Blinken to return to China with message on Russia support


Blinken's trip Wednesday through Friday marks a further lowering of US-China friction that soared under former president Donald Trump, who is again vowing a hard line if he returns in November elections.

But President Joe Biden, while seeking greater stability between the world's two largest economies, has kept up pressure.

In the days ahead of Blinken's trip, Biden met jointly with the leaders of US allies Japan and the Philippines, both wary of China, and moved to raise steel tariffs on a "cheating" China.

"We are in a different place than we were a year ago when the bilateral relationship was at an historic low point," a senior US official told reporters ahead of the trip announcement.

"We've set out to stabilize the bilateral relationship without sacrificing our capacity to strengthen our alliances, compete vigorously and defend our interests," he said on customary condition of anonymity.

High on Blinken's agenda will be what US officials say is a major push by China that has helped Russia, in the throes of the war in Ukraine, carry out its biggest militarization since Soviet times.

US officials say China has stopped short of direct military assistance but has provided dual-use supplies that have let Russia regroup amid a long delay in US aid to Ukraine due to inaction in the House of Representatives, led by Trump's Republican Party.

Blinken will take the message directly to Beijing after encouraging European allies to make their concerns known with China, which is seen as eager for smooth relations with the West as it faces economic headwinds.

"If China purports on the one hand to want good relations with Europe and other countries, it can't on the other hand be fueling what is the biggest threat to European security since the end of the Cold War," Blinken said Friday after Group of Seven talks in Capri, Italy.

Rebound in ties

Hoping to highlight the change of atmosphere, Blinken will stop before Beijing in the modern metropolis Shanghai where officials say he will promote stronger people-to-people ties between the United States and China.

The trip follows telephone talks between Biden and President Xi Jinping and a visit to China by Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen.

Biden met near San Francisco in November with Xi who agreed to key asks by the United States including restoring military-to-military ties and taking action against precursor chemicals to fentanyl, the painkiller behind an addiction epidemic in the United States.

Blinken will follow up on the fentanyl agreement and will raise a series of issues including the Middle East crisis, where the United States hopes China will use good relations with Iran to encourage restraint in clashes with Israel, the official said.

The official said Blinken would also call on China to avoid "provocative behavior" during the inauguration next month of Taiwan's next president Lai Ching-te.

Taiwan, a self-ruling democracy claimed by Bejiing, has been a perennial source of disagreement, with China angered by US arms sales to Taipei.

But US officials quietly believe that improved US-China relations helped avoid worse-case scenarios of Chinese pressure during Taiwan's election.

China is seen as focused on reviving its domestic economy, with Xi's recent friendly reception to US business leaders showing that China is "desperate" for foreign companies to return, said Yun Sun, a senior fellow at the Stimson Center.

But China also doubts it can pursue new economic cooperation with the United States, especially in an election year, she said.

Chinese leaders "don't have the bandwidth to deal with a belligerent or destabilizing United States at this point," she said.

"They are not willing to bet that the US will reengage economically, but they can keep the US at bay," she said.