The U.S. secretary of State is finally headed to Beijing, but the “thaw” in relations predicted by the administration may be slow to follow.
Antony Blinken is set to arrive in China this weekend for a series of meetings with senior officials including Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang. A senior State Department official who spoke on condition of anonymity told reporters to “stay tuned” regarding whether Blinken might meet with paramount leader Xi Jinping. The trip comes four months after Blinken’s initially planned visit was scuttled by the furor over a Chinese spy balloon found traversing the United States.
Since then, the Biden administration has repeatedly expressed its desire to reschedule Blinken’s visit, outreach that Beijing has repeatedly rebuffed. The administration hopes this trip will be at least the first step toward an eventual summit between President Joe Biden and Xi.
The administration describes Blinken’s trip as part of a longer-term effort to cool the bilateral rancor that has effectively frozen high-level diplomatic dialogue for almost five months.
“It’s not a matter of one trip and one conversation,” the senior State Department official said. Blinken will use his Beijing meetings “to disabuse China of some of the misperceptions it has about what we’re trying to do even as we’re also very clear about our intent when it comes to standing up for our interests and trying to advance our values.”
U.S. officials say Blinken’s agenda will include tensions over Taiwan, unjustly jailed U.S. citizens in China and Beijing’s alignment with Russia’s war on Ukraine. Still “some sort of breakthrough or transformation in the way that we deal with one another” is unlikely, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Daniel Kritenbrink told reporters on Wednesday.
Blinken will also underscore the objectives of U.S. economic policy toward China. “We are very determined to de-risk…. We’re not about decoupling. We’re not about containing China. We’re not about trying to hold it back economically,” the state department official said.
Chinese officials head into those meetings reiterating a narrative of China as a victim of U.S. suppression and containment efforts.
The U.S. should “stop interfering in China’s internal affairs and undermining China’s sovereign security and development interests in the name of competition,” Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang said in a readout of his phone call with Blinken on Wednesday. Blinken’s one-sentence summary of that call focused on avoiding “miscalculation and conflict.”
Beijing isn’t toning down that combative rhetoric. Successful dialogue with China requires the U.S. “to give up the illusion of dealing with China ‘from a position of strength,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said on Friday in reference to Blinken’s trip.
Last month President Joe Biden predicted a “thaw” in U.S.-China relations. Within days, Chinese Minister of Commerce Wang Wentao had flown to the U.S. for meetings with Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo and U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai. But Beijing’s denial of a request by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to meet with his counterpart Li Shangfu at the Shangri La Dialogue defense summit in Singapore earlier this month suggested that bilateral ties remained tenuous outside of the economic sphere.
“The script appears to have flipped — it feels like Beijing is granting a favor by merely allowing Blinken to go,” said Ivan Kanapathy, former director for China, Taiwan and Mongolia at the National Security Council. “Beijing is accepting a Blinken visit as a step toward engaging [Treasury Secretary Janet] Yellen, who they see as more favorable to their priorities and interests,” Kanapathy said.
The administration is pushing back on that perception. “We approach this visit from a position of strength and confidence,” said the senior state department official.
Asked about Blinken’s planned visit last week, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said: “Communication should not be carried out for the sake of communication…the U.S. needs to stop interfering in China’s internal affairs and stop harming China’s interests.”
And now Blinken’s trip could be overshadowed by another revelation about China’s espionage operations against the United States. A Biden administration official revealed last week that China has been spying on the U.S. from a base in Cuba for years. That allegation is “slander and smears,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said Monday.
Some GOP lawmakers are already arguing that Blinken’s trip effectively rewards Beijing for bad behavior. Blinken’s outreach reflects “a misguided desire to re-engage” that may be “emboldening CCP aggression,” said Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.), chair of the House Select Committee on China. Blinken’s trip symbolizes the Biden administration’s “continued weakness in the face of PRC aggression,” said Michael McCaul (R-Texas), chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
Others on Capitol Hill warn that abandoning efforts to reduce tensions with Beijing could backfire. The current communications deficit “could mean we’re one miscalculation or one misunderstanding away from a catastrophe,” said Rep. Ritchie Torres (D-N.Y.), a member of the House Select Committee on China.
Rep. David Trone (D-Md.), co-chair of Biden’s Commision on Combating Synthetic Opioid Trafficking said the Blinken meetings are key to resuming cooperation on fighting fentanyl trafficking. Americans continue “dying in record numbers from fentanyl sourced from China-supplied precursors,” he said. A large portion of the precursor chemicals Mexican drug cartels use to make fentanyl come from China.
And the transactional approach could just lay the foundation for a longer-term improvement in ties.
A series of senior U.S. officials meeting their counterparts in Beijing over the coming months can “generate processes that hopefully break down distrust and create conditions for productive, cooperative engagements in the future,” said Nirav Patel, who served as deputy assistant secretary of State in the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs in the Obama administration.
And it could pave the way for a long-awaited summit between Biden and Xi later this year. There is speculation that their presence at the APEC summit in San Francisco in November could provide the opportunity for a sideline meeting, but neither Washington or Beijing have publicly disclosed any preparatory discussions for such a meeting. But the constraints of the U.S. political calendar require substantive progress on contentious bilateral issues long before November.
“We have like a six-month window,” said Zack Cooper, former assistant to the deputy national security adviser for combating terrorism at the National Security Council, now a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
“By the time that we get to December and January, between the election in Taiwan and the primary season in Washington, it’s going to be very difficult to make any progress or even perhaps to have any substantial meetings,” Cooper said.