American Secretary of State Antony Blinken paid a two-day official visit to Beijing on June 18-19, in an effort to reopen attenuated channels of communication between the two governments and to stabilize the fragile relationship that has sunk to its lowest point in decades. Both the Chinese and American governments have independently come to realize that the bilateral frictions have reached a very serious point. Recent naval encounters in the Taiwan Strait and air encounters over the South China Sea between the two militaries—in which Chinese ships and fighter planes were accused of acting in “dangerous and unprofessional” ways—were further reminders of how dangerous the relationship has actually become.
Secretary Blinken’s visit was the first by the U.S. Secretary of State to Beijing in five years. His visit had been postponed following the January-February “balloon incident,” when a Chinese reconnaissance balloon overflew sensitive military sites in the United States before the U.S. Air Force shot it down just off the Virginia coast. Thereafter ensued a four-plus month attenuation in high-level communications between the two sides (primarily because the Chinese side refused to talk). Thus, in Beijing, Blinken emphasized that simply restoring such in-person, high-level, and official communications was the first of three goals of his visit. The other two goals were to candidly exchange views on areas of disagreement between the two sides and, thirdly, to explore potential areas of bilateral cooperation. Far more was achieved on the second goal, with little apparently on the third one.
Upon his departure, the State Department said that Secretary Blinken had “underscored the importance of responsibly managing the competition between the United States and the PRC through open channels of communication to ensure competition does not veer into conflict.”
The theme of “responsibly managing competition” is not a new one from the Biden administration. Indeed, it has been the single overarching theme in the way that the American side defines the relationship. However, the Chinese side has never endorsed this framing and definition of the relationship and has repeatedly rejected it (the two sides have argued over this American description of the relationship going back to the initial rocky encounter in Alaska). In fact, this time, none other than Chinese leader Xi Jinping (with whom Blinken had a 34-minute meeting in the Great Hall of the People) explicitly told him: “Major country competition does not represent the trend of the times.” But Xi also said that “China respects the interests of the United States and will not challenge or replace the United States,” while adding: “Similarly, the United States must also respect China and not harm China’s legitimate rights and interests.”
Xi also told Blinken that both China and the world seek a “stable” U.S.-China relationship and that “the vast expanse of the Earth is big enough to accommodate the respective development and common prosperity of China and the United States.” Xi went on to tell Blinken what the Chinese side expects from the United States: “mutual respect, peaceful coexistence, and win-win cooperation.” Xi also claimed: The inclusion of “peaceful coexistence” is relatively new terminology for the Chinese and it harkens back to language used by the former Soviet Union during the Cold War). Xi did not repeat his often-used depiction of the United States as trying to “contain, encircle, and suppress” China, but he did have customary tough words concerning the Taiwan issue, warning and reiterating that Taiwan is the “core of China’s core interests.”
If President Xi was more oblique and balanced in his brief interactions with Secretary Blinken, his discussions with State Councilor Wang Yi and Foreign Minister Qin Gang were much more lengthy and difficult. Blinken and Wang had five hours of discussions while Qin and Blinken had seven hours together. Taken together with the Xi-Blinken meeting, the Secretary of State had more than twelve total hours of discussions with his counterparts in Beijing. The U.S. side claimed afterwards that Secretary Blinken was accorded due respect in all of his meetings, although one U.S. official characterized these exchanges as “sharp.” Officially, the U.S. side described these talks as “candid, substantive, and constructive” (just by being candid and substantive, it can be concluded that they were constructive).
Taiwan occupied (by far) the greatest amount of their time (one-quarter of the total time according to U.S. officials). Blinken repeated that there had been no change to America’s longstanding “One China Policy,” but the Chinese side pointed out a number of American actions they see as provocative and inconsistent with the four-decade old policy. Indeed, the issue of Taiwan has never been more volatile and potentially dangerous than at present. State Councilor Wang Yi (China’s top diplomat) reportedly told Blinken that the Taiwan issue was one in which “China has no room for compromise and will not back down.”
One dimension of this instability in the relationship is the real potential for an accidental collision between American and Chinese military ships or planes (of which there have been several recent close-calls). The U.S. side believes that it is therefore of utmost urgency that direct military-to-military communications be restored (which were broken off by the Chinese side following the balloon incident). But, following his meetings, Secretary Blinken noted there was “no progress to report” on this front.
Wang Yi also took the United States to task for having a “wrong perception of China,” and “hyping the China threat theory,” which he claimed was the “root cause” of the two country’s problems. Wang and Foreign Minister Qin Gang also demanded that the U.S. stop attempting to “suppress” China’s technological development through a combination of export controls, corporate sanctions, controls on U.S. outbound investment, and domestic laws that subsidize American industries. For his part, Blinken went out of his way to tell his counterparts that the U.S. does not seek to “decouple” the two economies—but only to “de-risk” and “diversify” in certain narrow commercial sectors and technologies directly affecting U.S. national security. The Chinese side rejected this distinction.
The two sides also discussed the war in Ukraine, the China-Russia relationship (with Blinken again warning China not to undertake direct military assistance to Russia for use against Ukraine), the China-Iran relationship (including Chinese assistance to Iranian drones and other military systems used by Russian forces against Ukraine), and North Korea’s continuing missile launches, nuclear weapons program, and other provocations—all issues on which there was apparently no agreement. Chinese violations of human rights, internment of Uighurs in Xinjiang, restrictions of rights in Hong Kong, investigations of and pressure on American companies in China, and detentions and exit-bans of American citizens in China were also raised by Secretary Blinken. No Chinese concessions were reported on any of these issues (although the detention/exit ban issue may see some progress in coming months). Also discussed was the contentious issue of Chinese trafficking of fentanyl and fentanyl-related substances directly to the United States (and via Mexico), which has become the leading cause of death to American citizens. Climate change was also discussed, and there may be a resumption of senior exchanges in this area.
Thus, the agenda of Secretary Blinken’s discussions in Beijing were lengthy and complex. While “profound differences” emerged, both sides agreed on the importance of “advancing dialogue, exchanges and cooperation, and high-level interactions” (according to the official Chinese readout). Both sides concluded by agreeing that progress had been made in “stabilizing the relationship,” and they would continue such interactions. We can thus expect the exchange of ministerial (cabinet) level exchanges in the coming weeks and months.
Overall, while no concrete agreements were announced and apparently no differences were substantively narrowed between the two sides, the simple fact that senior officials engaged in such extended and candid discussions is definite progress in what remains a troubled and very volatile relationship.