U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken was the first U.S. Secretary of State to visit China in five years’ time. His visit occurred at what both sides of the Pacific would agree to be a nadir in bilateral relations.
Blinken’s previous trip was originally scheduled for February as a follow-up to the meeting between Presidents Xi Jinping and Joe Biden in Bali last November. It was postponed as a result of the brouhaha around the Chinese spy balloon traveling through American airspace an incident that epitomized the dearth of trust and prevalence of toxic cynicism between the political establishments in Beijing and Washington.
Secretary Blinken met with Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang, Director of the Office of the Foreign Affairs Commission Wang Yi, and - eventually - President Xi Jinping himself, over a series of conversations described as “candid, in-depth, and constructive” by the Chinese Foreign Ministry. The discussions produced limited specific policy breakthroughs, save for issues such as resuming and facilitating easier international travel between the two states. With that said, Blinken also affirmed the long-standing American position on the Taiwan question, that Washington remained firmly opposed to Taiwanese independence - a core item of concern to his interlocutors.
Skeptics of dialogue often make the point that dialogue itself lacks intrinsic value. In the absence of explicit policy domain stipulation, dialogue for dialogue’s sake is - at best - a placebo that renders different parties ‘feeling better’ about the state of affairs between them, and - at worst - a segue into denialism.
Given the many structural root causes of Sino-American tensions, concerns over the efficacy of dialogue are more than understandable. The sources of tension range from disagreements over one another’s strategic intentions and the extent to which they pose a threat to one another’s national security, to disputes over the South China Sea, Taiwan, and various issues that Beijing deems to be strictly domestic and internal affairs, to the escalating technological rivalry between the two countries.
Yet we must not thereby dismiss the value of dialogue. Indeed, there are at least two critical functions that they serve, as exemplified by Blinken’s trip to Beijing, but also the meeting between President Xi and Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, when Xi praised Gates for being an “old friend” of his.
Firstly, dialogue between critical stakeholders can serve as a counter-signal expressly pushing back against anti-dialogue, pro-conflict voices across both sides of the aisle. Secretary Blinken’s trip provided a resounding rebuke to relatively hawkish American parliamentarians such as Representative McCaul and Senator McCarthy, who advocate that the White House refrains from any and all non-bellicose interaction with China.
Note, it is not so much the outcomes of the dialogues that serve as a symbolically powerful rebuttal - instead, it is that the Biden administration opted to take this step in the first place, that conveys explicitly the political resolve and support it has leant towards critical, outcome-driven engagement. Similarly, President Xi’s markedly magnanimous receiving of Blinken, with the harmony-symbolizing lotus featuring prominently in the set-up to the meeting, serves as an implicit repudiation of trenchant voices within China calling for a complete severance in Sino-American ties. It is clear that neither leader wants the bilateral relationship, at least for now, to spiral into escalation and direct confrontation.
Secondly, dialogue may not yield very precise prescriptions or “deliverables,” yet as leading China scholar Bonnie Glaser noted, Blinken’s seven-hour conversation with Qin Gang yielded at least several points of broad agreement between the two parties, including the pursuit of the consensus that China and the U.S. must manage mutual differences, promote conversations between them; that high-level mutual exchanges (though sans military dialogues as of now) are vital and must be consolidated; that consultations over principles shaping bilateral relations are key - and should be preserved via the China-U.S. Joint Working Group, and that cultural and interpersonal contact and exchanges should be expanded to enable better track-II synergy.
All of these are conclusions that do not map onto particularly significant policy departures from the status quo, yet the concurrence over these points is symbolically significant and instrumental in rebuilding the frayed trust between China and the U.S.. There can certainly be different levels of trust between international states and their representatives. It need not be the case that trust must be at a very high level before a tenable, stabilizing modus vivendi is thus calibrated.
Indeed, the de-thawing of relations between Mao’s China and Nixon’s U.S. occurred against a backdrop of substantial American mistrust of Chinese intentions, and baked-in ideological opposition to the West amongst Chinese revolutionaries. In-depth dialogue between key players such as Blinken and Qin, even if featuring heated, protracted debates, is pivotal in re-establishing a functional level of trust.
None of this is to say that dialogue alone can shift Sino-American relations onto a positive trajectory over the coming months. Grey rhinos, such as the upcoming Taiwan, then American elections, or hostile legislation passed by Congress aimed at throttling China’s technological and economic growth, or black swans involving any of the fraught ‘hot zones’ of conflict, could well sabotage the well-intentioned efforts by both sides at establishing de facto guardrails.
As the interactions between the Chinese and the American delegations at the Shangri-La Dialogue revealed, there remains much that divides the two countries, about which countries around the world should have every right to be concerned. Despite some efforts made towards informal interactions and détente between the Defense Ministers of both countries, the absence of a formal meeting between the two most-senior military officials in Singapore reflected fully the lingering perceptions of insincerity felt acutely by both the PLA and the Pentagon alike.
Yet such impediments should not be construed as a case against dialogue. They suggest dialogue is necessary but insufficient, and that it could perhaps be done better - with a clearer and more practically achievable set of objectives in mind.
Much has been said about low hanging-fruits in dialogue, e.g. that the U.S. and China should work together on tackling climate change and public health crises. Whilst such domains are indeed of great importance, what the two countries truly need the most at this point is sustained and forthcoming dialogue over more fundamental points of contention that stand provocatively in the way of genuine peace.
Let me conclude the discussion with a number of areas in which the distance between Beijing’s and Washington’s positions must be reduced significantly, if not eliminated, through targeted dialogue.
The elephant in the room, Taiwan, was partially addressed by Blinken’s remarks over the weekend, though more concrete actions are needed from the U.S. to affirm its unyielding commitment to the peaceful status quo. As next steps, Chinese and American foreign policy and defense officials would benefit from exchanging views on how to structurally de-escalate potential conflict scenarios over the Taiwan Straits via cautious joint management, and how both the American objective of deterrence and Chinese objective of national reunification can be accommodated under a tenuous yet necessary modus vivendi.
On issues such as China’s technological growth and access to semiconductors, Washington must be much clearer in establishing, communicating, and abiding by limitations to its ongoing campaign to ‘de-risk’ supply chains. That is, unless the U.S. is indeed bent on launching an all-out technological war and campaign against Beijing - to the detriment of not just the two countries, but also third-parties in ASEAN and the EU.
Dialogue cannot resolve conflicting expectations and competing interests, yet can at least help reduce misunderstanding and improve the refinement and targeted curating of policies. Indeed, such improved clarity and certainty would also be to the interests of private citizens and businesses that are hoping to wrap their heads around the increasingly complex quagmire of international geopolitics. There yet remains a place for dialogue. Not all hope is lost.