Cautious expectations for upcoming China visit by US Secretary of State Blinken

Cautious expectations for upcoming China visit by US Secretary of State Blinken thumbnail

WASHINGTON/BEIJING – US Secretary of State Antony Blinken travels to China this weekend, amidst hopes that some stability will be restored to a troubled relationship most recently fractured by new curbs on China’s access to technology.

While expectations for substantive breakthroughs are low, analysts say that the return to face-to-face diplomatic engagement could help stop any further deterioration of a relationship that has been marked by loose talk of war and China’s show of force across the Taiwan Strait.

Mr Blinken’s visit to Beijing from Feb 5 to 6 will be the first by a senior American official since China dropped its zero-Covid policy. He will meet his counterpart, Foreign Minister Qin Gang, until recently China’s ambassador to the United States.

“Expectations are really low as people want to be realistic,” Ms Yun Sun, Senior Fellow and Director of the China Programme at the Stimson Centre in Washington, told The Straits Times.

“But if there is any breakthrough, even on technical issues, we should take it as a win. If they are able to put a floor to the bilateral relationship, we should take it as a win. No war, coexistence, reciprocity – all seem to be acceptable terms.”

China’s state run media has struck a conciliatory tone ahead of the visit, with the official People’s Daily saying China “respects the US’ social system and has never bet on America losing”.

“China hopes the US will continue to be open and confident and maintain development and progress. Likewise, the US should respect China’s development path,” the newspaper said in its “Zhong Sheng” commentary on Wednesday, which is used to air views on foreign policy.

The main obstacle to peaceful coexistence between both sides were those in the US who saw China as an “imaginary enemy”, the commentary said.

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From the US perspective, the visit comes at a time when it is in a relatively strong position, boosted by a deepening arc of alliances and strategic arrangements around China.

Following a summit in Washington in January, US and Japan said that facing a “severely contested environment” they would significantly enhance security and military coordination and capability.

And this week in Washington, India and US launched an initiative on Critical and Emerging Technologies, designed to strengthen tech cooperation between the two democracies, with China the explicit competitor, in terms of military equipment, semiconductors and artificial intelligence.

The goal of the partnership is to be “the next big milestone” in the relationship, US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said.

US’ strategic partners are also chairing major forums this year. Japan is hosting the Group of 7, India is hosting the Group of 20, Australia is hosting a summit of the Quad countries (India, Japan, Australia and the US), and the US is hosting the 21-nation Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation group.  

“This is a year of really great consequence,” Ms Bonnie Glaser, Washington-based director of the think tank German Marshall Fund of the United States’ Asia Programme, told ST.

“So I think the US sees itself in a pretty strong position and would like to try and use that position to encourage China to establish some sustained dialogue mechanisms and to expand cooperation.”

Analysts see a positive sign in diplomatic engagement between China and the US returning to normal, following the ice-breaking summit between China’s President Xi Jinping and US President Joe Biden in Bali last November.

On Tuesday, White House national security spokesman John Kirby told reporters that talks on issues, such as the militaries and climate change, which were suspended when China protested a visit to Taiwan last August by former US House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi, will be “restored” and “revitalised.”

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But few have high expectations.

“I don’t think… we’re going to see (any) significant breakthroughs,” Mr Jude Blanchette, Freeman Chair in China Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, told journalists in a conference call this week.

“But I also don’t think that’s a bad thing, given how far the relationship has deteriorated over the last five years,” he said.

“This is really about re-establishing the undergirding of the relationship and putting in place some procedures and mechanisms to be able to manage through some of the tensions in the relationship.”

Professor Zhu Feng, dean of the Institute of International Relations at Nanjing University, said substantive breakthroughs will be difficult, pointing to Washington tightening restrictions on the export of certain semiconductor chips to Chinese tech giant Huawei as signs that US pressure on China will continue.

“China of course wants to stress that the US should not put strategic pressure on China, but it looks like the US’ goal and wish is to conduct strategic competition with China, and this will make substantive improvement in relations very difficult,” he said.

Mr Joe Mazur, an analyst at Beijing-based consultancy Trivium, said one area to watch is whether both sides make concrete progress on tariff reductions.

But he pointed out that more often than not recent US-China meetings usually result in some nominal agreement and not much else.

“There (usually) is a week of good feelings where it looks like there might be a turning point, and then things will go right back to being acrimonious,” said Mr Mazur, during an online briefing on Wednesday.

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Mr Blanchette told reporters: “I think the White House views this trip as just another step in building on the trajectory since November 2022. And they don’t say this, but I think the goal is to basically fast-forward this Cold War to its detente phase.”

Ms Glaser said the US will like to broaden talks to include issues like North Korea, counter-narcotics, and climate change.

Also, “we still want to get started a dialogue on risk reduction measures, and it’s something in principle our leaders agreed to in Bali, but we’ve just made no progress, I think, really, in that direction”.

“There will even be a push to expand people-to-people exchanges, and it will be interesting to see whether the Chinese are keen to extend the effort to stabilise the US-China relationship and start preparing for a Xi Jinping meeting with President Biden.”

Meanwhile, the Biden Administration has to contend with a new Republican majority in the House which is populated with China hawks. The talk in Washington is that Speaker Kevin McCarthy will visit Taiwan soon.

On Monday, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Mao Ning said in a statement indirectly referring to reports that China was “opposed to any official interactions with Taiwan”. “We urge certain individuals in the US to earnestly abide by the one-China principle,” the statement said.

Said Ms Glaser: “Taiwan will definitely be on the agenda, and I think that the US intent there is to convey both resolve and assurance.”

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