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Foreign Policy

Decoding the Yang-Blinken Phone Call

Jun 26, 2021
  • Nie Wenjuan

    Deputy Director of Institute of International Relations, China Foreign Affairs University

On June 11, Yang Jiechi, a CPC Politburo member and director of the Communist Part of China Central Committee Office of Foreign Affairs, spoke on the phone with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken at the latter’s invitation. Compared with their March talks in Alaska, this exchange seems to have caught little public attention, to the point that many people have neglected the political message it conveyed.

This phone call to some extent signaled a U.S. intention to appease the Chinese side. Its timing coincided with the G7 summit at the Carbis Bay resort in Cornwall, United Kingdom. In hindsight, the G7 summit was obviously meant to coordinate responses to China. The phone conversation immediately before the summit was in a sense meant to pacify China. In other words, the U.S. intends to compete with and confront China, but the Biden administration may try to avoid being seen as overly provocative. Despite their divergent stances on some issues, the atmosphere on the phone was generally friendly, with Blinken tweeting afterward that the exchange was “constructive.”

The two sides should have reached consensus on certain global hot spot issues. The Chinese side’s statement about the call said “the two parties also exchanged ideas on other issues of common concern,” while the U.S. State Department made a further revelation that the global subjects they discussed included North Korea, Iran, Myanmar and climate change. China and the U.S. do have differences when it comes to specific policies on those issues, yet the fact that Blinken described the conversation as “practical” and “results-oriented" indicates the two sides may have reached some agreement, the specifics of which are yet to be revealed. But they certainly are of positive significance to regional and international peace and stability.

The two sides still have significant differences on some issues, the most conspicuous being that U.S. interference in Chinese domestic affairs has triggered strong opposition. The Chinese side has rebutted and condemned U.S. interference regarding Taiwan, Xinjiang and Hong Kong. During the latest talks, U.S. attacks on China focused more on Chinese domestic affairs. Such previous hot spot topics as the South China Sea and the Belt and Road Initiative were not even mentioned. Why was that? The U.S. has played the role of a “liberator” on South China Sea issues, helping countries in Southeast Asia safeguard their so-called sovereignty and rights; but why has the U.S. abandoned the banter? The most important reason is that with China’s proactive efforts, stakeholders in the South China Sea disputes have achieved some consensus; therefore, Southeast Asian nations have to a great extent adopted a non-participation attitude whenever the U.S. uses the South China Sea to blame or provoke China. This has greatly weakened the issues’ function as a “handle,” as well as the U.S. rhetorical priority on such subjects.

Against this backdrop, the U.S. will shift to a mode of doing more and speaking less, continuing to wrangle with and confront China over the South China Sea while avoiding falling into the embarrassing position of having few supporters. The trend can be seen at a deeper level at which, with continuous endeavors in its diplomacy of peace and cooperation, China is winning endorsements in Southeast Asia and the international community.

The phone call with Blinken has offered the following inspirations for us to deliberate on China-U.S. ties from an all-around perspective:

First, interactions in China-U.S. relations remain asymmetrical. The Chinese side proposes mutually beneficial cooperation; the U.S. side sticks to the arrogance of one-sided gains. In its news release, the Chinese side began by expressing goodwill, saying that “dialogue and cooperation should be the mainstream of China-U.S. relations. Cooperation should be two-way and mutually beneficial, resolving each other’s concerns in a balanced manner.” Obviously the U.S. side failed to reciprocally resolve Chinese concerns in a balanced manner. Instead, it blames China in domestic matter while asking it to cooperate on global and regional hot spot issues.

Second, domestic affairs have become the new frontier of U.S. containment of China, a trend of far-reaching competitive significance. Taking China’s domestic affairs as handles, the U.S. has violated the principle of non-interference in domestic affairs laid out in the UN Charter. Thus it will have difficulty getting moral support from the majority of countries, which will further undermine U.S. influence in the international community. Of course, smearing China over its domestic affairs serves the strategic purposes of a small number of countries and the small circles and political cliques in the U.S., but it remains a huge question mark whether such groundless accusations can motivate lasting cooperation in those small circles.

Third, Chinese domestic affairs are pseudo propositions in the China-U.S. relationship. The fact that the U.S. is focusing on these shows it is not sincere about the true issues in bilateral ties, such as trade, economic structure, people-to-people exchanges and bilateral strategic dialogue. The two countries should fight or collaborate, as the case may be, on true issues, rather than wrangle over false claims. In this sense, the Biden administration is still undecided on its China strategy.

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