Despite appearances, Secretary Blinken’s visit to China has not done much to thaw Sino-U.S. relations or change its current dynamics.
United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken traveled to China on June 18. During his two-day visit, Blinken met with People’s Republic of China leader Xi Jinping, Chinese Communist Party Central Foreign Affairs Office director Wang Yi, and PRC foreign minister Qin Gang.
The optics of Blinken’s trip looked bad for the U.S. and the Biden administration. The official PRC readouts seemed to suggest that the senior CCP officials had spent their time lecturing Blinken on why the U.S. was to blame for the deterioration in the Sino-U.S. relationship and how Washington should respect China’s interests. PRC state media photos of Xi and Blinken—including one where Xi was seated at the head of a large conference table while the U.S. delegation and PRC officials flanked him on either side—gave the impression that the latter played supplicant to the former.
Perception, however, does not quite capture the reality of the current state of play between the U.S. and the PRC. An examination of the words and actions from both sides around Blinken’s Beijing trip indicates that the status quo of heightened tensions persists despite increased diplomatic engagements.
The CCP secured from Secretary Blinken’s diplomatic visit a propaganda victory of sorts. The senior PRC officials issued remarks suggesting that Washington was responsible for the worsening of bilateral relations and Beijing was the more reasonable of the two.
The “China-U.S. relationship is at the lowest point since its establishment,” said Qin Gang before expressing hope that the U.S. “will adopt an objective and rational perception of China, work with China in the same direction, uphold the political foundation of China-U.S. relations, and handle unexpected and sporadic events in a calm, professional and rational manner.”
Meanwhile, Wang Yi told Blinken that “the root cause” of Sino-U.S. relations having arrived at a “critical juncture” is “U.S. misperceptions toward China, which has led to misguided China policies.” Wang then demanded that the U.S. “stop playing up the so-called ‘China threat,’ lift illegal unilateral sanctions against China, stop suppressing China’s scientific and technological advances, and not wantonly interfere in China’s internal affairs.” Wang further added that there is “no room for compromise or concession” on the Taiwan question.
After Wang and Qin’s “tongue-lashing,” Xi Jinping stepped in to show “magnanimity” and a willingness to work with the United States. “Planet Earth is big enough to accommodate the respective development and common prosperity of China and the United States,” Xi said. Therefore, both sides should “help make the world, which is changing and turbulent, more stable, certain and constructive.”
On the one hand, the statements by the senior PRC officials indicate that the CCP still firmly believes that the U.S. and its allies are out to “contain, encircle, and suppress” China, and Beijing needs to do all that is necessary to prepare for escalation in the “new cold war.” The CCP has long viewed the U.S. as its chief rival and leading obstacle in its quest for global hegemony, and will not be swayed otherwise. However, Beijing could become more accommodating to the U.S. should the Biden administration make substantial compromises, including removing U.S. tariffs on Chinese goods and ending restrictions on China’s access to advanced technologies.
On the other hand, the Xi leadership has signaled that it will not heighten Sino-U.S. tensions as long as Washington does not cross the CCP’s “red lines” on Taiwan and its other interests. Notably, the PRC foreign ministry did not publish its spokeswoman Mao Ning’s strong condemnation of President Joe Biden during a regular press conference on June 21 when she was asked about the latter referring to Xi Jinping as a “dictator” during a fundraiser event on June 20. The censoring of Mao’s remarks about Biden and relatively restrained “wolf warrior”-style criticism of the U.S. by senior PRC officials indicate that Beijing was satisfied with scoring some propaganda points in China from Blinken’s trip and has no appetite to seriously provoke Washington and worsen its geopolitical straits.
In a press conference at the end of this China visit on June 19, Secretary Antony Blinken assessed that the U.S. had achieved the objectives it had set for the trip, including “establishing open communications channels, directly raising issues of concern, exploring cooperation in places where it’s in our mutual interest to do so.” President Biden also told reporters that he thought that the U.S-China relationship is on the “right trail” and Blinken had done “a hell of a job.”
Meanwhile, Blinken acknowledged that the PRC had not agreed to “move forward” with establishing “crisis communications and military-to-military channels” with the U.S., something which the Biden administration had been trying to accomplish since taking office. “Progress is hard. It takes time,” Blinken said.
News reports suggested that the Biden administration had given up a lot in pursuing “intense diplomacy” with the PRC. A June 16 NBC report noted that the administration had been “slow walking” measures in recent months “from planned restrictions on investment in China to declassifying intelligence about the origins of the coronavirus” as officials “sought to mend relations with Beijing.”
After his China trip, Blinken told NBC that the PRC spy balloon incident in February 2023 “should be closed,” while Biden indicated on several occasions around the period when Blinken was in Beijing that Xi Jinping had been “embarrassed” because he did not know about the whereabouts of the balloon at the time or what it was carrying.
The Biden administration, however, has yet (at least at the time of writing) to reverse its various tough China policies that are already in place. The administration has also not indicated that it would cease taking actions to “de-risk” from the PRC like applying more restrictions on China’s ability to access advanced technologies. As long as national security considerations remain a priority for the Biden administration, it will likely maintain its hawkish China policies and even add to them even as it pursues deeper engagements with the PRC.
Despite appearances, Secretary Blinken’s visit to China has not done much to thaw Sino-U.S. relations or change its current dynamics. In fact, things are likely to take a turn for the worse in the future as both sides attach increasing importance to national security, the Russia-Ukraine war is not brought to a resolution satisfactory to U.S. interests, and China’s economy continues to deteriorate rapidly.
Greater geopolitical pressures on China will add to the CCP’s rising political risk levels at home, which will in turn increase the probability of Black Swan events.