Secretary of State Antony Blinken wrapped up his long-awaited trip to Beijing earlier this week after months of speculation that his visit would be rescheduled after it was postponed following the Chinese spy balloon crisis last February. Despite Beijing’s harsh rhetoric ahead of the visit, it appears Chinese leaders were just as keen as their US counterparts to re-establish high-level exchanges to stabilize the bilateral relationship.
In Beijing, Blinken met with Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang; China’s top diplomat, Wang Yi; and President Xi Jinping. While only those who were present at the meetings can attest to what was in fact He told the room, Chinese press releases of the exchanges indicate a clear division of labor among the three Chinese leaders. The Blinken-Qin meeting is described in the least contentious and professional tone. The Chinese press release includes a list of agreements between the two sides, such as a follow-up visit to the United States by Qin, the resumption of working groups on specific issues, and the expansion of people-to-people exchanges and people-to-people passenger flights. . the two countries The pragmatic tone used to portray the exchange between the two officials makes sense given that Qin, as head of the Foreign Ministry, will likely handle subsequent exchanges with the Biden administration.
On the contrary, Wang was clearly designated as the chief scolding. In the Chinese reading of his meeting with Blinken, Wang is quoted as listing Washington’s transgressions, including exaggerating the “threat from China”, “suppressing China’s scientific and technological advances” through “illegal unilateral sanctions” and “interfere in China’s internal affairs.” particularly around Taiwan. While Wang’s talking points are in part nationalist bragging, his argument that the United States is entirely to blame for the deterioration of bilateral relations is a view widely shared in China, precisely the opposite of how many Americans assess the situation today.
Ultimately, Xi’s role was to be the great statesman. The two images released by the Chinese Foreign Ministry show Xi smiling benevolently at Blinken as he shakes his hand and sits at the head of a long table with US officials looking on as he speaks. According to the Chinese reading, Xi told Blinken that the competition “does not represent the trend of the times” and would not help “solve America’s own problems or the challenges facing the world.” The Chinese president also said that China does not seek to challenge or displace the United States and called on Washington to respect China’s “legitimate rights and interests.” Xi’s public talking points were crafted to impress on the world that while Beijing is willing to live in harmony with the United States, Washington’s rejection of “a rational and pragmatic attitude” toward China is ultimately impeding the improvement of the relationships.
As with any government press release, Chinese readings are designed with multiple goals and audiences in mind, including assuring citizens that their leaders represented China’s interests, as well as telling members of the red tape that it is now acceptable to re-engage with your Americans. counterparts The readings are also intended to convey Beijing’s positions and expectations to Washington and the rest of the world. Thus, they offer insight into the challenges and opportunities likely to arise as the two sides look to build on the diplomatic momentum in the coming months and look towards a possible Biden-Xi meeting in San Francisco on the sidelines of the Asia Economic Conference. -Peaceful. Cooperation Leaders Summit this November.
One area of agreement found in both the US and Chinese readings was a desire to expand on the agenda set out by the two presidents in Bali last November. But the American and Chinese positions quickly diverged under that broad banner. The reading of the US trip noted that the two sides had agreed to “continue discussions on the development of principles to guide the bilateral relationship.” But Blinken also pointed out in his press conference that the Chinese had not given their consent to open channels of communication between the military.
Washington and Beijing face a long journey to a potentially unreachable destination to establish a common set of principles for the relationship. A key challenge is that, from Beijing’s perspective, it has already articulated its preferred principles to guide the relationship: “mutual respect, peaceful coexistence, and win-win cooperation.” This three-part formula was initially proposed by Xi at his meeting with President Barack Obama in Sunnylands in 2013 as a framework for a “new type of great power relations.” Chinese officials have consistently touted him in engagements with their American counterparts, including at the three Blinken meetings last week. While at first glance the three principles seem innocuous enough, the Obama administration and subsequent US administrations avoided endorsing Xi’s formulation, which could be interpreted by Beijing as a US commitment not to comment on the issues. of China’s human rights, to engage with Taiwan in any way that Beijing considers “interference,” or to strengthen deterrence with US allies, among other issues that Beijing regularly complains are destabilizing the bilateral relationship. .
With a penchant for numbered lists, Beijing has also selectively collected and rephrased comments made by senior Biden officials to suggest that Washington committed to a list of “five no’s”: that the United States “will not pursue a ‘new Cold War’ with Porcelain, do not seek to change China’s system, revitalize your alliances is not against China, do not support ‘Taiwan independence’, do not seek conflict with China.” This list reappeared in the Chinese press release on the meeting of Blinken with Xi and will be used in subsequent engagements to suggest that the US should correct its “mistakes” and honor its “commitments” to improve the bilateral relationship. In response, Washington should continue to explain clearly and consistently what it means and what it does not mean exactly on sensitive issues like Taiwan and what he considers the appropriate rules of engagement to manage Beijing’s expectations, as well as the global understanding of the United States. States positions.
The conflicting positions of Washington and Beijing should not be seen as insurmountable barriers to a more stable coexistence between the two states. In fact, the United States and China have never agreed on many fundamental issues of the relationship since the inception of relations in the early 1970s. The three communiques that serve as the basis for the US-China relationship China are classic exercises presenting different points of view (as well as areas of agreement) that have allowed the two sides to manage relations for the past 50 years. This practice of sticking to one’s principles while seeking areas of agreement and mutual interest should continue to serve as a model for decades of intense competition to come.
There is also great disagreement between the United States and China on the need for reliable crisis management mechanisms. While US sanctions against China’s defense chief Li Shangfu have been cited as a major barrier, Chinese resistance to military-to-military communications runs deeper. From Beijing’s point of view, if Washington simply accepted its three principles and upheld the “five nos”, there would be no risk of conflict and therefore no need to manage the crisis. There is little to no recognition within Beijing that its own aggressive behavior has changed Washington’s perceptions and policies toward China. There is also a stubborn belief in the Chinese political community that adopting open lines of communication and, in particular, army-to-army channels amounts to Chinese acceptance of the US stance and activities in the Indo-Pacific theater. While this conviction is unlikely to change in the foreseeable future, Chinese leaders also understand that stumbling into conflict with the United States would be detrimental to China’s interests and its goal of “national rejuvenation.” Hard-working diplomats on both sides will need to take advantage of this lowest common denominator and find practical ways to keep reliable crisis communication channels free from the daily news cycle and domestic politics of both sides.
Blinken’s trip to Beijing this week confirmed that there will be no fundamental reset in the US-China relationship. It will remain intensely competitive for the foreseeable future, but whether the two sides can agree to maintain civil competition, avoid confrontation, and cooperate in areas of mutual interest remains to be determined. Perhaps the most promising note in the readings on both sides was a genuine interest in resuming a regular pace of high-level, high-level exchanges of work. Such a commitment will be essential as Washington and Beijing jointly seek a less dangerous and constructive competitive relationship in the coming years. This will take time and commitment on both sides to get there, and it will be difficult for US and Chinese leaders facing their own domestic politics and skeptical audiences at home. Establish firmly in both countries that direct engagement is not a waste of time or capitulation to the other side, and that diplomacy is in the interests of the United States and China, and in the interests of the world, as Blinken expressed in Beijing, it will be an essential first step in successfully managing the US-China relationship.