China expert, present at Xi visit to US, aims to cool tensions

A Cornell expert on U.S.-China relations was among the attendees of the dinner following President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping’s historic summit on Nov. 15 in San Francisco.

At the dinner, Xi chose to deliver the friendliest of the three versions of the speech prepared for him, reflecting “a big change in tone from last year in U.S.-China relations,” said Jessica Chen Weiss, the Michael J. Zak Professor for China and Asia-Pacific Studies in the Department of Government in the College of Arts and Sciences and a faculty member in the Cornell Jeb E. Brooks School of Public Policy.

“The tone set by Xi helps tilt the internal balance in China toward those who would favor continued engagement and opening,” said Weiss, who is also director of the Levinson China and Asia-Pacific Studies Program in A&S. “Statements by President Biden and Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo also sent an important signal that there is still not just room but benefit to interactions.”

A key thought leader on workable strategies for China, Weiss has long called for a lowering of the temperature in relations between China and the United States. She co-authored an article, “Taiwan and The True Sources of Deterrence: Why America Must Reassure, Not Just Threaten, China,” published Nov. 30 in Foreign Affairs, that aims to contribute meaningful ideas to prevent war.

“This article is trying to identify the sources of instability and potential stability in the Taiwan Strait,” Weiss said, “recognizing that on all three sides there is a bit of misapprehension of what constitutes true deterrence – underweighting the importance of credible assurance. As the article points out, assurance is not a carrot or reward, but a guarantee that the threat of punishment or costs is fully conditional on how the target in question behaves.”

When Xi gave his speech, Weiss was an observer, but when China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi came to Washington, D.C., to pave the way for Biden and Xi to meet, Weiss did more than listen. At a meeting organized by the Aspen Strategy Group, Weiss had the opportunity to ask a question – and offer some comments.

“I said that the discrepancy between what Chinese officials say in their external facing rhetoric and what they write in their internal strategy documents and speeches has led some more hawkish voices to conclude that China has these very malign intentions,” Weiss said. “I suggested that discrepancy might be something they might attend to if the Chinese government is serious about stabilizing relations with the United States and peaceful coexistence.”

Weiss has had plenty of experience making suggestions to policymakers. She spent Aug. 2021 to July 2022 as senior adviser to the secretary of state’s policy planning staff at the U.S. State Department on a Council on Foreign Relations’ International Affairs Fellowship for Tenured International Relations Scholars. During that year she explored what would be politically acceptable and consistent with U.S. policy that would make a difference in China-U.S. and cross-strait relations.

In February, she published an op-ed in The Washington Post titled “The U.S. should deter – not provoke – Beijing over Taiwan. Here’s how.”

But while Weiss recognized the need for specific assurances in U.S.-China relations that could be conveyed through diplomacy, she found few inside the U.S. government thinking deeply about what that could look like.

“The gap between what scholars think and what many officials and commentators think became really apparent to me when I was in D.C.,” she said.

In the Foreign Affairs article, she and co-authors Bonnie S. Glaser and Thomas J. Christensen tried to bridge that gap.

The article draws on research in international affairs scholarship that’s been overlooked with the over-emphasis on military preparedness, Weiss said: “Deterrence should not be equated only with military might.”

And while Weiss and her co-authors point out a number of “unwise” statements that have been made by American officials, the article also offers important – and specific -– recommendations for leaders in Taipei and Beijing.

“It’s important to note that these are unilateral steps we suggest that, alone or individually, could be useful to prolong or extend this period of relative peace and stability,” Weiss said. “And if our recommendations were done in concert with one another, over time they could help build trust and reduce tension.”

Read the story in the Cornell Chronicle.

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Jessica Chen Weiss