While Blinken’s meetings in China were not expected to bring about significant policy changes, it has opened the door for future discussion
In three questions, Jonathan Fenton-Harvey evaluates US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken’s China visit.
- Did the meeting meet expectations for easing US-China tensions?
During his two-day visit to Beijing, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken held meetings with high-level Chinese officials, including Foreign Minister Qin Gang, diplomat Wang Yi, and, most importantly, President Xi Jinping. The meetings had sparked optimism that diplomacy could take center stage in the relationship between the two powers.
A level of honesty appeared to emerge from the talks. Both sides acknowledged the current unsustainable and detrimental situation in their relations, which has implications not only for their own countries but also for the Asia-Pacific and the world at large.
China emphasized its core interests, particularly Taiwan, which it identified as among the most significant risks to Sino-US relations today. Blinken, on the other hand, expressed concerns about human rights in China and Beijing’s perceived lack of pressure on Russia to end the Ukraine conflict.
Although this meeting alone was unlikely to yield a breakthrough, it served as a testing ground for the extent to which the US and China could engage in discussions. Beijing, however, while offering praise for the talks, approached them cautiously, recognizing the profound differences in their relations.
While the meeting was not expected to bring about significant policy changes, it has opened the door for future discussions. Blinken extended an invitation for Qin to visit Washington for further talks, which was reciprocated with interest, although specific dates have yet to be determined. There are indications that President Joe Biden and President Xi Jinping will also attempt to meet in the coming months, potentially at the upcoming G20 summit in Delhi.
- What concerns and incidents prompted the need for this meeting?
The Asia-Pacific region continues to be a tense arena, entangled in a power struggle amidst the escalating global competition between Washington and Beijing. This competition extends beyond Asia to Africa, West Asia, Latin America, and even Europe. The US has upped its military presence in this region, primarily accusing China of expanding its own militarization in relation to Taiwan.
Recent security concerns raised by the United States regarding China have added to the complexity. These concerns include warnings about an alleged spy base in Cuba and a Chinese spy balloon incident in February, which were significant enough to result in the cancellation of Blinken’s initial visit. These incidents have further fueled the US’ apprehension regarding China’s activities.
In light of these concerns, the US and some Western allies have also recently advocated for what they term ”de-risking” economic relations with China. Although this phrase may appear less confrontational compared to ”decoupling,” China may still perceive it as an attempt by the US to undermine and isolate it, particularly since the US seeks to hinder China’s emergence as a major player in crucial manufacturing sectors such as semiconductors, or ”chips”.
During the visit, Blinken stated that Washington does not support Taiwan’s independence, which represents a softened opposition to Beijing’s One-China policy. However, Washington has remained committed to supporting efforts that exert pressure on China to refrain from invading Taiwan and arming Taiwan, while Biden himself said the US would intervene in the event of an invasion. This stance could create mixed messages for Beijing, underscoring the importance of effective communication on the Taiwan issue.
- What can be done to reduce future tensions?
There may be a glimmer of hope in softening tensions between the US and China as both sides display a willingness to engage in talks. However, these positive discussions must be accompanied by concrete trust-building actions if they are to have a lasting impact. The root cause of tensions lies in the intense great power competition across many areas, as the US government sees China as both a competitor and a threat to its global order.
For some, the political pressure is indeed seen as detrimental to both sides, especially in economic terms. Against the backdrop of US National Security Advisor (NSA) Jake Sullivan’s visit, the parallel meeting between American business magnate Bill Gates and Xi Jinping demonstrates the desire to maintain economic relations, despite the US containment strategy. Other prominent US business figures like Elon Musk and Jamie Dimon have also recently expressed their commitment to engaging with China, signaling some underlying wishes to defy political tensions.
There are obvious economic benefits to bilateral cooperation, as well as enabling collaboration over technological advancements, more concerted action over climate change, and solving conflicts worldwide, including in Ukraine.
The history of China’s caution around US influence in the Asia-Pacific means its multifaceted attempts to blunt Washington’s influence and its skepticism towards any overtures from the Biden administration will not go away easily. It is also too premature to expect the US to put any brakes on containment measures against China. For now, however, consistent communication would be an essential starting point for building trust and easing differences in the future.