Analysis: U.S.-China ties are no longer in freefall, but it’s a rough road ahead

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken meets with Chinese President Xi Jinping in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, June 19, 2023. REUTERS/Leah Millis/Pool

Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s two-day trip to China arguably went about as well as it could. The United States’ top diplomat said he had “constructive” and “substantive” conversations with Chinese President Xi Jinping and his other interlocutors in Beijing, which included top foreign policy official Wang Yi and foreign minister Qin Gang. Both sides indicated their desire to stabilize a relationship that seems to be locked in a “downward spiral,” as Wang put it. They put out readouts of the many hours of discussion that spotlighted a shared desire to find ways to get along, despite the roiling ocean of tensions between the two countries.

Given the deterioration in U.S.-China ties in recent months, that Blinken received an audience with Xi at all was a welcome development. The Chinese president customarily meets with a visiting U.S. secretary of State, as was the case in 2018, the last time such a senior-level mission happened. But Blinken’s meeting with Xi on Monday was only announced 45 minutes before it took place, a sign of the high-wire choreography surrounding the visit, my colleagues noted.

Blinken canceled a scheduled trip to Beijing in February after a Chinese surveillance balloon floated over the continental United States, provoking an uproar in Washington. Chinese officials were displeased with the decision and the broader American reaction to the balloon incident, given the vast footprint of military and surveillance assets that the United States deploys around the world. In the months that followed, Beijing’s foreign ministry published a treatise about the global harms caused by U.S. “hegemony” and Chinese officials hardened their rhetoric about Washington’s “Cold War mentality.”

On Monday, Xi seemed somewhat upbeat, suggesting the two sides “made progress and reached agreement on some specific issues.” Speaking in the Great Hall of the People alongside Blinken, Xi said what happened between the two countries has a “bearing on the future and destiny of mankind” and that their two governments “should properly handle Sino-U. S. relations with an attitude of being responsible to history, the people and the world.”

Before leaving the Chinese capital, Blinken said in an interview that arresting the slide in U.S.-China ties was “not the product of one visit, even as intense and in some ways productive as this was.” He added that the past two days were a “good” and “important start.”

Still, for those hoping for happier relations, there’s a long, winding road ahead, littered with obstacles. Whatever the rhetoric during Blinken’s time in Beijing, strategists and policymakers in both the United States and China see the other as a rival power, and view competition of some substantive form as inevitable. Tensions over long-standing issues like the status of self-governing Taiwan or China’s activities in the South China Sea have grown all the more acute, while critical lines of communication have gone silent. Blinken was unable to get China to agree to reopen military-to-military channels, something U.S. officials have urged in recent months as fears over the possibility of an accidental military encounter and escalation grow.

In Washington, leading congressional Republicans attacked Blinken for even making the trip. Mounting bipartisan hawkishness on China among lawmakers has given the Biden administration little wiggle room in navigating the current moment, not least as the 2024 election cycle kicks into gear. Meanwhile, China’s autocratic government is also, to a certain extent, sensitive to nationalist sentiment at home, especially as it copes with flagging economic growth.

“It is symptomatic of how bad the relationship has gotten that it’s an achievement to talk,” John Delury, a China expert at Yonsei University in Seoul, told the Financial Times. “That it is almost a sign of political courage to meet with your counterparts.”

There were some small signs of tacit agreement or understanding. “On Ukraine, Blinken said U.S. and European leaders ‘appreciate’ China’s assurances that it is not providing lethal assistance to Russia,” my colleagues reported. “He welcomed Xi’s involvement in bringing a ‘just’ and ‘durable’ end to the war in Ukraine. The hopeful tone stood in contrast to long-standing pessimism from U.S. officials that China will play a supportive role with regards to Russia.”

Blinken also stressed that the United States did not want to jeopardize the enormous bilateral trade relationship between the countries. “We don’t want to decouple, we want to de-risk,” he said, gesturing to U.S. export controls on sensitive technologies to China such as advanced semiconductors. That’s a message echoed by the leadership of many major Western powers, including German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, who received Chinese Premier Li Qiang in Berlin on Monday evening ahead of bilateral talks.

Xi, for his part, insisted that China had no plans to “challenge” or “replace” the United States. But he said that “neither party can shape the other according to its own wishes, let alone deprive the other of its legitimate right to development,” a statement of China’s frustration at what it sees as American attempts to bully it on the world stage and constrain its rise.

China has little patience for American talk of setting “guardrails” on the relationship, the phrase that Biden administration officials have repeatedly deployed. It’s language that Beijing considers little more than an admission of intent to keep China down. Earlier this month at a security forum in Singapore, Chinese defense minister Li Shangfu scoffed at U.S. invocations of the “rules-based international order” – asking “who made these rules” – and also questioned the right of (or need for) the U.S. military to transit through the strategic Taiwan Strait. Both sides see themselves as guarantors of the status quo and the other as a dangerous, destabilizing actor.

The next phase of top-level diplomacy between the two countries may involve visits by Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen, Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo and U.S. climate envoy John F. Kerry. There’s a chance President Biden and Xi may meet at the sidelines of the APEC summit in San Francisco in November, roughly a year after the two last sat down in Bali at the summit of the Group of 20 major economies.

Some analysts in Washington suggest a sensible confidence-building measure could be the dropping of some of the Trump-era tariffs on Chinese goods, which have hurt American consumers. But it’s unclear whether the White House believes it can risk the furor such a move may provoke on the U.S. right, which would cast the Biden administration as being soft on China’s single-party Communist regime.

Chinese officials have their own red lines. They reiterated to Blinken that there was “no room” for compromise over Taiwan and accused the United States of seeking to change the delicate equation around the island. A broader geopolitical standoff in the region appears to only be getting more entrenched, as traditional U.S. allies in Asia tighten their security cooperation with Washington.

Zhu Feng, dean of the Institute of International Studies at Nanjing University, told my colleagues that the Biden administration shows little interest in changing course on its confrontation with China, a position that further fuels a tense dynamic. “China can still use this opportunity to express that if the U.S. cannot effectively respond to its concerns, then of course China cannot effectively respond to [the United States’],” he said.

Aaron David Miller, a former U.S. diplomat, mused that the big question following Blinken’s trip to China is “whether we really don’t understand one another … or whether we understand one another only too well.”



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