2 min read

When Superpowers Negotiate

Leveraging structure in dialogue

The United States and China recently held high-level talks for the first time since the Spy Balloon fiasco earlier this year. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan – the premier U.S. negotiator, alongside now-CIA Director William Burns – led the U.S. delegation. Wang Yi, a close ally of Xi Jinping, was the lead Chinese negotiator.

David Ignatius, the national security whisperer, describes incremental but real progress between the two superpowers.

The U.S. and Chinese officials are said to have talked for hours about how to resolve the war in Ukraine short of a catastrophe that would be harmful for both countries. They discussed how each side perceives and misunderstands the other’s global ambitions. They spoke in detail about the supremely contentious issue of Taiwan.

The frank discussion in Vienna was important because both sides have been running hard in the opposite direction in recent years. The Biden administration has concentrated on rebuilding U.S. military alliances and partnerships but has had little constructive engagement with Beijing. China has proclaimed a “no limits” partnership with Russia and has fostered an alliance of the aggrieved but, in the process, has rebuffed the superpower that matters most to its future.

What was different in Vienna? From accounts that have emerged, it was partly a matter of chemistry. Sullivan and Wang are both confident enough to talk off script. Over nearly a dozen hours of discussion, they threw schedules aside. They have the confidence of their bosses, Presidents Biden and Xi Jinping, to engage in detailed discussion about sensitive issues. They appear to have found a language for superpower discussion, like what once existed between the United States and both Russia and China but has been lost.

The Ukrainian stalking horse

During hard negotiations, immediately jumping into directly detailed dialogue can be counter-productive. Instead, using hypotheticals – a stalking horse – can build rapport without direct confrontation.[1]

The U.S. and China are on opposing sides of Putin's war. Both sides face rising economic and geopolitical risks, so ending the war is the obvious reason to add the topic to high-level negotiations between the world's only superpowers.

But the topic of Ukraine served another function too. It allowed U.S. and Chinese negotiators to address significant issues – sovereignty, nuclear weapons, security alliances, military interventions, war crimes, global food shortages, and more – without naming the other side explicitly.

The U.S. and China are at odds on any number of issues. But with the right people and structure, both sides managed to call the talks "constructive."

In the world of diplomacy, that's not nothing.

  1. Psychologists call this triangulation. Bill Clinton mastered the art. ↩︎