US diplomatic re-engagement with China

Hussein Haridy
Tuesday 20 Jun 2023

The US and China must manage their relations responsibly in order to minimise any risk of conflict, writes Hussein Haridy


US Secretary of State Antony Blinken paid a two-day visit to Beijing on 18-19 June. The visit was supposed to take place last February, but Washington postponed it because of the “silly” balloon, as US President Joe Biden described it last month in Hiroshima where he was attending the G7 Summit, that the US shot down over Alaska in February this year.

The last time a US secretary of state visited Beijing was in 2018, when the official concerned was Mike Pompeo. Relations between the US and China were a lot more stable and warmer than they are now.

According to some reports in the US media, Blinken was received upon his arrival in Beijing in a “frosty way.” From the Chinese point of view, this kind of reception is understood as being natural – as senior US officials have been criticising China and accusing it of “bullying” and coercing its neighbours. They have also been ignoring the US’ own meddling in China’s domestic affairs.

Last week, the top diplomats of China and the US also talked over the phone. The most important part of their conversation came when the Chinese foreign minister asked his US counterpart “to show respect” when talking about things Chinese. One serious mistake the US commits when communicating with the Chinese is either accusing China of being responsible for all the world’s ills or adopting a haughty attitude. This is something that makes China’s leaders and senior officials angry.

Both sides made clear before the arrival of Blinken in Beijing that their expectations of the talks were modest at best. For the US, maintaining open lines of communications between Washington and Beijing is important in order to reduce the risk of miscalculations. For China, it is important to talk face-to-face with senior US officials candidly and honestly about the way in which the Biden administration is managing US-Chinese relations.

Those relations have not seen such a deterioration before. In fact, since as far back as 1972 when former US president Richard Nixon visited China – the first US president to travel to the Middle Kingdom since 1949 when the People’s Republic of China was established – relations between the two countries have not reached such a high level of tension and mutual mistrust.

The Blinken visit aimed at reducing that tension. However, regarding the mutual mistrust, it seems that the Biden administration still has its homework to do, not only with regard to the best means of managing its “competition” with China, but also and more importantly with regard to “showing respect” for China. If this can be got right, the Chinese will likely listen more attentively to the US administration.

The talks between the two delegations lasted seven and a half hours, one hour longer than expected, on 18 June. The Chinese then held a working dinner later in the day where the two delegations resumed their talks.

The two sides agreed on a future visit to Washington by Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang. He is no stranger to the city as he was the Chinese ambassador to the US until late last year before he was appointed foreign minister. They also agreed on the resumption of working-level meetings in addition to an increase in commercial flights between the two countries and in student exchange programmes.

According to a readout of the talks by the Chinese Foreign Ministry, Qin Gang “communicated China’s clear demands” regarding Taiwan and called on the US to honour its promise not to lend support to Taiwanese independence.

The US State Department released a statement on 18 June stating that Blinken had emphasised the importance of diplomacy and maintaining open channels of communication across a full range of issues “to reduce the risk of misperception and miscalculation.”

It said that Blinken had stressed that the US “will work with its allies and partners to advance our vision for a world that is free, open, and upholds the international rules-based order.” There was no mention of the question of Taiwan, even though the Chinese side had said that Gang had dwelt on China’s “clear demands” on Taiwan.

It is interesting to note that Chinese President Xi Jinping received co-founder of Microsoft Bill Gates a few days before Blinken arrived in the Chinese capital. Before him he had received Jamie Dimon, the CEO of JP Morgan Chase, the biggest bank in the world by assets, as well as Starbucks CEO Laxman Narasimhan and Twitter and Tesla CEO Elon Musk.

A State Department source quoted in the Washington Post on 18 June said that given the $700 billion in annual trade between the US and China, the US business community remained focused on the importance of the relationship between China and the United States.

Unlike leading US bankers and business leaders, some Congressmen are not happy with the visit of Blinken to China. Representative Michael McCaul (R-Texas), chair of the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee, quoted in the Washington Post, criticised Blinken for not imposing new penalties and export controls on China and accused him of pursuing what he termed “fruitless talks” in Beijing.

The newspaper ran an editorial on 17 June that stressed that “it is essential to renew dialogue – especially military-to-military talks” with China. “Keeping channels of communication open is essential among adversaries and competitors,” it said. “A high-level visit, the kind that used to be routine, is a good place to start.”

It is to be hoped that Blinken’s visit in fact achieves this – in other words, that it functions as a good start to diplomatic re-engagement between two great powers who should revise their competition responsibly so that it does not veer into conflict.

The visit of Secretary Blinken was capped by an important meeting with President Xi Jinping, a meeting that demonstrates that two great powers are eager to stabilise their relationship.

The writer is former assistant foreign minister.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 22 June, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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