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Assessing Blinken’s visit to Beijing amid growing US-China rift

It seems that US President Joe Biden's approach to China has failed to achieve what he set out to, and that his legacy will be a string of wasted opportunities

Assessing Blinken’s visit to Beijing amid growing US-China rift
[Source photo: Chetan Jha/Press Insider]

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken travelled to Shanghai and Beijing in China, for meetings with President Xi Jinping and Foreign Minister Wang Yi from 24-26 April. The meetings came amid the tensions between the US and China over Taiwan, South China Sea, Beijing’s support to Russia over Ukraine invasion. 

This visit prompts a reflection on the state of relations between the United States and China.

It seems that US President Joe Biden’s approach to China has failed to achieve what he set out to, and that his legacy will be a string of wasted opportunities, wasted because of maladroit diplomacy pursued consistently right from the start.

Even before he landed in Shanghai on 24 April, Blinken had made it clear that his principal goal was to persuade China to stop supporting “Russian aggression” in Ukraine, while acknowledging that Beijing was not sending weapons to Russia. 

China was exporting “machine tools and microchips” that sustained Russia’s military industry, he claimed. Blinken’s argument is that if China stops the said exports, Russia would be compelled to terminate its ongoing war.

While Blinken may have believed this pre-emptive disclosure to the media as good diplomacy, this is a toxic variety of so-called public diplomacy.

Till most recently, public diplomacy was about informing the public of diplomatic moves to the extent it does not damage negotiations. This makes even more sense in a democracy.

However, it now seems to include pre-warning interlocutors of intentions. In the case of China, such warnings can be seen as threats, making concessions more difficult.  Biden has been using it to warn the interlocutors in advance of his intentions. 

Five days before his trip, a State Department official told reporters: “We’re prepared to take steps when we believe necessary against firms that … severely undermine security in both Ukraine and Europe.” 

“We’ve demonstrated our willingness to do so regarding firms from a number of countries, not just China,” the official said.

China Daily, an English language Chinese newspaper owned by the Chinese Communist Party, carried an editorial on 22 April that “Same old line from Blinken will not lift ties.” 

Let us see how Washington set the stage for the Blinken visit. Hours before Blinken was scheduled to land in Shanghai, President Biden was preparing to sign a bill passed by the Congress to send military aid worth $8.1 billion to Taiwan and Indo-Pacific allies, including the Philippines, meant to counter China  in the region.  

Earlier, the Biden administration acted against the hugely popular Chinese social media app Tik Tok, giving it a choice between shutting down or selling its assets to a US company.   

We need to recognize that for Blinken the most important goal was to compel China to cease the export of machine tools and microchips to Russia. For China the most important goal was to compel Washington to respect the mutually agreed ‘One China’ policy. That policy, according to Beijing, entails that the US should not send weapons to Taiwan. 

While Blinken sought to stop China’s exports aiding Russia, China focused on U.S. adherence to the “One China” policy, particularly regarding arms sales to Taiwan. The key question is: if China moves to gain sovereignty on Taiwan, will the US intervene militarily? While previous administrations projected ambiguity, Biden has repeatedly stated that he would ‘defend’ Taiwan.

Blinken’s meeting with his counterpart Wang Yi lasted five and half hours, followed by a dinner that went on for another two hours. Obviously, half the time was spent on interpretation from one language to another. 

Blinken, upon landing in Shanghai, was received by a local official of lower rank than during his last visit in June 2023. Initially, the Chinese media didn’t give much importance to this, but later changed their coverage, emphasizing that Blinken was visiting “by invitation.”

True to Chinese style, the appointment with President Jinping was confirmed only after Blinken landed in China. The US State Department announced it only one hour before the event.

There was no progress on the two key questions: China’s industrial support for Russia’s war with Ukraine and China’s opposition to the US arming Taiwan. Both sides reiterated their positions in private and public. 

There was, however, progress on less contentious issues. The Chinese official dealing with climate change policy will visit the US and the cooperation on narcotics will continue. 

Let’s examine the meeting with Xi Jinping. The seating arrangement reflected China’s Middle Kingdom complex, with the two principal interlocutors not sitting opposite each other on a long table. The handshake between the two lasted one second compared to two seconds in June 2023. Blinken appeared stern most of the time during the three-day visit.

“China would like to see a confident, open, and prosperous United States. We hope that the United States will view China’s development in a positive light,” Xi told Blinken.

We can say that Xi Jinping has hit the nail on the head. China has been rising for years to the consternation of the US that wants to maintain a rather unipolar world with marginal concessions. Russia is no longer a rival to America except in nuclear weapons. Washington has been trying to ‘contain’ China economically and to encircle it geopolitically. 

The trade sanctions against each other, the US arming of Taiwan, and China’s increasing proximity with Russia despite their historical rivalries are only symptoms of a deeper divide between Washington and Beijing.

Thucydides, the father of historiography in the Western tradition, can be of help in understanding the cause of that divide. Thucydides, the author of the History of the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta, wrote: It was the rise of Athens and the fear that this inspired in Sparta that made war inevitable.

International Relations (IR) scholars refer to this as the “Thucydides’ trap”. Let us hope and pray that we can avoid getting trapped. 

It is seldom recognized by IR scholars that, but for Nixon’s decision to engage with Mao in 1972, leading to China’s admission to the UN and later the WTO, China would not have emerged as the economic superpower it is today, likely to catch up with America by 2035 or maybe a few years after that.

In conclusion, whether wittingly or unwittingly, Biden has done his best to fortify the Moscow-Beijing axis to the disadvantage of the US, geo-politically and geo-economically.

A Cold War is brewing between the US and China, and only mature diplomacy can prevent it from escalating into a hot war.



KP Fabian is a diplomat who served in the Indian Foreign Service between 1964 and 2000. He is currently a distinguished fellow at the Symbiosis Law School in Pune. More

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