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Issues such as tariffs and alleged spying contribute to rising U.S.-China tensions


Trade, tariffs, allegations of spying, China's increasing military presence in the South China Sea - these are just some of the issues that have caused rising tensions between the U.S. and China in recent years. As part of efforts to stabilize the relationship between the world's two largest economies and hopefully to prevent downright hostility, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing this week. Our colleague, Juana Summers, host of All Things Considered, spoke with Nicholas Burns, the U.S. ambassador to China, to hear more about what's at stake.

JUANA SUMMERS, BYLINE: Diplomacy is about compromise and negotiation. What compromise is happening right now between Beijing and Washington? Can you give us a specific example or two?

NICHOLAS BURNS: Well, it's sometimes about compromise. But often, diplomacy is also defending your side. And so in this relationship, what really characterizes it is that 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've told the Chinese we obviously do not want to see any kind of lethal military support for Russia's brutal, illegal war in Ukraine. And 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.

Fentanyl was another major issue that Secretary Blinken raised with the Chinese leadership. It's a public health crisis in the United States, and the precursor chemicals that make up fentanyl largely come from illicit black-market firms here in China. Secretary Blinken called on the Chinese leadership to stop the flow of these precursor chemicals to the United States.

SUMMERS: Is the U.S. doing anything to crack down on the smuggling of these chemicals? I mean, you're talking, essentially, about the supply side of the issue here. With what's going on in China, I'm curious how you think about the U.S.' role and what should be done in tandem.

BURNS: There's a major national effort from the White House and the Drug Enforcement Agency and Washington, from the Department of State as well, to battle this problem. And that gets at the demand side, which is in the United States. But certainly, on the supply side, we need far greater cooperation and action here from the government of the People's Republic of China.

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 it's a very large trade relationship. 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, potentially, an American businessperson could be held liable for criminal prosecution for espionage for conducting activities that are legal everywhere else. We fundamentally object to this. And I must say, many other countries have noted their concerns with this as well.

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.