The relationship between the two countries is considered to be at its worst in decades
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken made a long-awaited trip to China this week.
During his visit, the first by a Biden administration Cabinet official, he met senior diplomat Wang Yi, Foreign Minister Qin Gang and, after some uncertainty, supreme leader Xi Jinping. The meetings were candid — diplomatic lingo for “marked by disagreement” — but progress was made.
There are again hopes that the United States and China have recognized the need to install guardrails on their relationship, to ensure that there are channels of communication to address the inevitable disagreements and periodic crises. Success will require hard work and a focus on the big picture. Within days of the visit, however, there were signs that petulance and politics could again prevail over common sense.
Blinken is the first U.S. secretary of State to visit China since his predecessor, Mike Pompeo, went in 2018. He was supposed to go in February but that trip was canceled after a Chinese spy balloon was detected traversing the U.S. mainland. China has brushed back other efforts to engage. The U.S. proposed that the two countries’ defense chiefs meet at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore earlier this month, but Beijing refused that request, insisting that the U.S. first lift sanctions on Defense Minister Li Shangfu. That channel remains closed.
There is much for officials to discuss. The relationship between the two countries is considered by most observers to be the worst in decades. There are many explanations for the deterioration. China blames the U.S. for encouraging separatists in Taiwan, for threatening its national sovereignty with spy flights and freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea and for undermining its growth through the imposition of sanctions on individuals and companies in key sectors of the Chinese economy.
The U.S. denies those charges, insisting that it remains committed to its one-China policy, but it will provide Taiwan the means to resist Chinese coercion. Washington argues that reconnaissance flights and naval exercises are consistent with international law and within its rights. Economic sanctions have only been imposed on entities and individuals that break U.S. laws.
Both sides agree on the need to stabilize relations, but that will not be easy since those problems are expressions of a fundamental difference. The U.S. believes that China is an aggressive, revisionist power that is committed to rewriting the rules of the regional order to its benefit. In this environment, the U.S. emphasizes the need to maintain open channels of communication to reduce the risk of misperception and the escalation of crises.
China, in contrast, believes that the U.S. fears its rise and is doing all it can to thwart its development and Beijing’s assumption of its rightful place in the regional order. As Wang Yi complained, the root cause of the current situation is the United States’ “erroneous perception of China.” For China, communications channels enable the U.S. — allowing it to avoid the worst consequences of its behavior — and thus they are to be established only when Washington has changed its view of Beijing.
Wang Yi was right when he told Blinken that “it is necessary to make a choice between dialogue or confrontation, cooperation or conflict.” His charge that problems are the fault of the U.S. alone is wrong, however. That attitude will ensure that rapprochement is thwarted and tensions continue to climb. Both sides have to work together to build a mutually acceptable relationship.
One supposed indication of Chinese readiness to move forward was Xi’s willingness to meet Blinken. Having met Bill Gates only the week before as well as previous visiting secretaries of state, a session was expected. It remained unconfirmed until just an hour before they sat down, and when they did talk, it was in an unusual format: Unlike other meetings at which Xi sat next to his visitor, this time he sat at the head of a U-shaped table, with Blinken on one side, establishing his status as elevated to all others in the room.
Xi told Blinken that “State-to-state interactions should always be based on mutual respect and sincerity,” underscoring the message of his diplomats and the charge that the U.S. is not giving China its due. He added that China has no intention of challenging the U.S. and Washington should treat Beijing similarly. “Neither side should try to shape the other side by its own will, still less deprive the other side of its legitimate right to development,” Xi said.
Both sides described the talks as “candid, substantive and constructive” and indicated their willingness to maintain high-level interactions. China’s foreign ministry reported that Blinken invited Foreign Minister Qin to visit the U.S., which would occur “at a mutually convenient time.” Blinken said that he expected other U.S. Cabinet officials would follow him to China. Beijing is especially eager to host Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen and Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, both of whom represent business interests that China wants to court as its economy struggles to regain footing after the COVID-19 pandemic.
There is hope too that Blinken’s visit will facilitate a meeting between Xi and U.S. President Joe Biden at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation leaders meeting that Biden will host in San Francisco in November. At their last meeting, during November’s Group of 20 summit in Bali, the two men agreed to set guardrails for the bilateral relationship, a promising indication of mutual intent — but the spy balloon’s appearance in the U.S. sky popped those ambitions.
Japan, like other Asian nations, is eager to see the two governments work together to stabilize their relationship and defuse regional tensions. All governments are concerned about Taiwan, since roughly 50% of global commercial container traffic traverses the Taiwan Strait every day. A contingency in Taiwan will impact Japan and one of the best ways to prevent that from happening is for Washington and Beijing to be assured of each other’s good intentions.
At the same time, however, Japan, like other Asian nations, is wary of a relationship between the two countries that allows them to make vital decisions over its head. China has long expressed a preference for “a new type of major power relations” that would marginalize other regional countries. That is unacceptable.
Now, however, the immediate concern should be on getting the bilateral relationship on track and re-establishing shock absorbers. There is no time to lose. With naval ships engaging in dangerous maneuvers in the South China Sea, the chances of an accident are climbing. The growing number of air sorties means there is a similar risk of an air incident, as occurred in 2001.
This week, an off-the-cuff remark by Biden, ostensibly intended to insulate Xi from the embarrassment of the spy balloon fiasco, has instead been called “extremely absurd and irresponsible” and “a blatant political provocation” by a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson. The U.S. president had suggested the incident was an embarrassment for dictators, which triggered the response. And revelations of a Chinese spy outpost in Cuba are also stoking tensions in the U.S.
The possibility of an accident and the need for the world’s two largest economies to work together on global issues like climate change or development aid demands that Washington and Beijing find common ground and ways to manage crises. Secretary Blinken’s trip to Beijing commenced that journey but there remains — plainly — a long way to go.