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U.S. ambassador to China on future of the countries' complicated relationship


Sending Secretary of State Antony Blinken to China was supposed to help. This week's meetings between Blinken and China's foreign minister and with Chinese President Xi Jinping were supposed to lead to more high-level diplomacy and calm tensions between the world's two largest economic powers.

NICHOLAS BURNS: I think it was a very important visit. We hadn't had an American secretary of state, believe it or not, in China in five years. And this is a very complicated and often quite difficult relationship between the United States and China.

SUMMERS: That's U.S. Ambassador to China Nicholas Burns, who I spoke with last night.


Right. And around the time you were talking to him, U.S. President Joe Biden was speaking at a campaign event where he likened some of President Xi's recent behavior to that of a, quote, "dictator." A spokesperson for China's foreign ministry called the remarks utterly absurd and irresponsible and said they were, quote, "an open political provocation." In a press briefing today, a U.S. State Department spokesperson said President Biden has been clear about the differences between democracies and autocracies, and that it should come as no surprise that the U.S. and China have differences and disagreements.

SUMMERS: Well, we had reached out to Ambassador Burns yesterday evening to understand where there might be room for cooperation amid those differences. And I asked him, if diplomacy is about compromise, what compromise is going on right now between Beijing and Washington?

BURNS: Well, it's sometimes about compromise. But often, diplomacy is also defending your side. We have a number of major disagreements with China, and we're not compromising. For instance, on Taiwan - we believe that the government here in Beijing has been far too aggressive in trying to intimidate and coerce with their military actions in the Taiwan Strait. Second, we obviously do not want to see any kind of lethal military support by China to Russia for Russia's brutal illegal war in Ukraine. The third example of that - we can't compromise, cannot, on human rights. And during this visit, Secretary Blinken raised difficult human rights issues - forced labor in Xinjiang, the actions by the government of China that are repressive in Tibet and, of course, the end, really, of civil liberties and democratic freedoms in Hong Kong.

I wouldn't say that the cooperative mechanisms that we have in place with China are necessarily compromises, but obviously it's in the self-interest of the U.S. to work with China on climate change. It's such a major challenge for both of us, and we're the two - world's two largest carbon emitters. Another example of that would be global public health. We're trying to work together in the battle against infectious diseases. That's just how we look at this relationship. It's mainly competitive, but there are cooperative aspects. And I should say, Juana, what we feel very strongly about is that, in a difficult, often contentious relationship, it needs to be peaceful.

SUMMERS: I want to turn to the topic of Taiwan, which you mentioned earlier. Secretary Blinken reiterated the U.S. position of One China - that the country does not support Taiwan's independence. Given statements by President Biden and visits from a number of U.S. politicians, the Chinese seem less convinced. What are you telling Washington about how to handle this?

BURNS: Well, I can't obviously reveal everything I'm saying to my own government, but we have a very clear policy. It's the One China policy that the United States has had for a half-century. And a major part of that policy is that we obviously want to see the very difficult cross-strait relationship between the People's Republic of China and the Taiwan authorities. We want that to be peaceful. And we saw, after Speaker Nancy Pelosi's visit to Taiwan last summer, that China reacted far too aggressively in firing missiles over the island of Taiwan and simulating a blockade of the island. And we are telling the Chinese that they should commit to a peaceful resolution of this dispute. And so there's nothing new here. For really a half-century now, we've been consistent.

SUMMERS: I want to go back. You mentioned Nancy Pelosi's trip to Taiwan. If you're looking at this from Beijing's perspective, though, wasn't Pelosi's trip, in and of itself, a provocation?

BURNS: Well, we don't agree with that. I think that is the way that the Chinese leadership thought about it. That's what they said they thought about it. We very much disagreed. In all my meetings - and I had many meetings with the Chinese leadership before her visit, during her visit and after - I defended Speaker Pelosi's right to travel to Taiwan. I also defended, just last month, Speaker Kevin McCarthy's right to meet with Tsai Ing-wen, the Taiwan leader, in Los Angeles. You know, we can't allow the Chinese to tell us - to tell our members of Congress, our leaders - with whom they can meet and whom they should not meet. And the Chinese need to understand that.

SUMMERS: A few months ago, China broadened the scope of its anti-espionage law. Have you heard from American businesses who are finding it more difficult to do their business in China?

BURNS: I have. I've been traveling throughout the country the last couple of months. I've met the American business community, and there's a great concern here. And it's a very large trade relationship - $690 billion last year. China is our third largest trade partner. But American businesses are feeling besieged. There have been a series of punitive actions taken by the government of China - and we believe that they're not warranted - against several prominent American companies.

And you mentioned the espionage act. This is a amendment to China's espionage law, which will go into effect on July 1. And it has such a broad definition of what espionage is that it basically includes activities that, in any other country of the world, would be perfectly legal. We fundamentally object to this. I have taken this to two ministers of the government here in Beijing and said, please reconsider this because what's going to happen - you're going to drive investment away. And I must say, many other countries have noted their concerns with this as well.

SUMMERS: You mentioned the fact that you've been doing a good deal of traveling throughout China. I am curious to learn from you - what are you hearing from Chinese people in those travels? Are they angry at you as a representative of the U.S.? Do they express wanting better relations with the U.S.? Tell us what you've heard.

BURNS: The Chinese people have been very civil to me and very welcoming as I travel around the country. You know, if you get into a conversation about Taiwan, most Chinese here are nationalistic, and an average Chinese citizen might defend their government on that. But they do, I think, understand that the relationship with the United States is critical for them, as ours is with China - that they want a peaceful future.

I do worry, however, that on a people-to-people basis, we've had very little interaction because of the Chinese policy of zero COVID - the lockdowns during the three years of the COVID crisis. So for instance, let me give you a data point. There are about 300,000 Chinese students in American universities, and only 350 - 3-5-0 - American students in all of China. That worries me.

SUMMERS: I want to jump in here because the numbers that you've talked about - about American students - they're quite stark. Do you expect more American students to return to China soon?

BURNS: Well, we hope so. It - this is a question. Will the government here in China open up visas to American students? That was a problem over the last three years. Second, will some of the American universities who had junior-year programs here or summer Chinese language institutes - will they reopen?

And again, you know, I'll just give you an example, Juana. In our diplomatic mission here in China, we have an enormous number of people who came here as American teenagers or college students. They learned the language. They're back on their second or third tour here in China. That is irreplaceable expertise to understand China, and we need that for the next generation. So while we compete with the government of China, we want the two peoples, obviously, to be interacting as much as possible. That's a major priority for us.

SUMMERS: Nicholas Burns is the United States ambassador to China. Thank you so much.

BURNS: Juana, thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.