Secretary of State Antony Blinken heads to China on Friday for a fence-mending visit amid historically high friction between Washington and Beijing over Taiwan, brazen international spying attempts, and security and economic clashes with the U.S. and its allies across Asia.
But while the Biden administration has cautiously stepped up direct contacts with China’s communist regime, officials says the trip is unlikely to produce a major easing of tensions.
Administration officials say the trip — originally slated for February only to be scrapped after a Chinese surveillance balloon was spotted traversing the continental U.S. before being shot down by the Pentagon — aims to keep lines of communication open between the world’s two most prominent powers and establish what U.S. officials describe as “guardrails” to keep the relationship from deteriorating even further.
“We’re not going to Beijing with the intent of having some sort of breakthrough or transformation in the way that we deal with one another,” Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Daniel J. Kritenbrink told reporters in Washington on Wednesday.
“We’re coming to Beijing with a realistic, confident approach and a sincere desire to manage our competition in the most responsible way possible,” he said.
Mr. Blinken is also not traveling with a strong reservoir of political support behind him. China has been the focus of intense, often bipartisan criticism on Capitol Hill, and the Republican chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee said Wednesday Mr. Blinken and President Biden should be looking for ways to be even tougher on China.
“The Biden administration is holding back U.S. national security actions to chase fruitless talks with the [Chinese Communist Party,” Rep. Michael McCaul, Texas Republican, said in a statement. “While diplomacy is an important tool, it cannot come at the expense of our national security. Secretary Blinken must move forward sanctions and export controls and prioritize the protection of American interests during discussions with [Chinese] officials.”
Chinese officials has said they welcome renewed contacts with the U.S., but contend that the Biden administration is to blame for the recent surge in tensions in the bilateral relationship. The official Xinhua news services reported that Chinese Foreign Minister Foreign Minister Qin Gang told Mr. Blinken in a pre-visit phone call early Wednesday that it was “crystal clear” who was responsible to the bad blood in recent months.
“It is hoped that the United States will work with China to effectively manage differences and promote exchanges and cooperation, so as to stop the decline of bilateral relations and bring them back to the track of sound and stable development,” Mr. Qin said.
There is talk that a productive visit by Mr. Blinken could clear the way for a possible visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping to a summit of Pacific Rim countries President Biden will host in San Francisco in November. After his Beijing stop, Mr. Blinken is scheduled to travel on to London for a gathering focused on reconstruction aid for Ukraine.
While critics say the administration is pandering to a communist regime that employs anti-U.S. rhetoric and seeks to challenge American interests globally, President Biden’s top Asia advisor added Wednesday that he has no illusions about what one trip can do.
“We’re clear-eyed about [China],” Deputy Assistant to the President and Coordinator for Indo-Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell said on the telephone press conference with Mr. Kritenbrink.
“We know efforts to shape or reform China over several decades have failed, and we expect China to be around and to be a major player on the world stage for the rest of our lifetimes,” said Mr. Campbell. “As the competition continues, [China] will take provocative steps — from the Taiwan Strait to Cuba — and we will push back.”
The mention of Cuba was a reference to the latest irritant in U.S.-China relations — the revelation that China has been operating a surveillance post on Cuba for more than three years to monitor events in the U.S. Lawmakers have harshly condemned the effort while Beijing has accused Washington of misrepresenting and hyping the discovery to embarrass China.
But U.S.-China friction is hottest over the Washington-backed island democracy of Taiwan, which Beijing views as part of sovereign China and has vowed to bring under its control — using military force if necessary. Successive U.S. administrations have responded to China’s threats by increasing American naval activity around the Taiwan Strait and rallying other regional democracies to preserve the status quo for the island democracy.
China says it is the U.S. that has tried to change the status quo by steadily increasing military aid to the island and rallying allies in the event of a military clash over the island.
U.S. officials have also criticized China’s refusal to condemn Russia for invading Ukraine, and expressed concern over Beijing’s construction of military bases on disputed islands in the South China Sea. China’s crackdown on democratic and economic freedoms in Hong Kong and its harsh repression campaign against Uyghur Muslims inside China have been condemned by the U.S. government and private rights groups.
Mr. Blinken will be the most senior U.S. official to visit China since President Biden took office in 2021. Regional experts say his trip could build on lower-level and behind-the-scenes engagements during the months since the secretary of state’s February trip was canceled.
CIA Director William Burns traveled quietly to China in May, while China’s commerce minister came to the United States. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan also held a lengthy May meeting in Vienna with Wang Yi, head of the Communist Party Central Committee’s Foreign Affairs Commission.
Analysts say there may be progress to be made if the two sides agree to disagree on the hot-button issues.
“Blinken can build on the beginnings of a U.S.-China diplomatic thaw by making concrete progress on areas of mutual concern (like climate change, health security, and global economic recovery) while working to unwind the escalating dynamics over Taiwan,” said Michael Swaine, a senior fellow with the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. “The trip also offers an opportunity for the Biden administration to assure many American allies and partners that the U.S. shares their interest in avoiding a hostile, zero-sum relationship with China and pursuing constructive cooperation where possible.”
Cautious on Taiwan
Administration critics are more circumspect, particularly with regard to Taiwan.
Some expressed concern following Chinese Defense Minister Gen. Li Shangfu’s blunt assertion in a speech during the recent Shangri-La Dialogue defense conference in Singapore that Beijing will “make no promise to renounce the use of force” if necessary to make Taiwan part of China. Gen. Li declined a U.S. request to meet with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin in Singapore, in apparent protest for U.S. sanctions placed on him dating back to the Trump administration.
Mr. Qin, the Chinese foreign minister told Mr. Blinken in their pre-visit phone conversation this week that Washington must respect China’s position on Taiwan. In a preview of how Mr. Blinken’s trip may unfold, Mr. Qin told urged the United States to stop meddling in its affairs and harming its security, according to the Reuters news agency.
A more low-key State Department summary of the call said Mr. Blinken stressed the need for communication “to avoid miscalculation and conflict” and told Mr. Qin the U.S. will raise areas of concern as well as potential cooperation with China. The call may have been a way to lay down markers for both sides on the Taiwan issue before talks begin Sunday on other matters of concern.
Discussions are separately expected to be tense on the issue of China’s status as the world’s leading source of the machinery to produce fentanyl — the deadly synthetic drug at the center of an opioid smuggling crisis along the U.S. southern border and abuse epidemic in several states.
U.S. lawmakers say the administration should be doing more to pressure China to crackdown on illicit production.
Mr. Kritenbrink told reporters fentanyl “is one of the most important issues” hanging over Mr. Blinken’s trip. “It will feature prominently,” he said. “And we are focused intently on making as much progress as we can because this is an absolutely critical and urgent issue for the United States.”
Mr. Campbell, meanwhile, stressed that the administration is pursuing “an approach to the [China] that is competitive without veering into confrontation or conflict.”
“Intense competition requires intense diplomacy if we’re going to manage tensions,” he said. “That is the only way to clear up misperceptions, to signal, to communicate, and to work together where and when our interests align.”
“Now is precisely the time for intense diplomacy,” Mr. Campbell said.
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