Secretary Blinken visits Beijing as US-China tensions rise: Why it matters

Secretary of State Antony Blinken left for Beijing on Friday in a long-running bid to reset the great-power rivalry between the United States and China that looks set to become a civilizational clash between democracy and autocracy. .

The long-delayed trip, postponed by tensions over a Chinese spy balloon that flew over the US mainland, will mark the first visit to China by a Cabinet official since President Joe Biden took office in 2021. Blinken will seek to restore diplomatic and military lines of communication to “responsibly manage” relations between the two nations, according to a State Department statement announcing the trip.

But as Blinken meets with senior Chinese officials over the weekend, some are skeptical that tensions can be eased — or even that it is a good idea.

In this file photo taken July 8, 2022, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken attends a meeting with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Nusa Dua on the Indonesian resort island of Bali.

In this file photo taken July 8, 2022, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken attends a meeting with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Nusa Dua on the Indonesian resort island of Bali.

At home, members of Congress and 2024 presidential candidates have increasingly called China the biggest threat to the United States.

Nikki Haley, former United Nations ambassador who is seeking the 2024 Republican nomination, wrote in a tweet Friday that Biden “has completely failed in his dealings with China.”

“Now he’s sending Sec. Blinken to China to pursue a ‘thaw,'” she wrote. “That’s crazy.”

Others don’t think so.

“The relationship with China requires work”

Scott Mulhauser, who served as chief of staff at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing for Ambassador Max Baucus, said in an interview with USA TODAY “it’s pretty clear that regardless of administration or timing, the relationship with China requires work”.

“This work involves balancing where we need to be tough on and looking for ways to find solutions to larger global issues,” he added. “It’s no small feat. But if anybody can do it, Tony Blinken can do it.”

And while Blinken will stop in London on the way back from Beijing to attend the Ukraine Recovery Conference and build international support for Ukraine, for many American voters the perceived threat from China is more worrying than the increase in aid to Ukraine.

Mulhauser, however, said the Biden administration can achieve both foreign policy goals.

“Successfully navigating US-China relations and supporting Ukraine in its struggle for democracy are not mutually exclusive,” he said.

Some European allies, meanwhile, have called for an aggressive “de-risking” of the West’s relationship with China – by reducing reliance on Chinese exports, including microchips and rare earth minerals. – to avoid the kind of reliance on Russian energy that gave Vladimir Putin major political leverage. .

Calls are also being made for the West to “decouple” from China, if Beijing persists in threatening behavior, particularly vis-à-vis Taiwan.

“Purely performative”

Craig Singleton, a China expert at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said in a statement to USA TODAY that Blinken’s visit to Beijing is “in many ways purely performative.”

“His outcome will mean very little on the downward trajectory of China-US relations,” Singleton added.

The trip to China has been in the works since November 2022, when President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping held a three-hour meeting on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in Bali, Indonesia.

Blinken, the top US diplomat, originally planned to visit Beijing in February, but the White House canceled his visit after discovering the spy balloon. The balloon crossed the country before finally being shot down by an American warplane off the coast of South Carolina. Chinese officials, however, maintain that it was a civilian airship used for weather research that was blown off course.

In the months that followed, US officials repeatedly said that Blinken hoped to postpone his trip to China.

But during this same period, relations between the two countries have become increasingly strained. Just two weeks after the United States shot down the spy balloon, Blinken met Wang Yi, China’s top foreign policy official, on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference.

Blinken said in a February interview with CBS News that there was “no apology” from Wang during their meeting in Munich.

“I told him very clearly that China’s sending of a surveillance balloon over the United States – in violation of our sovereignty, in violation of international law – was unacceptable and must never happen again.” , Blinken said.

Biden aims

Biden also took aim at China during his State of the Union address on Feb. 7, during which he referred to Xi by name.

“If China threatens our sovereignty, we will act to protect our country,” Biden said, referring to the spy balloon incident. “And we did.”

In his speech, Biden claimed that since the start of his presidency, “democracies have gotten stronger, not weaker, autocracies have gotten weaker, not stronger.”

“Name me a world leader who would switch places with Xi Jinping,” Biden added, his voice rising. “Name me one.

Tensions between the United States and China have been further heightened by two military incidents in recent weeks. A US Navy destroyer nearly collided with a Chinese warship in the Taiwan Strait days after a Chinese fighter jet flew directly ahead of a US Air Force jet over the sea from southern China.

Few signs, however, pointed to an easing of tensions before Blinken’s arrival in Beijing.

In a Wednesday phone call with Blinken ahead of his visit, Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang said “it’s very clear who is to blame” for the deterioration in US-China relations, according to a reading of the call from the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Qin Gang “stressed that the United States should respect China’s concerns, stop interfering in China’s internal affairs, and stop undermining China’s sovereignty, security and development interests in the name of competition,” the Chinese foreign ministry statement added.

But Mulhauser said Blinken’s visit amid sour relations should not be taken as a sign of weakness.

“Nobody thinks the Biden administration is getting any closer to China — just look at the policies from the South China Sea to the new laws taking China even harder economically,” he said. .

“The reality of this moment is that tensions are high and one of the ways to reduce tension and reduce global risk is to engage and meet face to face to stand up for yourself, your values ​​and your country.” , added Mulhauser.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Secretary Blinken visits China in bid to reduce tensions. What we know

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