Blinken attempted to build a floor in US-China relations. He may have to keep doing it

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, Monday, June 19, 2023. (Leah Millis/Pool Photo via AP)

US Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken met with Chinese President Xi Jinping last week in Beijing. (Lea Millis / Associated Press)

When Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken visited Beijing last week to try to mend frayed US-China relations, both sides kept expectations low.

For months, the two superpowers have clashed over a wide range of issues: the alleged Chinese spy balloon that wandered across the United States in February, American attempts to block China from accessing advanced semiconductors and military near-misses at sea and in the air. .

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The two countries agreed they needed to keep the rivalry from escalating into open conflict and “build a bedrock” in the relationship – which is exactly what President Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping said they had already done. at a summit meeting eight months ago. This floor didn’t stay built – hence last week’s call for a repairman.

By this modest standard, Blinken succeeded. The floor has been patched, but it is still quite fragile.

The Secretary of State asked for more frequent meetings, and he got it. But he also demanded direct exchanges between the two countries’ military leaders, a priority he called “extremely important” – and the Chinese flatly refused. And Xi postponed action on a demand that should have been even easier: to fight Chinese-made chemicals that help produce the killer drug fentanyl.

“It’s good that they recognized they needed to talk when the relationship veered into dangerous territory,” said Bates Gill, a China expert at the Asia Society in New York. “But talking is always going to be very difficult.”

The march towards peaceful coexistence always seems prone to accidents. Just a day after Blinken left Beijing, Biden sparked a brief fury when he told donors that Xi was unaware of the alleged spy balloon, which he called “a great embarrassment to [a] dictator.” A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson called the remark “absurd and irresponsible.”

The underlying problem, deeper than any Biden gaffe, is that the two countries don’t just have different goals; they see the world from different places.

According to Xi, China is progressing towards its rightful role as a dominant country in Asia and the world’s leading economic power, while the United States is a nation in decline.

American officials naturally do not accept this narrative. They rightly argue that China bullied its smaller neighbors, stole Western technology and engaged in unfair trade practices.

Even when trying to bridge these differences, the two governments often manage to talk to each other.

When Biden entered the White House in 2021, his aides attempted to offer a helpful, perhaps harmless, framework for their approach to China. As Blinken said, “We will compete with confidence, cooperate when we can, and compete when we must.”

The Chinese hated him.

“They see ‘competition’ as meaning there’s a winner and a loser,” Gill said. “They think our version of competition is about winning America and losing China.”

Beyond these differences, several major disagreements between the two countries are likely unresolved for the foreseeable future.

China believes it has the inalienable right to take control of Taiwan; the United States has long been committed to helping the independent island defend itself.

Xi’s economic ambitions focus on transforming China into a high-tech colossus; Biden thinks American security requires blocking Beijing from advanced semiconductor technology.

Now add the Biden administration’s success in building alliances with other countries — including India, whose Prime Minister Narendra Modi was celebrated in the White House last week — and the European Union. , even though it is China’s largest economic partner.

Xi’s regime has failed to make friends. China’s only real allies are Russia and North Korea.

All of these factors make it difficult to find space for US-China cooperation, although it should be relatively easy.

For example, Blinken’s request for military contacts to prevent accidental conflicts fell on deaf ears as the Chinese feared it was a trap.

“They don’t want to approach the issue from an international law perspective because it might give us the right to fly or navigate where they don’t want us to,” said Bonnie Glaser of the German Marshall Fund. “If it became safe for us to make these flights, they would see it as a victory for us.”

The clearest outcome of Blinken’s trip will be a visit to Washington by Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang — and hopefully a meeting between Biden and Xi in San Francisco this fall.

But their agenda will be familiar: reduce the risk of US-China conflict by fixing the same shaky floors over and over again.

This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.

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