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Foreign Policy

A Crucial Moment in Relations

Jun 21, 2023
  • Sun Chenghao

    Fellow, Center for International Security and Strategy, Tsinghua University
  • Su Liuqiang

    Research Fellow, SIIS


U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken meets with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, June 19, 2023.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken concluded his visit to China on June 19. This visit holds great significance for the future development of China-U.S. relations and serves as a microcosm of an attempted re-engagement between the two countries.

The visit will help promote a new round of high-level interactions between the two countries. Both sides have agreed to maintain high-level exchanges and advance dialogue and cooperation. It is expected that in the coming period there will be contacts between the finance and climate teams of the two sides. This may include visits to China by senior U.S. officials — such as Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo and Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry. Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Qin Gang is expected to visit the United States at an appropriate time this year.

Both sides have agreed to encourage the expansion of people-to-people and educational exchanges between the two countries. It is widely believed that the outcomes of the Blinken visit have met expectations and will pave the way for a meeting between the Chinese and U.S. presidents during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation informal leaders’ meeting in November.

Resuming high-level contacts between China and the U.S. is imperative. On one hand, it aligns with the common desires and interests of both countries. Both sides hope to ease the increasingly tense situation and stabilize the deteriorating relationship. Foreign Minister Qin Gang characterized the China-U.S. relationship as being at its lowest point since the establishment of diplomatic ties, and he called for efforts to stop the decline and bring stability, getting back on the right track.

The U.S. side also has deep concerns about the continued tension in bilateral relations and fears that competition with China could devolve into military conflict. It hopes to restore high-level contacts to manage bilateral competition and prevent it from spiraling out of control. Additionally, maintaining bilateral economic and trade exchanges and people-to-people exchanges, addressing regional security issues and tackling global challenges require renewed contact and cooperation between the two countries.

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On the other hand, this also aligns with the shared expectations of the international community. China-U.S. relations have long transcended bilateral boundaries and have global significance. Any confrontation or conflict between China and the U.S. would be a disaster for the world and go against the interests of all countries. The international community, including U.S. allies, generally does not want to pick sides, nor do they want to see decoupling or confrontation between the two countries. Instead, they hope that China and the U.S. can properly handle their differences, manage competition, and coexist peacefully.

Of course, compared with the engagement between China and the U.S. since the establishment of diplomatic relations, the current re-engagement between the two has different characteristics. In the past, both sides actively sought engagement and cooperation. The current situation is not only a result of the balloon incident but also has a different connotation. Previous engagement focused on expanding cooperation between the two countries, while the current re-engagement places more emphasis on recalibrating the bilateral relationship.

Regarding America’s current pursuit of cooperation with China within the framework of great-power competition, China will engage in reciprocal and mutually beneficial exchanges based on its own interests, rather than unilaterally complying with U.S. cooperative demands.

China does not agree with the so-called great-power competition as proposed by the U.S., nor will it give up opportunities for engagement that are beneficial to its own interests. In the face of U.S. pressure and competition, China will take necessary measures to firmly resist erroneous U.S. policies. At the same time, China will adopt a rational and pragmatic attitude, actively promote the exploration of a proper way for the two countries to coexist and engage in necessary dialogue and cooperation with the U.S. on bilateral economic and trade issues, people-to-people exchanges, climate change, regional hot spots and other matters.

The evolving paradigm of re-engagement is based on two interconnected realities:

First is the increasing convergence of power. As China’s comprehensive national strength continues to rise, the gap in total economic size between China and the U.S. is narrowing China’s global influence grows. This leads to a more balanced power dynamic between the two countries.

Second are the significant shared interests between China and the U.S. that act as constraints. Despite America’s emphasis on competition and confrontation, there are still extensive and significant common interests between the two countries in areas such as bilateral economic and trade relations, security and regional and global challenges. This requires the U.S. to engage and cooperate with China even as it implements its strategic competition approach.

The visit of Secretary Blinken to China provides insights into the main directions and paths for the next phase of re-engagement. From a strategic perspective, an important outcome of this visit is the agreement to jointly implement the important consensus reached by the two presidents at their meeting in Bali, with continued consultation on the guiding principles for China-U.S. relations. China has reiterated the principles of mutual respect, peaceful coexistence and win-win cooperation. The expressions of mutual respect for each other’s sovereignty, security and development interests in this visit were more explicit than previous commitments, which further clarifies the bottom line of the guiding principles or strategic framework for China-U.S. relations.

In terms of various specific issues, a lot of work has yet to be done by both China and the U.S. in order to sustain the current momentum. For example, regarding the fentanyl issue, the U.S. has been concerned about it issue since the Obama administration. However, the U.S. has not lifted sanctions on Chinese research institutions even as it proposes consultations with China on precursor chemicals and the fentanyl supply chain. In this situation, further in-depth communication is still needed between the two sides, and the U.S. should expeditiously lift unjustified sanctions to substantively promote a resolution.

On economic and trade issues, the Biden administration has not continued all the policies of the Trump administration, but it has not reversed them either. Moreover, the administration has focused its economic and trade pressure on technology-related issues. It is unrealistic to expect Biden to completely reverse all existing policies. However, it is worth discussing where the boundaries lie in terms of economy, trade and technological competition.

Both sides can consider establishing corresponding dialogue mechanisms or working groups in technology-related fields to exchange concerns. Although this may require the involvement of more departments from both sides, adding a certain level of complexity, it would also increase communication and interaction between multiple departments of the two countries, which is beneficial for promoting mutual understanding at the official level.

In conclusion, if the Biden administration intends to promote the easing of China-U.S. relations through sincere engagement, China will respond with goodwill. However, the window of opportunity may not be very large, as the U.S. is approaching presidential election season, during which China-related issues may become a focal point of criticism by Republican candidates against the Biden administration. U.S. policy toward China is likely to become deeply entangled with domestic politics.

If the Biden administration fails to return to the right track on China policy by year’s end and continues to implement a strategy of extreme competition, 2023 is likely to be another lost year.

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