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Foreign Policy

Blinken’s Diplomatic Tightrope

May 23, 2024
  • Zhao Minghao

    Professor, Institute of International Studies, Fudan University, and China Forum Expert.

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U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s recent visit to China was an important interaction as the two nations seek to implement the consensus reached by their presidents in San Francisco. It was also important for maintaining dialogue, managing differences and enhancing coordination on international affairs.

In the context of the upcoming U.S. presidential election, the American administration has demonstrated a proactive approach to increase diplomatic engagement. In a phone call with President Xi Jinping in early April, for example, President Joe Biden expressed hope of arranging a Blinken visit. Additionally, the persistent Russia-Ukraine conflict and Palestinian-Israel  conflict are having an increasing impact on Biden’s reelection chances. In particular, pro-Palestinian protests at many universities in the United States have created a sense of anxiety among Democratic Party elites, potentially leading to a decline in support for Biden among young voters and ethnic minority groups.

In this context, it is crucial to prevent strategic surprises in China-U.S. relations. During his visit to China, Blinken emphasized that the U.S.-China relationship is the most important bilateral relationship in the world, and that it is the two countries’ common responsibility to manage it responsibly. The United States does not seek to change China’s system, has no intention of sparking conflict with China and does not seek to decouple from China or hold back China’s development. A developing and successful China is a good thing for the world, he added.

During his visit, China and the United States agreed to maintain high-level exchanges and engagement at all levels; harness consultation mechanisms in the fields of diplomacy, economy, finance and commerce; and promote cooperation on drug control, climate change and artificial intelligence.

The stability of relations also depends on the proper handling of issues regarding Taiwan and the South China Sea and good management of bilateral interactions on all fronts. In late May, Lai Ching-te will officially take office as the leader of Taiwan. Given his clear proclivity toward Taiwan independence, the question whether he will create a crisis through provocative statements and actions after taking office has attracted much attention. Blinken reiterated Washington’s commitment to the “one China” policy and its opposition to Taiwan independence.

However, Washington’s moves to deepen political and military relations with Taiwan indicate a widening gap between its “one China” policy and the Chinese mainland’s “one-China principle.” China has emphatically told Blinken that the Taiwan question is the most important red line that must not be crossed. It has urged Washington to adhere to the one-China principle and the three China-U.S. joint communiques to the letter, to avoid sending any inappropriate signals to separatists in Taiwan. 

On the South China Sea issue, the United States has adopted a multipronged approach marked by growing negative words and deeds. For one thing, it seeks to enhance the legitimacy of the South China Sea arbitration and lends support to the Philippines’ infringement and provocative actions around Scarborough Shoal and Sandy Cay. For another, the U.S. has accelerated the deployment of military forces to bases in the Philippines and strengthened its readiness to defend the islands with force by building a trilateral alliance with Japan and the Philippines, as well as a quadrilateral mechanism with Japan, the Philippines and Australia. In addition, in a show of force, it conducted a joint patrol involving multinational warships and aircraft in the South China Sea.

Blinken’s discussions in China demonstrated the adverse impact of the U.S. presidential election on bilateral relations, notably addressing three issues:

First is China’s support for Russia’s military industry. The Biden administration portrays China as a key factor in the course of the Ukraine crisis. In this regard, China emphasizes the need for the United States to reflect on its own responsibilities regarding the crisis. The Ukrainian issue is not one involving China and the United States, and so the U.S. should refrain from framing it as such.

Second is Chinese interference in the U.S. election. In recent years, American politicians have been hyping this issue, accusing China of carrying out sharp actions against the United States, thereby undermining its democratic system.

For the Chinese, Washington is bound to place pressure on China no matter which American political party comes to power. In other words, why should China bother to interfere in the election if the end result is the same? Democrats blamed Russian interference for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 loss to Donald Trump. Similarly, they might attribute a Biden loss in this year’s election to Chinese interference.

Third is alleged overcapacity in China. Economic development and employment are central issues in the U.S. election. Since the final outcome of the election does not rely on the popular vote, and the candidates who wins a small majority in key swing states can capture the White House, the key lies in gaining the support of blue-collar workers in those states.

Not long ago, Treasury Secretary Yellen highlighted the problem of overcapacity during her visit to China, and now Blinken continues to apply pressure on China over this issue. These developments show that the Biden administration is trying to protect domestic industries so that the Democratic candidate can boost his appeal among blue-collar workers, secure the support of swing states in the industrial belt of the Midwest and avoid attacks from Trump on trade issues.

In conclusion, China-U.S. relations have shown some signs of stabilization following the San Francisco summit between the presidents in November. However, some vulnerabilities cannot be ignored. When the U.S. election kicks off in earnest in the second half of this year, candidates from both parties may be more inclined to play the China card. Blinken’s visit epitomizes the ambivalence of the Biden administration, which seeks to stabilize its relations with China but also wants to flex its muscles. This poses a complex challenge for China’s strategy toward the United States.

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