Over the past period, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken repeatedly expressed his desire to visit China and discuss improving bilateral relations with Chinese leaders and officials. He maintained that regular and effective communication between the US and China could avoid misjudgments of each other’s strategic intentions and serious conflicts stemming from misjudgments. Ultimately, after several delays, Blinken and his party held a five-and-a-half-hour meeting with State Councilor Qin Gang in Beijing on June 18. On the morning of June 19, Wang Yi, a member of the Political Bureau of the Communist Party of China Central Committee and director of the Central Foreign Affairs Office, met with Blinken. President Xi Jinping also met with Blinken the afternoon of the same day.
A factor for Blinken’s postponement of visiting China is indisputably the “airship incident”, or, in the characterization of the US, the “surveillance-balloon incident”. However, the more critical reason is that the US still needs to earnestly implement the consensus agreed upon by President Xi Jinping and US President Joe Biden in their meeting in Bali in November 2022. At the core of this consensus is the Taiwan question. Biden pledged not to support “Taiwan independence”, “two Chinas”, and “one China and one Taiwan”. Biden also agreed that the US would refrain from acting to provoke and contain China on issues such as Taiwan, the South China Sea, trade, investment, technology, military affairs, and Ukraine. Nevertheless, previous provocative actions — such as then-US House speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, current House Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s high-profile conference with Taiwan’s “president”, Tsai Ing-wen, in Los Angeles, and the sale of more advanced weapons to Taiwan by the US — have been severely reprimanded by China as supporting the “Taiwan independence” forces, using Taiwan to contain and threaten China, and violating the Bali consensus. To the surprise and shock of the US, China has responded vehemently to the multitudinous US containment and provocative actions, especially in the forms of the two large-scale circum-Taiwan exercises of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army and the bold steps of Chinese military planes and warships to intercept American military aircraft and warships. The US has begun to realize that China no longer has illusions about the China policy of the US and has thoughtfully prepared in thinking and action to deal with “turbulent waves” in US-China relations. Predictably, if the US continues to do everything possible to contain, attack, and harm China, it will bear an increasingly hefty cost. Allies of the US have long expressed concern about the downward spiral of US-China relations and implored the United States to take measures to ease US-China relations. Member countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations have even stated unmistakably that they will not side with the US and oppose China in the US-China conflict. Right now, the US is deeply mired in the quagmire of the Russian-Ukraine conflict, wherefrom it cannot extricate itself. At the same time, its domestic political and financial crises continue to ferment and become increasingly intractable. Consequently, the US is eager to hope that China will help the US on national debt and trade issues by buying more US Treasury bonds and US goods. President Joe Biden, who has recently announced that he will seek re-election, undoubtedly hopes to improve the economic, monetary, and financial conditions of the United States with China’s assistance, thereby improving his odds of electoral victory next year. Against these backgrounds, the US should have a certain degree of sincerity in easing tensions with China and avoiding further deterioration of US-China relations.
However, judging from Blinken’s trip to Beijing, the US apparently hopes to make its allies and the international community feel his country’s sincerity in improving its relations with China. He even subtly attempts to blame China for the deterioration in US-China relations to a certain extent. For example, during his meeting with Wang, Blinken asserted that the US would “responsibly manage that competition so that the relationship does not veer into conflict”, and he proposed areas of potential cooperation, including climate change, global food security, and control of the production of fentanyl. This ploy on the part of the US, however, was vociferously countered by China, who laid the blame for deteriorating relations between the two countries squarely on the US. As underscored by Wang: “The root cause of the trough in China-US relations is that the US holds wrong perceptions of China, which leads to misguided policies toward China. China-US relations have experienced ups and downs, and the US must reflect profoundly and work with China to jointly manage differences and avoid strategic surprises.” China is willing to engage in high-level talks with the US to avoid falling into the political trap created by the US.
In any case, fundamental changes in US-China relations are hard to achieve because the United States is evidently unwilling to drastically change its position on the core issues besetting US-China relations, especially Taiwan, the South China Sea, cutting-edge technology, military containment, adversarial alliance-building by the US, and Ukraine. Both China and the international community can see this very clearly. The United States claims that Blinken’s primary goal of his Beijing trip is to have frank, direct, and constructive discussions with China and responsibly manage the competitive relationship between China and the United States. US officials say they hope, at the very least, that such talks will allow each side to see the intentions of the other more clearly and avert miscalculations. The United States hopes that Blinken’s visit will pave the way for more bilateral talks between the US and China, including visits to China in the coming months by US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, and John Kerry, the special presidential envoy on climate issues. Even President Biden expresses hope that he will be able to meet with President Xi within several months.
If the purpose of Blinken’s trip to the US is limited to this, then this trip has achieved a few concrete results, though not to the satisfaction of the US. After the talks between Blinken and Qin Gang, China and the US agreed to maintain high-level exchanges; continue to promote the US-China joint working group consultations and encourage the expansion of cultural and educational exchanges between the two countries; actively discuss increasing passenger flights between China and the US; welcome more students, academics, and businesspeople to visit each other’s countries; and provide support and convenience for these purposes.
However, the US remains steadfast on issues of grave concern to China, refusing to respond positively. President Xi and Director Wang clearly articulated China’s position on those core concerns during their meetings with Blinken. In effect, reminding Blinken of the Bali consensus, President Xi pointed out: “China respects the interests of the United States and will not challenge or replace the US. Similarly, the US must respect China and not damage China’s legitimate rights and interests. Neither party can shape the other according to its wishes, let alone deprive the other party of its legitimate right to development. China always hopes that China-US relations can be healthy and stable and believes that the two major countries can overcome all difficulties and find the right way to get along, featuring mutual respect, peaceful coexistence, and win-win cooperation.” Wang specifically asked the US to stop hyping the “China threat theory”, cancel illegal unilateral sanctions against China, give up suppressing China’s technological development, and refrain from wantonly interfering in China’s internal affairs. He further emphasized that maintaining national unity would always be at the core of China’s interests. On the Taiwan question, China has no room for compromise.
Regarding China’s solemn position, Blinken was speechless. What he managed to do is to regurgitate the US cliches on US-China relations, especially regarding Taiwan. He reiterated that the US was not trying to “contain” China or decouple its economy but was taking targeted measures to withhold technology that could assist Chinese security-focused programs such as developing nuclear weapons and hypersonic missiles. Blinken further argued, “How is it in our interests to provide those specific technologies to China? We can, will, and must take the steps necessary to protect our national security. Suppose the shoe was on the other foot. In that case, I do not doubt that China would do the same thing.” Concerning Taiwan, Blinken repeated the time-worn US assurances to China that the US did not seek a “new Cold War”, changing China’s institutions, and strengthening ties with allies to oppose China. Blinken also vowed not to support “Taiwan independence” to prevent conflict with China while expecting to develop high-level encounters, maintain smooth communications, responsibly manage differences, and promote dialogue, exchanges, and cooperation.
Obviously, China and the US are talking past each other. In any case, China and the US have meager expectations regarding Blinken’s visit. The atmosphere was solemn, stiff, and cautious during their meetings. At a time when anti-China sentiment in the US has reached hysteria, containment of China has become a rare bipartisan consensus among Republicans and Democrats, and the US is on the eve of an acrimonious and fierce presidential election, neither Blinken nor Biden is likely to be willing or capable of making “concessions” to China over China’s core concerns. Blinken’s trip to China has already drawn much fire in the US from die-hard anti-China politicians like US Representative Mike Gallagher. In the long run, unless the US changes its course drastically, the deteriorating trend of US-China relations will be difficult to reverse. However, a temporary relaxation or truce in the downward trajectory is still possible. The “harvest” of Blinken’s trip is estimated only to bring about a “momentary” or transient improvement in US-China relations. However, whether this is the case still depends on whether the United States will continue to engage in actions detrimental to US-China relations. In any case, under no illusion with the US, China will persist in charting a path for the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation, wherein the role of the US is minimized or, in the worst circumstances, ruled out.
The author is a professor emeritus of sociology, the Chinese University of Hong Kong, and a consultant for the Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macao Studies.
The views do not necessarily reflect those of BAUHINIA MAGAZINE.