Blinken’s Beijing Visit Brings Modest Progress on Stabilizing U.S.-China Ties

At long last, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken traveled to Beijing to meet Chinese leaders and jointly work towards stabilizing bilateral ties. His trip was originally planned for February but was postponed when a Chinese spy balloon flew over the U.S., prompting the American government to shoot it down. With tensions rising and relations deteriorating, Blinken’s visit became an important opportunity to prevent further escalation, or at least for each side to signal their resolve to do so. “At the moment, the core goal isn’t to restore trust,” said Scott Kennedy, a senior advisor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “It is to restore a sense of frankness and honesty and credibility on both sides that allows them to still interact despite the very low levels of trust that they have.”

William Mauldin and Keith Zhai at The Wall Street Journal described the main outcomes of the visit:

During two days of meetings in Beijing, Blinken and senior Chinese foreign-policy officials agreed to more high-level talks, continuing a thaw after months of near-frozen contacts. They also promised to find common ground on increasing flights between the two countries and combating the flow of fentanyl into the U.S.

Xi blessed the fledgling momentum in ties, granting Blinken a much-anticipated audience on Monday and urging the U.S. diplomat to “make more positive contributions to stabilize U.S.-China relations.”

No apparent breakthroughs occurred on the range of contentious issues that have sent ties plummeting, from U.S. support for Taiwan and restrictions on technology exports to China to Beijing’s close relations with Moscow. Blinken said he raised concerns about Chinese intelligence activities in Cuba.  A key goal of the Biden administration—establishing a military communication channel between the countries to address frequent incidents around Taiwan—didn’t materialize either.

[…] Barring further setbacks, other senior U.S. officials—including Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen and climate envoy John Kerry—are expected to visit Beijing in the coming months. Blinken invited Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang to come to Washington as a reciprocal step to Blinken’s Beijing trip. In theory, the meeting between Xi and Blinken will pave the way for Qin, a former ambassador to Washington, to meet Biden on a future visit. [Source]

Despite producing few concrete deliverables, the outcome of the visit was greeted with relief in some quarters. “Both sides clearly used the visit to help stabilize the relationship, which has been lurching toward dangerously intense confrontation,” said Danny Russel, the top U.S. diplomat for Asia during the Obama administration and currently vice president of the Asia Society Policy Institute. He added that “the public statements by the two sides were notably positive, particularly by recent standards.” The Biden administration appeared cautiously optimistic. Joe Leahy, Demetri Sevastopulo, and Edward White from The Financial Times reported that both governments saw the visit as constructive for their bilateral relationship:

The US and China have made “progress” towards stabilising plunging bilateral relations, Chinese president Xi Jinping declared on Monday as he held a long-delayed meeting with US secretary of state Antony Blinken.

[…] Asked whether he felt the US and China had made progress in the meetings, Biden replied: “I don’t ‘feel’. You know it’s been made.”

[…] “It’s in the interests of the United States to [stabilize the bilateral relationship], it’s in the interests of China to do that, it’s in the interests of the world and I think we took a positive step in that direction over the past few days,” Blinken [said]. [Source]

However, the optics of Blinken’s reception received much scrutiny, with many analysts contrasting his cold welcome to the warmer ones given to previous American visitors. “It was clear that [the Chinese] were sending a bit of a signal to Blinken of their displeasure with him,” said Dennis Wilder, former China director at the National Security Council, on the Sinica Podcast. He noted that while the usual practice would be to send a whole delegation of senior Chinese officials to greet the Secretary of State at the airport, this time, only one senior official was present to greet Blinken. And whereas Blinken’s two immediate predecessors were seated next to Xi Jinping in armchairs when they met with him in Beijing,  this time, in a power move, Xi sat at the head of a long table, with Blinken seated some distance down, on the right-hand side. A week earlier, U.S. tech billionaire Bill Gates was seated side by side with a smiling Xi, who called Gates his “old friend.” David Pierson and Edward Wong from The New York Times described how some of the more nationalist PRC commentary framed Blinken as being in a position of subservience

[T]o nationalist-leaning audiences in China, especially on social media, the scenes tell a different story. To them, Mr. Blinken arrived only after months of pleading for an invitation. And during his visit, he was schooled on respecting China’s interests and played supplicant to Mr. Xi. Chinese social media users gleefully noted that Mr. Blinken arrived on Father’s Day, the implication being — using the parlance of the internet — that Mr. Xi was America’s daddy.

The nationalistic commentary in China around Mr. Blinken’s visit underscored a point that Mr. Xi made in his meeting with the top American diplomat on Monday: “Major-country competition does not represent the trend of the times.” The translation: Surrounding China with security partners and cutting off its access to advanced technology is not healthy competition, but an invitation for conflict.

[…] It is unclear to what extent the state played a role in promoting the triumphant narrative online, though Chinese censors generally have broad controls to sway public opinion.  Even in China’s more staid state-controlled news outlets, which mostly carried the government’s summaries of the meetings, coverage of the visit emphasized Beijing’s view that Mr. Blinken was visiting to reassure the Chinese government and listen to its concerns. [Source]

Meaghan Tobin from The Washington Post noted that Xi was able to leverage the visit to boost China’s global image

“This is good for China’s international image, for its grand narrative,” said Shen Dingli, a Shanghai-based scholar of international relations.

[…] “Xi is trying to address a global audience,” said John Delury, professor of Chinese studies at Yonsei University in Seoul. “He’s almost speaking past the U.S.”

[…] “This is part of Xi’s ambition to frame China as a global player and to correct a negative image of China globally — or at least to not look like the problem in the U.S.-China relationship,” said Delury. “While in Washington, the Biden administration is more focused on how to message this stuff back home than thinking that the world is watching.” [Source]

Blinken’s 35-minute meeting with Xi was not on his original agenda and proved to be an important moment. Wen-ti Sung, a political scientist at the Australian National University, said: “China’s top leader personally meeting a US envoy lower than him in rank signals to Chinese government that China is in a gracious mood, and it gives Chinese bureaucrats political cover to extend an olive branch and make occasional compromises necessary to repair relations.” Earlier, Blinken also had meetings with Foreign Minister Qin Gang and Director of the CCP Central Foreign Affairs Office Wang Yi, for what he described as “candid” talks. The latter meeting appeared slightly more confrontational, with Wang lecturing Blinken that “the root cause of the current downturn in China-U.S. relations lies in the U.S. side’s erroneous understanding of China, which has resulted in misguided policies toward China.”

Some analysts sounded a note of caution about the visit’s lack of substance. Former U.S. diplomat Susan Thornton stated: “I think we can’t just keep getting together in meetings and sort of airing our grievances because that will lead to just a continuing downward spiral in the relationship.” In his Sinocism newsletter, Bill Bishop concluded: “More interaction may help lower the temperature but without some fundamental shifts from the US, on issues like Taiwan and high-technology controls, which I do not think are likely even with President Biden’s push to improve the relationship, the two sides will probably continue to keep talking past each other.”

The need for communication was underscored by recent close military encounters between the U.S. and China. In late May, a Chinese J-16 fighter jet cut in front of a U.S. reconnaissance aircraft over the South China Sea in what the U.S. military described as an “unnecessarily aggressive maneuver,” and a week later a Chinese warship made a sharp cut across the path of a U.S. destroyer in the Taiwan Strait, forcing the destroyer to reduce its speed to avoid a collision. Simina Mistreanu from AP presented several reasons why the Chinese side may have refused to resume high-level military communications after Blinken’s visit

Blinken said he raised the issue of military communications “repeatedly” but was rebuffed by the Chinese. “It is absolutely vital that we have these kinds of communications,” he said, adding that it was something the United States will “keep working on.”

[…] “The U.S. side is surely aware of why there is difficulty in military-to-military exchanges,” said Yang Tao, a Chinese Foreign Ministry official overseeing North American affairs, during a briefing Monday following Blinken’s visit. “One of the reasons is unilateral sanctions against the Chinese side. They first need to remove impediments and create conditions for military-to-military cooperation.”

[…] The U.S. says the sanctions don’t prevent Li from holding talks with U.S. officials. But culturally, Chinese officials may expect a form of public remedy before agreeing to re-engage after sanctions, said Li Nan of the National University of Singapore.

“You impose sanctions on the guy, and then you also want to have dialogue with the guy,” he said. “From the Chinese perspective, that doesn’t make any sense.” [Source]


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