirked.
During his year here, Qin has become somewhat of a mini-celebrity in Washington. To his credit, he took unfiltered questions from more than a dozen U.S. and foreign journalists for more than an hour. That’s more than many Biden administration officials at the Pentagon will risk. The roundtable was billed as a chance to meet and query the ambassador after he drew attention as a headliner on stage last month at the Aspen Security Forum. There, Qin drew audible gasps, groans, and guffaws from the audience each time he delivered party-line defenses of policy positions and claims, ones that are familiar to China-watchers and global security professionals, if less so to Americans still learning the basics about China and Chinese politicians.
At the time, the world was anticipating the highly publicized visit to Taiwan by Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. On Tuesday, Qin said that visit and a subsequent congressional delegation violate previous U.S. commitments to respect China’s sovereignty.
In retaliation, China surrounded Taiwan with large-scale military operations that included launching missiles directly over the island for the first time ever. China also cut off official lines of communications with the United States and has threatened additional consequences for further American actions toward Taiwan. So while the PLA won’t talk to the Pentagon, Qin is free to talk with the Washington Post, the New Yorker, and Defense One.
But Qin, after calling for rhetorical calm, could not say just what the U.S. could do to reopen those lines other than start believing that China is no threat at all. Indeed, by his telling, to reverse China’s countermeasures and reopen communications would require what amounts to a sea change in the rising tide of American political and public opinion against China.
“I want to see the United States, at the moment, to rethink about its words and behavior on Taiwan, to reflect on what the true ‘One China principle’ is, and to refrain from doing anything more to escalate the tensions,” Qin said. “Because there are some worries around these days in China that the U.S. will take more actions politically, militarily—and if they happen it will cause a new round of tensions and China will be forced to react.”
Mostly, Qin’s comments represented no change in China’s positions. They were more-strongly-worded versions of longstanding regime talking points about perceived grievances with the United States. It gave the impression that China’s leaders either believe their half-truths about China’s benevolent global ambitions or they don’t care if others do.
Qin was asked what China is willing to do to change American perceptions that China is a threat, given a) the PLA’s development of conventional and nuclear weapons that threaten the United States, b) the FBI’s revelations about its investigations of Chinese espionage in all 50 states, and c) Beijing’s crackdown on democracy in Hong Kong. Qin responded by claiming it was all fake news. He ignored the Pentagon’s warnings, charged that the FBI’s spying claims were “typical threat phobia” lies, and then argued that Beijing’s response to Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests were as justified as the current U.S. response to the anti-government events of Jan. 6.
The next turn in the U.S.-China relationship will depend on which side can win the battle for public opinion about old issues like Taiwan and new threats like Beijing’s nuclear buildup. Navigating those waters between peace and war will be up to each nation’s leaders, who have not met face-to-face in several years.
On reports of a possible summit later this year between Presidents Joe Biden and Xi Jinping, Qin said, “I have no idea at the moment and I have no information to share with you.”
But the ambassador said nuclear arms and Taiwan go hand-in-hand. China “cannot only talk about strategic stability militarily” apart from its One China principle, which claims Taiwan’s eternal status as part of China. If that foundation is undermined, he said, “the whole building of U.S.-China relations will be shaken, and it’s not good for our two countries and not good for the world.”
Qin closed his session by defending his role and mission. “I’m a Chinese ambassador, I’m not a freelance journalist. So I have to represent my government’s position,” he said. But “I’m not telling lies, I’m not spreading disinformation, I’m not scaring people—I’m just telling the truth and the facts. And I’m not always sticking to the talking points.”
But of course in delivering the party line, he was spreading propaganda. In delivering threats, he does scare Americans, Taiwanese, and Hong Kongers—anyone wanting democracy. In the meantime, as he hops from stage to salon, Beijing’s top diplomat says he needs your help.
“Here in the United States, myself and my colleagues would like to be a bridge linking China and the American people,” and he says he doesn’t want to lecture. “I want to listen, to communicate with people, and reaching out to people of different communities, to listen to people, their observations [of] why our relations now is going downhill, and asking for their wisdom about how we can get out of the difficulty, what can we do to make our relations stable and productive so that our relations cannot be driven by fear but by common interests, and I need people’s help telling me their suggestions so that I can digest them and so I can report to Beijing. So, this is my oath: to be a bridge, a listening post, and a helping hand.”
Until then, Qin said, “I hope Nancy Pelosi is the last speaker visiting Taiwan.”
You can give China your wisdom here.