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U.S.-China relations are at a low point. Are things starting to turn around?


Could U.S. relations with China improve?


A few signs suggest the two countries are making an effort. China's new ambassador arrived in the U.S. yesterday. Xie Feng talked of resuming discussions that have stalled.


XIE FENG: We hope that United States will work together with China to increase dialogue, to manage differences, and also to expand our cooperation so that our relationship will be back to the right track.

MARTIN: China's trade minister will also be here this week, and President Biden talks of a thaw.

INSKEEP: NPR China affairs correspondent John Ruwitch is following all this from his base in Shanghai. Hey there, John.


INSKEEP: How different are discussions than they have been the last few months?

RUWITCH: Hey, well, at least there are some now, right? I mean, at the high levels, it seems like there's more contact and perhaps even more restraint in the rhetoric. So we've got the ambassador now in Washington, China's cabinet ministers coming. You know, earlier this month, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan had an over or around eight-hour conversation with Wang Yi, who's China's top foreign policy official. They were in Vienna. And a source told me that meeting was really important because it kind of reset expectations for more normal dialogue going forward. You know, also, China's foreign ministers had a meeting with the U.S. ambassador in China this month. That hasn't been happening a whole lot. They talked about the need to stabilize the relationship.

INSKEEP: I guess President Biden the other day summed up why there had not been a lot of talk in the last couple of months. He referred to, quote, "that silly balloon."

RUWITCH: Exactly. You know, Secretary of State Blinken canceled a visit to China after that. Beijing cut dialogue across a range of issues. You know, now they're starting to talk. And not only that, you know, intentionally or not, the findings from the FBI investigation into that balloon, which are likely to be an irritant in the relationship, have not been made public yet. And the Biden administration hasn't yet implemented a set of long-awaited curbs on American investment in China. Maybe that's deliberate, too.

INSKEEP: I'm really interested in the FBI findings not being made public. That's a thing you can do and that the U.S. government in other situations in the past has done, just keep things kind of quiet if there's awkward information that doesn't seem to be in the national interest to release.


INSKEEP: But with that said, with all of these efforts to improve relations, what limits are there to what the two governments can realistically accomplish?

RUWITCH: Well, look, I mean, it's become clear that these two governments have fundamental differences in how they see the world and how they think it should be run. You know, Beijing, for its part, says it's open to dialogue - open to more dialogue. But the messaging is that they're very wary of it. The foreign ministry the other day openly questioned the sincerity of the Biden administration. Trust between these two countries has really been decimated. Shi Yinhong is a senior international relations scholar at Renmin University in Beijing. He's not at all optimistic.

SHI YINHONG: (Non-English language spoken).

RUWITCH: You know, he says progress depends on whether or not there are positive outcomes from the talks, and it's hard to say at this point if there can be any positive outcomes. In fact, he says he sees very little to support the idea that things are about to turn a corner.

INSKEEP: Well, how do they build such trust as they can?

RUWITCH: Well, I asked Scott Kennedy about this. He's a China expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. He says these coming months should see a bunch of meetings like this leading up to an Asia-Pacific leaders meeting in San Francisco where Biden and Xi Jinping are going to meet. But he says...

SCOTT KENNEDY: The path toward greater dialogue and stability is quite fragile. And if a specific meeting doesn't go well or some incident comes out of left field that no one is prepared for, the domestic politics of both countries and strategic leanings of both will pull them apart.

RUWITCH: So, yeah, they're starting to talk again, but where it takes the relationship is very unclear.

INSKEEP: NPR's John Ruwitch is in Shanghai. John, thanks so much.

RUWITCH: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

John Ruwitch is a correspondent with NPR's international desk. He covers Chinese affairs.