US-China tensions: Blinken launches high-stakes talks

Written by Dr. Florence Akano

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken embarked on a crucial mission to Beijing on Sunday, initiating talks with senior Chinese officials. The purpose of this high-stakes visit is to navigate the tumultuous relationship between the world’s two largest economies, which has been marred by escalating tensions in recent months.

Blinken’s journey to China holds significant weight as he is the first secretary of state to make the trip in five years and the highest-ranking US official to undertake such a mission since President Joe Biden assumed office early last year.

All eyes are on this diplomatic endeavour, with particular interest on whether a meeting with Chinese leader Xi Jinping is in the cards. Past visits by top American diplomats often involved face-to-face discussions with China’s highest-ranking official. However, the current state of affairs has left relations between the two nations at their lowest point in decades.

Both the US and Chinese governments have tempered expectations for the visit, as indicated by a senior State Department official who acknowledged that there are no grand expectations for substantial outcomes.

Instead, US officials are framing the trip as an effort to reestablish regular channels of communication with China, aiming to prevent conflicts between these global powerhouses. The objective is to adhere to what President Biden and President Xi agreed upon in Bali at the end of last year: the establishment of sustained and frequent lines of communication at senior levels across both governments. This approach seeks to foster clear communication, minimize misunderstandings, and avert potential miscommunications.

Prioritizing the restoration of channels of communication, especially direct military-to-military dialogue between Washington and Beijing, is at the forefront of Blinken’s agenda, according to a senior State Department official.

On Sunday, Blinken’s delegation landed in Beijing, commencing a jam-packed schedule for the day. The itinerary began with a meeting between Blinken and China’s foreign minister, Qin Gang, who assumed the role six months ago after completing his term as Beijing’s ambassador to Washington.

Before a group of reporters, Blinken and Qin cordially shook hands at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse on Sunday afternoon, marking their first in-person encounter in their current capacities. Engaging in brief pleasantries in English, the two officials then proceeded into a well-lit meeting room adorned with large windows offering views of a lotus pond and a prominent traditional Chinese ink painting adorning the wall.

Neither Blinken nor Qin engaged with reporters as they entered the talks, maintaining a focused and reserved demeanour.

Among the US officials participating in the meeting were Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Daniel Kritenbrink and US Ambassador to China Nicholas Burns.

On the Chinese side, Qin was accompanied by other officials from the foreign ministry, including Assistant Foreign Minister Hua Chunying.

Hope this meeting can help steer China-US relations back to what the two Presidents agreed upon in Bali,” Hua tweeted once the talks commenced.

In November of the previous year, President Biden and Xi met face-to-face for the first time during the Group of Seven summit in Indonesia.

Following their initial meeting, Blinken and Qin were set to have a working dinner, fostering an atmosphere for further dialogue and cooperation.

On Monday, Blinken’s schedule includes a meeting with China’s top diplomat Wang Yi, as well as roundtable discussions with American exchange students and business leaders.

The relationship between the Biden administration and Beijing is one of the most complex and consequential for the United States, marked by months of strained interactions, including recent military-related incidents.

Blinken’s visit, announced by both Biden and Xi after their meeting last year, was originally planned for February and was considered a significant follow-up engagement. However, it was postponed due to the discovery of a suspected Chinese spy balloon transiting the United States. At that time, Blinken stated that this discovery “created the conditions that undermine the purpose of the trip.”

Nonetheless, Kritenbrink stated on Wednesday that both the US and China had “come to the shared conclusion that now is the right time to engage at this level.” However, he emphasized that the intention behind the visit was not to achieve a breakthrough or transform the way the two nations interact with each other.

“I think the fact that China agreed to this meeting reflects that Beijing is feeling pretty confident about its own position,” commented Patricia Kim, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, during a media briefing on Friday.

Blinken Vows to Address Concerns in Talks with Chinese Officials.

These concerns encompass the fentanyl crisis, Taiwan and cross-Strait matters, the conflict in Ukraine, and the detention of American citizens in China, such as Kai Li, Mark Swidan, and David Lin.

Regarding the fentanyl crisis, the senior State Department official highlighted Blinken’s specific focus on curtailing the flow of precursor chemicals from China to laboratories in South America, where the lethal opioid is produced.

In addition to raising concerns, Blinken expressed his intention to explore potential areas of cooperation on transnational challenges that intersect with both countries’ interests and align with global expectations for cooperation. These challenges include global economic stability, combating illicit synthetic drugs, addressing climate change, and advancing global health.

Blinken’s visit comes after a series of meetings between American and Chinese officials in recent weeks. In May, US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan met with China’s top diplomat, Wang Yi, in Vienna, followed by talks between commerce officials from both countries in Washington. Furthermore, China’s new ambassador has arrived in the United States, emphasizing the goal of enhancing relations during a period of “serious difficulties and challenges.”

“China and the US have already had relatively frequent high-level diplomatic contacts, all of which indicate that the two sides are gradually getting back on the right track,” remarked Shen Dingli, an expert on China’s foreign policy in Shanghai.

However, despite these diplomatic exchanges, contact between the top military officials of both countries remains frozen. It remains uncertain whether Blinken’s visit can lead to a breakthrough on this front. Last month, China rejected an offer for a formal meeting between US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and Chinese Defense Minister Li Shangfu, who is currently under US sanctions, in Singapore. Nevertheless, the two officials did have a brief conversation.

Furthermore, the US is scheduled to host the Leaders’ Summit of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation in November, which Chinese leader Xi Jinping plans to attend regardless of the state of the US-China relationship, according to Shen. However, whether Xi’s trip will include a formal visit to the US and at what level depends on the progress made by both sides beforehand.

President Biden expressed his belief that Blinken’s trip to China could alleviate tensions, and he expressed his hope to meet with President Xi again in the “next several months.”

Shen noted that China is most concerned about “managing differences on the Taiwan issue and preventing supply chains from decoupling, especially on advanced chips.”

“The hope is that Blinken’s visit can improve relations both in form and in substance. But hope might not turn into reality, and relations might become worse after the visit,” he added. “We prepare for the worst and hope for the best.”

Blinken refrained from making predictions about whether his visit would pave the way for continued high-level engagements between the US and China. He emphasized that the outcome would depend on how the visit unfolds, acknowledging that it is an important step but insufficient in itself, as there is still much work to be done.

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Dr. Florence Akano

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