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The State Of The U.S.-China Relations After The Pandemic


The Trump administration is in damage control mode on its China policy after excerpts of former National Security Adviser John Bolton's book were published. Bolton describes how Trump sought China's help in his reelection bid. The revelations come at an awkward time, as NPR diplomatic correspondent Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: While China watchers were poring over the excerpts of Bolton's book, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was quietly meeting a top Chinese diplomat, Yang Jiechi, in Hawaii. Pompeo says he won assurances that China will keep the promises it made to Trump in a trade deal. One of his aides described the relationship as tense. That thought was echoed by Michael Green of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

MICHAEL GREEN: Secretary Pompeo and his Chinese counterparts probably have the least amount of interaction and the lowest-quality dialogue between two foreign ministers, secretaries of state, between the U.S. and China at any point since the 1970s, really.

KELEMEN: Green, a former Bush administration official, blames much of this on China's behavior in the region and its crackdown on Hong Kong and on China's Muslim Uighur population.

GREEN: The problem also lies in Washington because the Trump administration has chosen to respond with megaphone diplomacy, criticism largely driven by domestic politics in the U.S.

KELEMEN: He wasn't surprised to read the revelations in John Bolton's book. It alleges that Trump asked China's leader to help him politically by buying billions of dollars in agricultural products. The White House has been pushing back. The State Department has been mum. The department is also in the midst of a complicated process of getting U.S. diplomats back to China. Many left because of the coronavirus pandemic. Some have privately told horror stories about quarantine in Chinese government facilities and COVID tests administered by Chinese authorities.

DAVE RANK: That's just a real gray area, where you have to depend on the relationship between the countries.

KELEMEN: That's Dave Rank, a former diplomat who served in China. China has been requiring all visitors to undergo tests and quarantine, but diplomats are usually treated differently, and the State Department usually insists on that.

RANK: Just a lot harder with a place like China.

KELEMEN: In a letter seen by NPR, Ambassador Terry Branstad admits that the process has not been easy. He adds his team is negotiating a way that's acceptable to both governments in hopes that more diplomats will return by the end of July. Assistant Secretary of State David Stilwell says the department is doing its best to get folks back.

DAVID STILWELL: Yep. Brave diplomats who go back into the fray there and reestablish our presence there.

KELEMEN: It's not just diplomats on the ground needed in China, though. Green, the former Bush administration official, says the administration also needs a coherent strategy.

GREEN: China's just too big, too complicated, even more difficult now. It really has to be run with a disciplined strategy out of the White House. And the president himself is all over the map on China.

KELEMEN: Green also worries that there are no clear channels of communication as the rivalry intensifies. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF YPPAH'S "NEVER MESS WITH SUNDAY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.
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