Guardrails and the challenge of US reciprocity
Prospects of US-China convergence in key conflict hotspots are bleak; after all, Blinken has used his high-level visit to tout debunked conspiracies.
After Washington’s “spy balloon” drama and baseless military espionage claims against China, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken finally met Chinese President Xi Jinping in a bid to set up some guardrails. Their exchange reinforced Beijing’s long-standing position that efforts to stabilize the US-China relationship are chief to long-term coexistence. With it came the heightened prospect of Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang’s future visit to the US.
However, America appears far from serious in relinquishing its blatant interference in China’s national affairs. Blinken has made it clear that “key issues” remain unresolved with China, revealing contradictions in Washington’s support for high-level communication channels.
Consider China’s crucial call for the United States to respect its legitimate rights and interests at all costs. Xi’s viewpoints on key red lines and interests such as the ironclad Taiwan question. A hawkish Biden administration continues to prioritize unwarranted arms sales and unofficial contacts vis-à-vis the Chinese province, confining Blinken’s trust-building in Beijing to mere optics. With that backdrop in mind, the fact that both sides were at least able to get to the negotiating table signals a dire need to manage expectations.
It is too early to read the exchange as a measure of guaranteed progress. Present irritants include marked upticks in unauthorized US links with the Chinese province, minimum US appetite to dial-down tensions in the delicate South China Sea, and Biden’s open provocations by calling China’s top leader a “dictator.”
Prospects of US-China convergence in key conflict hotspots are also bleak. After all, Blinken has used his high-level visit to tout debunked conspiracies about so-called Chinese arms supplies to Russia, underlining the domestic political stakes in castigating Beijing upon will. Moreover, unfounded allegations that Chinese companies "may be providing assistance” in the form of lethal weaponry to Russia ignore the central goal of the meeting itself: to guide the US-China relationship towards stable shores and strengthen high-level communication channels.
It is here that the Biden administration has failed to demonstrate sufficient autonomy from China hawks in Capitol Hill when engaging with Beijing. The anti-China lobby’s deep interest in ensuring US-China fissures over the Ukraine war, provoking tensions in the South China Sea, and interfering over Taiwan, is surprisingly consistent with Blinken’s post-meeting rhetoric.
To be clear, substantive economic engagement between US and China will remain a far cry as long as Washington touts allegations of “unfair and nonmarket” Chinese economic practices. Such rhetoric, communicated by Blinken during talks, ignores sweeping US sanctions and export control measures against Chinese tech and business companies. By sidestepping its blatant violations of fair market rules, America insists on holding China to a self-identified standard of market compliance. This unilateralism is characteristic of Western dictates in key international financial institutions and bodies, and is unlikely to get a hard pass from a country that has vowed to protect its business rights.
Blinken has sung praises about record high US-China trade volume and possible macroeconomic stability coordination with China. Delivering on those strong points means reckoning with the pitfalls of Washington’s two-track approach to diplomacy with Beijing. Explicit containment in China’s neighborhood fails to promote aspirations of economic cooperation with a global trade giant. The onus of reciprocity falls squarely on Washington, given its lead role in cultivating strategic distrust in the lead-up to Blinken’s China tour.
"President Xi said state-to-state interactions should always be based on mutual respect and sincerity,” said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying. “Hope this visit by Secretary Blinken could make positive contributions to stabilizing relations."
On the question of contributing to high-level US-China strategic communication, Beijing is likely to come through for several reasons. First, it has an unwavering national stake in avoiding a ‘head-on collision’ over Taiwan, as communicated by senior Chinese diplomat Wang Yi to Blinken last year. Unlike Washington, China sees two-way dialogue as a way of ensuring that both countries “can find the right way to get along” without compromise on its core national interests.
The latest Xi-Blinken meeting increases the risks for Washington to sidestep a genuinely compliant One-China policy, given that prior refusal played a key role in bringing ties to a new low. Some of America’s staunchest allies in the Asia-Pacific have also grown increasingly wary of antagonizing China to appease the US.
More deeply, nations such as South Korea are keen to protect their industrial and diplomatic links without giving into Washington’s hollowed-out One-China stance entirely. To that end, Washington’s peace-building posture towards China is not entirely built on US goodwill. It is also about factoring regional pressures that the US must ultimately engage with Beijing. "Direct engagement and sustained communication at senior levels is the best way to responsibly manage differences and ensure that competition does not veer into conflict," claimed Blinken after his exchange.
And yet, serious questions still surround America’s ability to walk its talk on compartmentalizing differences with China, before some hope for broad-based economic cooperation is evident to all.