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With visit to China, Blinken clears a diplomatic path, but it's unclear where it goes

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, Monday, June 19, 2023.
Leah Millis
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AP
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, Monday, June 19, 2023.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken's long-anticipated trip to Beijing shows that the administration is keen to reignite diplomacy and inject some stability to its dealings with China, but whether it was a success remains to be seen.

Blinken held talks with China's top two foreign policy officials and even had an audience with leader Xi Jinping during his two-day stop in Beijing that ended on Monday.

But Analysts say China-U.S. ties are so fraught that re-establishing a semblance of stability and balance will take much more effort and political will — which will be tested by presidential election campaigns in the United States and Taiwan in the coming months. And while both sides say they want to reduce friction, their strategic assessments of the other have not budged.

"Under ordinary circumstances a visit to China by the [U.S.] Secretary of State would be an important visit and should have the effect of advancing bilateral relations," said Shao Yuqun, a senior fellow with the center for American Studies at the Shanghai Institute for International Studies, a government think tank.

"But this visit, while still important, is hard to gauge in terms of how much it can advance relations. At a minimum, I think, it may keep things from getting worse, and if it can do that it would be a very good outcome. But I don't know if it can make things better in bilateral ties. That's still a question mark."

Ties between the world's No. 1 and No. 2 economies have sunk to their lowest point in decades, with disagreements festering over topics ranging from trade to Taiwan. Mutual trust is running thin.

Ahead of Blinken's trip, both governments sought to manage expectations, casting it as little more than an opportunity to exchange views and to explore potential areas of cooperation. The trip was originally scheduled to take place four months ago, but was postponed after a Chinese spy balloon was tracked floating across U.S. skies and shot down.

"The trip was intended to lower the temperature, not resolve fundamental disagreements."

Danny Russel, vice president of the Asia Society Policy Institute and a former U.S. diplomat, said Blinken "fully met the admittedly modest expectations for his visit: meeting with President Xi; extensive, in-depth, closed-door discussions with top Chinese diplomats; avoiding public acrimony; agreeing to a few small bilateral steps; and unclogging the pipeline of official bilateral contacts."

The "deliverables," however, were modest, and the trip was intended to lower the temperature, not resolve fundamental disagreements, he said.

Bilateral talks continue, but domestic politics also matters

The two sides discussed increasing the number of flights between the countries, which are at a fraction of their pre-pandemic peak, as well as combating fentanyl production and enhancing educational exchanges.

Blinken invited Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang to visit the U.S., and said the he expects more visits by senior officials in both directions in the coming months.

That could help set the stage for smooth meetings between Xi and President Biden this fall on the sidelines of the G20 and APEC summits.

Analysts said the visit also allowed Washington and Beijing to signal to other countries — nervous about their growing acrimony — that they are taking steps to dial down tensions.

Where it all ultimately leads is an open question, though, particularly in light of domestic political pressures that have built up the United States and China.

"Diplomacy is always a series of tests" that are constrained by the political environment at the time, said Susan Thornton, a retired U.S. diplomat now with the Paul Tsai China Center at Yale University.

"And our political environment on China in the U.S. has never been more complicated than it is now — and it's getting more complicated as we move toward the presidential election season."

Several Republican members of Congress criticized Blinken for making the trip to China at all, saying it projected weakness on the part of the Biden administration and suggesting it could hurt America's national security.

The basic strategic positions of the two remain unchanged

The U.S. and Chinese flags stand behind a microphone at the U.S. embassy in Beijing on April 9, 2009.
Frederic J. Brown / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
The U.S. and Chinese flags stand behind a microphone at the U.S. embassy in Beijing on April 9, 2009.

Given the pressures, China's leaders will be watching to see if the Biden administration can make policy adjustments and follow through on promises that some in the U.S. may see as concessions to Beijing.

A bigger issue for the future of the relationship, however, may be the fact that the basic strategic positions of the two countries remain unchanged. Both sides acknowledged during Blinken's trip the need for China and the U.S. to get along better, but they also dug into positions that are seemingly at odds.

Blinken cast the relationship as one that is fundamentally competitive, while Chinese read-outs of the meetings indicated that Beijing believes that to be an inappropriate framing of the relationship.

After his meeting with Blinken, the Chinese Communist Party's top diplomat, Wang Yi, was reported as having said "a choice needs to be made between confrontation, cooperation or conflict."

"The root cause of the trough in China-U.S. relations is that the U.S. side holds a wrong perception of China, which leads to a wrong policy towards China," he was quoted as saying.

Thornton said visits like Blinken's are good, but diplomacy cannot be sustained without common interests or a common purpose to work on — and it's unclear at this point where China and the United States can find those.

"[W]e can't just keep getting together in meetings and sort of airing our grievances because that will lead to just a continuing downward spiral in the relationship."

"I think we can't just keep getting together in meetings and sort of airing our grievances because that will lead to just a continuing downward spiral in the relationship," she added.

"A state of cold and competitive peaceful coexistence"

Meanwhile, in some corners of the relationship there's not even a forum to air grievances. No apparent progress was made during Blinken's trip toward re-starting military-to-military communications, which Beijing has severed despite rising tensions and recent "close call" incidents in the air and at sea.

Wen-Ti Sung, a Taiwan expert at the Australian National University's Center on China in the World and a non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council's Global China Hub, said strategic competition is the name of the game at this point and the only thing left to do is to work out the terms on which it unfolds.

"I think we are seeing the U.S. and China settling into a state of cold and competitive peaceful coexistence," Sung said.

"There is sufficient conflict of interest by this point that a return to an engagement-oriented relationship, like we had 15 or 20 years ago, will be very hard to arrive at."

Aowen Cao and Emily Feng contributed to this story from Beijing and Taipei.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

John Ruwitch
John Ruwitch is a correspondent with NPR's international desk. He covers Chinese affairs.