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#48 - How China Negotiates
And How the US Can Catch Up
The CCP sees bargaining as a test of 1) the counterpart’s true fundamental principles and 2) the counterpart’s commitment to their relationship with the CCP.
It is critical to understand that the modern CCP does not see political/diplomatic negotiations as a process where both sides start at their maximum position and compromise towards a middle ground.
The current CCP negotiating process can roughly be divided into four phases: Opening, Protraction, Pressure, and the End Game.
开局 - Opening
1 - Beijing will cultivate a “friend/friends” on the opposing side, and then employ guilt, a sense of goodwill, an obligation, or a dependence/weakness in order to achieve CCP objectives.
2 - CCP negotiators will then attempt to establish an iron framework based on the CCPs supposed principles at the beginning of the discussions. This framework seeks to set an agenda that destroys or limits what the counterparts can achieve during negotiations at the very outset. The framework has already been rolled out in the current talks, with Blinken declaring that the US does not seek Taiwan independence. The CCP has yet to make any statement that confirms any US position. In fact, on the Taiwan issue, a CCP readout quotes Wang Yi as saying "China has no room for compromise or concessions."
延长 - Protraction
3 - The CCP side will engage in an extended period of hiding Beijing’s own goals while trying to understand exactly what the counterpart wants. This usually takes the form of extended discussions while flattering the interlocutors. For example, Blinken (on the first trip to China by a US Secretary of State since 2018) was received by Xi at the Great Hall of the People which is usually reserved for heads of state. None of this means anything concrete and is an attempt to target Blinken’s ego.
4 - Before and during protraction, CCP negotiators will be fully informed and updated on the substantive issues at hand by highly talented staff members. To make matters more difficult, the CCP has access to a highly detailed archive of all previous negotiations which they will commit to memory. During protraction, CCP officials will attempt to use this detailed knowledge to play the victim and also poke holes in their counterparts’ arguments in an attempt to lean the discussion towards CCP objectives.
The current US-China negotiations are highly likely in this protraction phase. The second China-Cuba leak, this one detailing an expansion of the PRC mission in Cuba is likely to extend this current protraction phase.
压力 - Pressure
5 - At some point during protraction, maximum pressure will be applied to the counterparts, including making the opposing negotiators seem like supplicants asking for favors, pitting counterpart political adversaries against each other, and manipulating the press to impose a fake deadline on the counterpart negotiating team.
6 - At some point towards the end of protraction, the CCP will fake a deadlock on their side, allowing them to say their hands are tied on moving forward on any points of interest to the counterpart.
残局 - End Game
7 - Once the limits of the principles of the counterpart team have been stress tested, the CCP will move rapidly to force an agreement if such an agreement is in the PRC’s interest. A senior CCP official will “intervene” to clear the fake deadlock and an attempt will be made to agree to a number of points in rapid fire succession. These points may have little resemblance to the CCP’s initial iron framework declared during the 开局 / Opening phase.
8 - Once these new points are agreed to in principle, the CCP will then spend months attempting to clarify and interpret these points in ways that are favorable to Beijing.
Strategic Advice to US Negotiators - End Zombie Engagement
General Secretary Xi Jinping’s claimed desire to “stabilize US-China relations” is hard to believe, especially considering the enhanced Cuba mission.
While the Vermilion team takes issue with the leak since it is possible that the individual leaking the intelligence is attempting to influence US foreign policy or has a personal/political axe to grind, the fact is that the secret is out.
This second Cuba-China revelation within a week will deliver a body blow to the Biden administration’s efforts to restart engagement with the PRC. Regardless, what the administration team must understand is that engagement for engagement’s sake is not valuable and can easily undermine US national interest. The State Department needs to take a new diplomatic approach since sitting and talking in high level visits is accomplishing nothing.
The PRC has a history of agreeing to US principles in such high level talks and formal agreements then doing the opposite. Cases include the militarization of the South China Sea, declarations of carbon neutrality goals, the crackdown in Hong Kong, aid to the Russian Federation, and on any number of trade issues. And all this only under Xi.
Red warning lights should be flashing somewhere in White House. The PRC seeks neither engagement nor cooperation. Beijing will work with the US only to the extent that it is a win-win situation ( 双赢情况 ), meaning the Chinese win twice. As a disciplined Marxist-Leninst party reinvigorated by General Secretary Xi, this should come as no surprise. The current attempt to re-engage looks more and more like a dead strategy and attempts to revive it are baffling after a 30-year disastrously failed history. A zombie strategy can be raised from the dead, but no one should be surprised when it bites your head off in the future.
Tactical Advice to US Negotiators - Get Better
1 - Actively push back on all time deadlines, whether they be domestic or Beijing’s. The talks must be divorced from any other timeline, even election cycles. CCP officials will attempt to ferret out deadlines at all points in order to pace the negotiations in such a way as to give Beijing’s side the initiative. The US should seek to establish a US-China negotiation construct that is ongoing between US presidential administrations and unaffected by political power transitions.
2 - An extremely talented whole of society task oriented staff needs to be recruited for every set of talks to support US negotiators. This staff needs to be directly subordinate to the lead negotiator exclusively while also having rapid access to US government classified information and experts. The State Department should take the lead in establishing these negotiation support teams, which should be made up of permanent personnel, not individuals on temporary duty. Unlike most other government posts, certain billets on these teams should be for 10 year terms. The personnel filling these positions need to be from across the government and military as well as the private and academic sectors.
3 - The President and Secretary of State must work together to form the actual bottom line for every negotiation. Leadership and staff must have a clear and detailed understanding of the goals for negotiation. This will dampen attempts by the CCP to flatter, create fake friends, and impose artificial pressure.
4 - The President must work on bringing together key Democrats and Republicans to support the negotiation process. Otherwise, the CCP will attempt to cleave the two sides apart. Congress should create a committee on US-PRC negotiations in order to support the process. The current foreign affairs committee likely does not have the bandwidth to specialize in US-PRC issues.
5 - Maximum patience and outcome independence are both required during CCP negotiations. This is the only armor against Beijing’s attempts to pace the discussions, protract the talks, achieve rapid agreement at a time of their choosing, and reinterpret agreed to principles. US negotiators should not be trying to make deals on any reasonable time table or even expect positive outcomes from engagement. Since the PRC is hurting economically at the moment, the tables should be turned and the US should be applying more economic pressure to force outcome dependence on the PRC side.
NB: Rand produced a classic study found here which formed the basis for this article.