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A U.S.-China Thaw in the Making?
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A U.S.-China Thaw in the Making?

Plus: The Texas House votes to impeach state Attorney General Ken Paxton.

Happy Friday! And congratulations to Florida eighth-grader Dev Shah, who won the Scripps National Spelling Bee on Thursday night by spelling “psammophile” correctly in the 15th round. 

Shah had a little help in his victory: The New York Times described the schwa—“the ‘uh’-like sound that can be represented by any vowel in the English alphabet”—as a “stone-cold killer” for knocking out a handful of finalists.

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • The Senate voted 63-36 on Thursday evening to pass the Fiscal Responsibility Act, legislation suspending the debt limit until January 2025 in exchange for billions of dollars in spending cuts. After a handful of amendments were shot down, 46 Democrats voted for the final passage of the compromise hammered out by House Speaker Kevin McCarthy and President Joe Biden, compared with just 17 Republicans who backed the deal. The White House has said Biden will sign the bill into law imminently, staving off a federal default that could have come as early as Monday.
  • The Senate also voted 52-46 on Thursday to overturn Biden’s student loan debt relief plan, with two moderate Democrats and independent Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona joining the Republican-led effort. Biden has said he will veto the repeal of his program—which cancels up to $20,000 in student debt for borrowers meeting certain criteria—but the forgiveness is already on hold as the Supreme Court weighs the move’s constitutionality.
  • Several people were reportedly injured by shelling in the Russian region of Belgorod on Wednesday, with Russian officials claiming the attack originated in Ukraine. On Thursday, the Russian Defense Ministry said its forces repelled three cross-border incursions by a Ukrainian proxy group, though Kyiv denied involvement and blamed anti-Putin Russian militants for the assaults. Similar attacks in the Belgorod region were carried out last week, and a residential neighborhood of Moscow was hit with a series of drone strikes earlier this week.
  • The Biden administration on Thursday imposed economic sanctions and visa restrictions targeting individuals and companies on both sides of the ongoing conflict in Sudan. The sanctions—the first to be leveled by the U.S. in response to the fighting that began in April—followed a breakdown in peace talks between the Sudanese army and the Rapid Support Forces earlier this week.
  • The Supreme Court ruled 8-1 Thursday that a concrete company, Glacier Northwest, could sue a union after workers walked off a job site—leaving wet concrete in mixing trucks—in a manner that failed to “take reasonable precautions to protect the employer’s plant, equipment, or products from foreseeable imminent danger due to sudden cessation of work.” Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson authored the only dissenting opinion.
  • Federal prosecutors have reportedly obtained a copy of an audio recording of former President Donald Trump—during a meeting at his Bedminster, New Jersey, golf club in July 2021—admitting he kept a classified document after he left office without declassifying it. The document reportedly pertained to a potential military strike on Iran, and the recording—which is an “important” piece of evidence in Special Counsel Jack Smith’s investigation into Trump’s handling of classified material—supposedly demonstrates Trump understood the nature of the document and his inability to retroactively declassify it. The Dispatch cannot independently confirm the veracity of these reports.
  • The Department of Labor reported Thursday that initial jobless claims—a proxy for layoffs—increased by 2,000 week-over-week to a seasonally-adjusted 232,000 claims last week, suggesting the labor market remains tight despite rising interest rates and recession fears.
President Joe Biden (R) and Chinese President Xi Jinping meet on the sidelines of the 2022 G20 Summit. (Photo by SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images)
President Joe Biden (R) and Chinese President Xi Jinping meet on the sidelines of the 2022 G20 Summit. (Photo by SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images)

After years of worsening relations between the United States and China, President Biden is looking for a reset of sorts. “I think you’re going to see that begin to thaw very shortly,” he said at the recent G7 summit, referring to the iciness between the two superpowers.

But it takes two to détente, and while the U.S. sees increased communication as a way to reduce the risk of unwanted open conflict, China seems to view talks as another leverage point.

The U.S.-China relationship has been getting frostier for some time, but took a turn for the worse after the spy balloon incident in February. “This silly balloon that was carrying two freight cars’ worth of spying equipment was flying over the United States, and it got shot down, and everything changed in terms of talking to one another,” Biden said.

Relations sank below the bare minimum of diplomatic engagement. Secretary of State Antony Blinken canceled a visit to China after the balloon episode, and China rebuffed attempts to reschedule the trip—or allow any other high-level talks between officials. The Chinese Communist Party had already suspended military-to-military talks after then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan in August, and Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen’s April meeting with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy didn’t help matters. Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang described the relationship early last month as striking “the cold ice,” according to a Foreign Ministry statement.

Broken lines of communication matter for much more than diplomats’ hurt feelings. The U.S. and China’s militaries both operate in the Indo-Pacific, and if China leaves the U.S. on read, it’ll be easier for near-misses between the two to escalate into open conflict. China’s increasing aggression in the region raises the odds of such incidents. Last Friday, a Chinese fighter jet “buzzed” a U.S. surveillance plane flying in international airspace over the South China Sea, causing it to shake as it flew through the Chinese jet’s wake. U.S. Indo-Pacific Command described the encounter as an “unnecessarily aggressive maneuver.” 

The Biden administration has begun a full-court press of outreach efforts in recent weeks, attempting to schedule calls, meetings, and visits with Chinese counterparts up and down the diplomatic food chain. “There was an assessment that, frankly, the relationship was getting risky,” David Sacks, a research fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, told TMD. “The Biden administration is trying to pursue lines of communication and pursue dialogues to clarify U.S. intentions [and] U.S. strategy as well as to reduce the risk of an unintended incident in the Indo-Pacific between the two militaries.” 

The team executing on this change in approach will soon look very different. State Department official Rick Waters—head of the agency’s internal China policy shop—will step down by the end of the month. Laura Rosenberger, the National Security Council’s senior director for China and Taiwan, left her position in March, and Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, a point person on China policy, announced her retirement last month. But Sacks believes the personnel changes likely aren’t related to the push for more dialogue. “U.S.-China relations are ultimately driven at a very senior level by the president, the national security adviser, the secretary of state, secretary of defense, and some key deputies underneath them,” he said. “All of those personnel remain in place and are unchanged.” 

If you squint, you can see small signs of warming relations. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, for example, met with China’s highest-ranking diplomat, Wang Yi, in Vienna last month, and the readout of the meeting said both sides agreed to keep the channel open. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo met with her Chinese counterpart, Wang Wentao, last Thursday to discuss trade and investment—the first such Cabinet-level meeting in months. And China’s new ambassador to the U.S. arrived last week and struck a more cooperative tone. “We hope that the United States will work together with China to increase dialogue, to manage differences, and also to respect our cooperation so that our relationship will be back to the right track,” Xie Feng told reporters last Tuesday after landing in New York.

But there remains a broader misalignment between the two countries’ goals that could stymie any further thawing. “Washington wants dialogue and risk reduction, amid further policies of competition and pushback,” argues Evan Medeiros, a former National Security Council director for China, Taiwan, and Mongolia during the Obama administration. “By contrast, China wants to reduce the constant strategic pressure it faces from the U.S. and its allies while continuing to bend global rules and norms in its favor.” 

While the U.S. might think of regular communication as a prerequisite to steady the relationship and prevent unintended conflicts, China views it as a bargaining tool to counter American activity in the region.“They believe that raising the risk of use of U.S. military operations in the Indo-Pacific is advantageous to them,” Sacks said. “If there are enough close calls, if we are not sure what would happen in a crisis, whether they would pick up the phone, whether we would be able to defuse a crisis, then they’re convinced that we will just do things that are less invasive and operations farther away from China’s coast or from the South China Sea.”

Public statements from Chinese officials appear to confirm this thinking. “The U.S. side should … immediately correct its wrong practices, show sincerity, and create the necessary atmosphere and conditions for dialogue and communication between the two militaries,” foreign ministry spokesperson Mao Ning said this week. China rejected a request Monday for Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to meet with his Chinese counterpart—Defense Minister Li Shangfu—at a security summit in Singapore this weekend. 

“Given that nothing substantive has changed in U.S. policy, on their end, there’s no point in making any real concessions that would put them in a less favorable power position for the sake of a better relationship with the United States,” Oriana Skylar Mastro, a fellow at Stanford University’s international studies institute, told TMD.

Still, U.S. officials are hoping to schedule trips for Blinken as well as Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen and Raimondo to visit China in the coming months. The U.S. will also host the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in San Francisco this fall, and the Biden administration is angling for a meeting between the president and Xi Jinping. 

Some observers worry the push for dialogue could come at a cost to America’s strategic position. “The fear is that, in pursuit of these types of communications and dialogues, the United States delays or forgoes certain competitive actions that is in the U.S. interest to take,” Sacks said. “It is a difficult balancing act.” 

Rep. Mike Gallagher, chair of the House Select Committee on the CCP, expressed similar concerns. “There’s a broader kind of neo-engagement or zombie détente push coming out of the administration right now,” he told Uphill (🔒) last week. “I’m struggling to understand [it]. We have two decades of evidence to suggest that economic engagement’s not actually going to reduce CCP aggression. So what’s changed now?”

Paxton Impeached

The Texas legislature was just a few days away from the end of its session last week when an ethics committee dropped a bombshell: Ken Paxton, the state’s top law enforcement official, should be impeached. Texas state senators will now dust off Article 15 of the Texas state constitution and proceed with an impeachment trial under the heat of the national political spotlight. “It’s been almost 100 years since the last impeachment,” Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who presides over the day-to-day work of the state Senate, said this week. “So, we have to go back and look at the rules. Not much precedent. I mean, there is some, but times have changed in 100 years.” 

The Republican-led Texas House voted 121-23 on Saturday to impeach the state’s Republican attorney general on a laundry list of corruption and misconduct allegations—suspending Paxton from office pending an impeachment trial. The vote marked the first impeachment of a statewide office holder in Texas since 1917, and only the third impeachment in the history of the state. As the Texas Senate arranges a trial for later this summer—it’s set to start no later than August 28—state and national Republican leaders are split over whether to rally behind the right-wing firebrand or toss him overboard.

The 20 articles of impeachment—which include multiple counts of bribery, obstruction of justice, and making false statements on official filings—paint a picture of corruption and abuse of power that dates back years. In particular, several of the articles detail Paxton’s willingness to use his office to help out a friend and campaign donor, Texas real estate developer Nate Paul. Paxton allegedly directed his staff to write an opinion protecting some of Paul’s properties from foreclosure, and then attempted to conceal his involvement. He also allegedly interfered with public records requests related to a criminal investigation into Paul, and intervened on Paul’s behalf when Paul was hit with a fraud lawsuit from a charitable foundation.

In exchange, Paxton allegedly received a $25,000 campaign donation from Paul, a remodel of his home paid for by Paul, and a job at Paul’s company for a woman with whom Paxton was having an affair.

Half of the articles stem from whistleblower complaints brought against Paxton by seven senior staff members in 2020, and four of those seven later filed a lawsuit against the attorney general claiming he fired them because they reported his wrongdoing to the FBI. The parties reached a $3.3 million settlement agreement in February, and Paxton requested the legislature allocate funds to help him pay for it—his legal team argued the lawsuit was against the agency Paxton ran rather than Paxton himself.

Many of these allegations against Paxton had been public for years, but state officials more or less shrugged as the attorney general continued ingratiating himself with the Trump wing of the party—and winning elections. It was the request for taxpayer money that changed his trajectory. “We cannot over-emphasize the fact that, but for Paxton’s own request for a taxpayer-funded settlement over his wrongful conduct, Paxton would not be facing impeachment by the House,” the House Committee on General Investigating said in a memo last week. 

Paxton decried the investigation, his impeachment, and state Republican leaders. “It was a politically motivated sham from the beginning,” he said Saturday, arguing the investigators refused to examine counterevidence to refute the allegations. “[State House Speaker] Phelan’s coalition of Democrats and liberal Republicans is now in lockstep with the Biden Administration, the abortion industry, anti-gun zealots, and woke corporations trying to sabotage my work as Attorney General,” he added. 

Before his Senate trial has even been fully organized, Paxton has already deployed questionable tactics to sway the vote in his favor. The Dallas Morning News reported Sunday, for example, that Paxton’s office sent what amounted to a defense packet to state senators. “Dropping a binder on your potential jurors could be considered a tampering or attempting to interfere with a lawful process,” State Rep. Ann Johnson, one of the impeachment managers, said earlier this week. According to State Rep. Charlie Geren, Paxton also attempted to intimidate state House members during the impeachment hearing itself. “Several members of this House, while on the floor of this House doing the state’s business, received telephone calls from general Paxton personally, threatening them with political consequences in our next election,” alleged Geren, a Republican of Fort Worth. After these revelations, Democratic State Rep. Eddie Morales Jr. called for intimidation of House members and jury tampering to be added to the articles of impeachment.

The impeachment isn’t Paxton’s first brush with being on the other side of the law. He was indicted by a grand jury in 2015 for felony securities fraud—he allegedly encouraged investors to buy stock in a tech company without disclosing he stood to gain from their purchase—but has yet to stand trial on the charges. Earlier in his career, Paxton also engaged in questionable conduct as a court-appointed attorney overseeing a probate case and even allegedly stole a $1,000 pen from another lawyer at a courthouse, returning it only after video surveillance showed him grabbing it. He also remains under investigation by the Department of Justice, which earlier this year took over the corruption probe headed by federal prosecutors in Texas.

But Paxton made some powerful allies during the Trump years—he’s been one of the country’s most litigious attorneys general fighting Biden administration policy and was one of Trump’s staunchest defenders—and those allies have rushed to his defense in recent days.

“The impeachment proceedings against the Attorney General are but the latest front in the Texas House’s war against Republicans to stop the conservative direction of our state,” said Matt Rindaldi, chair of the Republican Party of Texas. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene labeled the impeachment a “witchhunt.” Sen. Ted Cruz called it “a travesty.” 

Trump himself last week threatened repercussions for Texas House Republicans who went through with the vote. “Hopefully Republicans in the Texas House will agree that this is a very unfair process that should not be allowed to happen or proceed—I will fight you if it does,” he said on Saturday. The former president and the attorney general have been close for years—Paxton led what would turn out to be a failed court case challenging the 2020 presidential election results in Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, and Trump endorsed his 2022 reelection campaign.

But despite the pressure, 60 out of the 85 House Republicans voted to impeach Paxton—a striking rebuke of both the attorney general and his national supporters. The wide margin of Republican support likely stems not only from the extent of the alleged corruption and Paxton’s efforts to put taxpayers on the hook, but also divisions within the Texas Republican Party between hard-line conservatives and center-right moderates. Some conservative political groups in the state have already presented Speaker Phelan as a RINO in cahoots with the Democrats, and Paxton himself tried to preempt the accusations from the House by alleging Phelan was drunk on the floor and calling for him to resign.

“This is, effectively I think, them fighting back against the more conservative wing of the Republican Party that includes both Paxton but also the lieutenant governor,” said Mark Jones, a political science professor at Rice University. Patrick, who will serve as the judge in the impeachment trial, has remained neutral, saying at a news conference this week there will be “a fair trial.” Gov. Greg Abbott has so far remained silent on the impeachment even in the face of criticism from Trump, but he appointed an interim attorney general Wednesday to fill Paxton’s post during the trial.

The Senate trial is set to begin later this summer, on a date set by the lieutenant governor. A Senate panel is currently preparing recommendations on the rules for the trial and will submit them to the full body on June 20. A two-thirds majority is needed to convict Paxton, making each vote in the 31-member body—12 Democratic and 19 Republican—significant. The attorney general’s wife, Angela Paxton, is a Republican state senator and has not said publicly whether she’ll recuse herself from the vote. If Sen. Paxton does participate in the vote, at least nine Republicans will need to vote to convict for the measure to carry, assuming all the Democrats vote to convict as well. If convicted, Paxton would be permanently barred from holding office in Texas. 

“We will not tolerate corruption, bribery, abuse of office, retaliation and all the related charges that have been presented to you,” State Rep. Andrew Murr—the Republican chair of the General Investigating Committee and an impeachment manager—said in a speech Saturday before the House. “I’m confident that you cannot tolerate, let alone defend, these most serious and grave official wrongs.”

Worth Your Time

  • In a piece for Christianity Today, Russell Moore argues Uganda’s new anti-gay law is not Christian—and that it misrepresents the Bible. “Not everything that’s a sin is a crime,” he writes. “To equate all sin with crime, without the authority to do so, is itself a sin against God—to take the name of the Lord our God in vain. If the historic Christian vision of marriage and family is true and good and beautiful, as I believe it is, then we demonstrate that truth, goodness, and beauty to our unbelieving neighbors through our witness—not by threatening to kill them. Unleashing the violence of state-ordained execution, imprisonment, and surveillance on gay and lesbian Ugandans is a condemnable act of authoritarianism and a violation of the self-evident and unalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. To do such a thing is a matter of power, not of conviction. It demonstrates not a commitment to the Bible’s authority but a rejection of it.” 

Presented Without Comment

Politico: Biden falls on stage at Air Force graduation but is ‘fine,’ according to spokesperson.

Also Presented Without Comment

New York Times: Mary Trump and E. Jean Carroll are collaborating on a romance novel.

Also Also Presented Without Comment

The Hill: [New Hampshire] Republican flips endorsement from Trump to DeSantis, citing [Trump’s] criticism of Fox News host.

Toeing the Company Line

  • In the newsletters: Nick admits (🔒) he may have been wrong about McCarthy’s ability to land the debt ceiling plane: “McCarthy is better at this than we thought—and perhaps Biden is too.”
  • On the podcasts: Jonah is joined by AEI’s Hal Brands to discuss Ukraine, China, and the United States’ role in the world on The Remnant, while Sarah, Jonah, and Steve debate whether the McCarthy-Biden debt ceiling deal signals a return to politics as normal on The Dispatch Podcast.
  • On the site: Mike looks at whether any GOP presidential candidates not named Trump or DeSantis have a path to the nomination, and Andrew checks in with a report from Iowa, where he’s been following the campaign of one of those candidates, former pharmaceutical executive Vivek Ramaswamy.

Let Us Know

Are you hopeful for a U.S.-China thaw? Or are you, like Rep. Gallagher, skeptical of Beijing’s intentions?

Declan Garvey is the executive editor at the Dispatch and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2019, he worked in public affairs at Hamilton Place Strategies and market research at Echelon Insights. When Declan is not assigning and editing pieces, he is probably watching a Cubs game, listening to podcasts on 3x speed, or trying a new recipe with his wife.

Esther Eaton is a former deputy editor of The Morning Dispatch.

Mary Trimble is the editor of The Morning Dispatch and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2023, she interned at The Dispatch, in the political archives at the Paris Institute of Political Studies (Sciences Po), and at Voice of America, where she produced content for their French-language service to Africa. When not helping write The Morning Dispatch, she is probably watching classic movies, going on weekend road trips, or enjoying live music with friends.

Grayson Logue is the deputy editor of The Morning Dispatch and is based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Prior to joining the company in 2023, he worked in political risk consulting, helping advise Fortune 50 companies. He was also an assistant editor at Providence Magazine and is a graduate student at the University of Edinburgh, pursuing a Master’s degree in history. When Grayson is not helping write The Morning Dispatch, he is probably working hard to reduce the number of balls he loses on the golf course.