U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s two-day visit to China resulted in a clear message: Both Beijing and Washington wish to manage their tense relations. As Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Qin Gang said, China-U.S. relations are at their lowest since formal diplomatic relations were established. In other words, from the Chinese perspective, things are worse under President Joe Biden than under Trump.
Many have warned of a possible war between China and the United States. Former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who was instrumental in the thaw in China-U.S. relations in the 1970s, believes the relationship is now at the edge of a cliff, and unless the two parties change their trajectories, armed conflict in the Taiwan Strait is likely. Bridgewater founder Ray Dalio thinks the two countries are on the “brink of war,” and the situation is likely to worsen further as the U.S. enters the 2024 general election season.
The keyword of Blinken’s trip was stability. According to the consensus reached between Chinese and U.S. leaders in Bali, Indonesia last year, this year should have been an important window of opportunity for deepening consultation and easing tensions. But the balloon incident at the beginning of the year sent bilateral ties into a tailspin. The Biden administration’s tough approach may have scored points in domestic politics, but it also brought bilateral strategic interaction to the freezing point. That’s why the Chinese side emphasized that the U.S. needs to be cool-headed, professional and rational in handling “unexpected incidents.”
China-U.S. relations have become fragile. Mutual trust has been wearing thin in a constant game of tit-for-tat over the past few years. A consensus has emerged between America’s two main political parties that China is the country’s “biggest strategic rival.” The Democrats and Republicans even compete to see who can be tougher to China. Both worry about being accused by the other as “weak.” Michael McCaul, the Republican chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said Blinken’s Beijing trip was a glaring failure, and he criticized the Biden administration for suspending some sanctions in an effort to restore dialogue.
MacCaul was being mean, as are many other hawkish Republican members of Congress. He attempted to kill two birds with the one stone with irresponsible accusations in an attempt to pressure on China and embarrass the Biden administration. Nasty political infighting in the U.S. has already rendered effective diplomacy difficult between China and the U.S. — something of critical significance in preventing war between the two nuclear powers.
These hawks do not seem to fully understand the history and sensitivity of the Taiwan issue, and they have no interest in dialogue with China. Instead, they see Beijing as an evil rival. Thus, China-U.S. relations have fallen prey to political polarization in the U.S.
Blinken’s one-night stay in Beijing was not fruitless. High-level exchanges between China and the U.S. may warm up in the next few months, with possible China visits b y U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen and Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo. Senior Chinese officials such as Foreign Minister Qin Gang have received invitations to visit the U.S. And if conditions allow, Chinese President Xi Jinping may go there himself to attend the informal APEC leaders meeting in November. The two countries’ leaders may also meet in September on the sidelines of the G20 summit in New Delhi.
Of course, all this hinges on whether the two countries can reset relations on the basis of what the Chinese and U.S. leaders agreed in Bali. Despite Blinken’s commitment to do so, there may yet be uncertainties going forward.
First, the two sides diverge significantly over the nature of bilateral ties. The Biden administration has insisted on defining it as “major power competition,” and emphasized that the two countries will face a “decisive decade.” The Chinese side has stated clearly that major power competition is inconsistent with the trend of our times and will neither resolve the problems facing the U.S. nor global challenges. The China-U.S. relationship should be properly handled based on principles of mutual respect, peaceful co-existence, win-win cooperation. During Blinken’s visit, the two sides agreed to continue consultations over the guiding principles for bilateral ties. Bridging the current chasm calls for strategic wisdom and diplomatic craft.
Second, both sides agreed to continue consultations via joint working groups. There are many specific issues that require a big picture perspective, starting with the trivial. If they can’t agree on matters of principle, they should instead focus more on solving specific problems, this is an important method for stabilizing bilateral ties.
For instance, the Biden administration has maintained the sanctions against China that were imposed by the Trump government on the pretext of tariff review. This has left the majority of American companies and business organizations dissatisfied. In order to pacify the business community, the Biden government has replaced the rhetoric of “decoupling” with a softer term — “de-risking.” But it will take more practical action on the part of Biden’s team to prove it’s different from the Trump administration.
Third, the Chinese side has on multiple occasions emphasized to Blinken that the Taiwan issue is “the core of core Chinese interests, the biggest issue in China-U.S. relations, and also the most outstanding risk.” But the two sides’ wrangling over the island may further worsen the situation. The U.S. has incorporated its Taiwan Relations Act and Six Assurances into its “one-China” policy.” And this only seems to have drifted further from the Chinese side’s “one-China” principle. Many in America assume the prospect of peaceful resolution of the Taiwan issue has become dim and find the prospect of “reunification by force” by China unacceptable. The Indo-Pacific commander, Admiral John Aquilino, said recently that his mission is to make every effort to prevent unification by force through deterrence, and make sure the U.S. wins if a war breaks out.
Negative developments on the part of U.S. legislators are even more conspicuous. In April, the U.S. House Select Committee on China staged a a tabletop war game exercise over Taiwan on Capital Hill, attempting to hype tensions and conduct a domestic strategic mobilization. Members of Congress such as McCaul not only asked the Biden administration to increase military support for Taiwan, but are also promoting arms sales through third parties, including Japan, South Korea and Europe. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy hasn’t given up on his plan to visit Taiwan this year. Such provocative measures will inevitably batter China-U.S. relations.
A single visit by Blinken in no way suffices to change the trajectory of U.S. China policy, which was why U.S. State Department officials called for lowering expectations about the trip. The new normal of China-U.S. relations — “oscillating at low levels, talking while fighting” — will continue. Preventing war, or even escalating unintended conflicts, will be the foremost test for bilateral ties in the years to come. Nobody wants to see an armed conflict between the U.S. and China, but many believe it’s unavoidable. The vicious circle of tit-for-tat may lead to the tragedy of war.