When America Talks, China Doesn’t Listen

November 15, 2021 Updated: November 22, 2021


President Joe Biden will speak over the phone with Chinese leader Xi Jinping on Nov. 15.

The Chinese dictator might be on the other end of the line, but he probably won’t be listening.

About a decade ago, Singapore was criticizing the U.S. government for some failing or other. This writer had occasion to ask an official at the U.S. Embassy why the Singaporeans weren’t also chastising the People’s Republic of China (PRC)—since the Chinese were doing the same thing as the Americans.

He said he had asked, and the Singaporeans told him: “They [the Chinese] won’t listen to us.”

The Americans should have figured this out long ago. China rarely listens to the United States.

But it’s hard for zealous Americans to overcome their uniquely American conceit that if they can just talk with China about anything—for example, climate challenges—that will eventually establish a rapport that will then open the door for discussing other issues, which will lead to a negotiated agreement.

No. It’s not going to happen. China will not listen to us. There is a reason a state of war still exists on the Korean peninsula (a 68-year old armistice to cease combat operations). China will not listen to us—unless it has to.

When Does China Listen to the US?

One American observer with four decades of front-line experience in China puts it this way:

  • When the United States is stronger than China in the categories of wealth and power.
  • When the United States has something China wants.
  • When the United States can reduce the value of a key asset (or assets) China holds.

If the United States is not on course to any one of the three above (all three would be great), then Beijing will not listen to Washington.

What Is China Doing When It ‘Listens’?

Even when China “listens,” it is not the way Americans think of “listening.”

China waits patiently for the United States to finally arrive at its own self-discovery that the Chinese side is “correct thinking.”

Notice Xi’s remarks last week about “working with” the United States to re-establish mutual relations? In Beijing-speak, “working with” means we will help you to accept what we want.

And sometimes China “listens” when it wants to know what words we want to hear from it, in order for us to give it what it wants. What are those words? “Win-win,” “mutual respect,” “mutual benefit,” “new great power relationship,” “good for American farmers/consumers/etc.,” to name a few.

In other words, when Beijing listens, it’s just to be better equipped to get the jump on us. So, it’s not just useless, it can be harmful.

What About All Those Painstakingly Negotiated Agreements?

Even if the United States has the upper hand and the Chinese do talk and negotiate, and agree to do something, there is scant evidence they keep their promises.

To name a few examples:

  • Xi promised President Barack Obama at the White House in 2015 that China would not militarize its artificial islands in the South China Sea.
  • Xi’s promise to do something about fentanyl flows into the United States that are killing tens of thousands of Americans every year.
  • The Genocide Convention—a treaty that the PRC has signed.
  • The PRC’s commitments to obey World Trade Organization rules.
  • The PRC’s commitments to abide by the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea.
  • Climate change agreements. Just look at the recent U.S.-China agreement on climate—Beijing’s vague promises to do nothing in particular, and are made by people who won’t be alive when the commitments come due and who know they won’t be held accountable, including by climate activists (who know China won’t listen to them).

The list of commitments that Beijing has kept is much shorter. Maybe the only international agreement the Chinese communists have kept is the China-North Korea treaty. They’ve kept the North Korean regime afloat for nearly 70 years. Yet, the Americans still haven’t given up trying to get Beijing to “listen” to them about North Korea.

Back to Talking the Talk

Despite the hard lessons of decades of experience—and the Trump administration’s successful, if short lived, attempts to turn the tables on China and not waste time talking when the communists aren’t listening—the Americans of all stripes are once again hell-bent on talking with the Chinese.

U.S. military commanders are hot to re-establish communications with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), as if they can “talk” their counterparts into good (by U.S. standards) behavior. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark Milley, seems keenest of all, including to tipping off Beijing if the president is planning something he doesn’t approve of.

The U.S. business community insists that the Biden administration start talking and do whatever is necessary to give the Chinese what they want so they can get back to “business as usual” with China. And Team Biden probably will. U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai and U.S. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo are both eager to “recouple” with China and to chart a “middle way.” Presumably they mean “win-win”?

Apparently, John Kerry, the “Climate Czar,” has never stopped talking and giving the Chinese (and other American enemies) what they want.

Will we ever learn that the Chinese regime won’t listen? And that when it does, it isn’t listening for the reasons we think it is. And when Beijing is negotiating, it’s just wearing us down and setting us up.

Probably not.

Some Americans just can’t help themselves.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Grant Newsham is a retired U.S. Marine officer and a former U.S. diplomat and business executive who lived and worked for many years in the Asia/Pacific region. He served as a reserve head of intelligence for Marine Forces Pacific, and was the U.S. Marine attaché, U.S. Embassy Tokyo on two occasions. He is a senior fellow with the Center for Security Policy.