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Whither China-US relations after Blinken's Beijing trip

By Yi Fan | chinadaily.com.cn | Updated: 2023-07-01 13:53


US Secretary of State Tony Blinken’s recent visit to China has generated a lot of attention and punditry. As much as Chinese and US officials disagree, on this visit they seem to agree on one thing: expectations should be moderated.

Their realism is justified.

The Biden administration is bent on unleashing what it calls “intense competition” with China. It is hard to see how one visit can change this fundamental shift in its China policy.

Indeed, the confrontational element in the US approach has been building for years. First there was Obama’s “pivot” to Asia, then Trump’s wholesale turn toward tough-on-China, and now Biden’s “outcompeting China” strategy. An intricate web is being painstakingly woven: a “democracy vs. autocracy” narrative, a “new Washington consensus” economic strategy, more muscular arrangements like the QUAD and AUKUS, and robust, unsubstantiated propaganda about China-Beijing’s secret timetable to take Taiwan by force, weapon flows to Russia, spying with balloons and in Cuba, fentanyl conspiracy theories, etc.

China-bashing is a line that all sitting and aspiring US politicians must tow now. How did this happen? Above all else, the United States is tormented by a sense of decline. The past decade has witnessed a weakening of American democracy, its proudest achievement. There have been legislative dysfunction; partisan gerrymandering; the excessive influence of special interests; racial discrimination; societal polarization and the reemergence of white supremacy; and a toxic, divisive, censored media landscape. A Quinnipiac University poll shows 67 percent of domestic respondents believe that American democracy is in danger of collapse.

This is a first for the world’s mightiest, ever ascendant since its independence as a nation and a victor in two world wars and the Cold War. There are no easy solutions to Washington’s many ills. But blaming China is a pill with instant palliative effects.

Even if it wants to, the Biden administration is hamstrung in its ability to make peace with China. This is a strategic handicap for US-China relations, one that is unlikely to change following Blinken’s visit.

That said, the marathon talks Beijing arranged for Blinken during the trip -an indication of China’s desire for effective communication -should not go to complete waste. Some real Chinese concerns must register with Blinken.

For starters, he must see clearly China’s red lines and try to pull the US back from constantly flirting with them, especially on Taiwan. He should heed Chinese officials’ stark warning that the Taiwan question is “the first red line that must not be crossed.”

Second, he should realize that Chinese complaints about the US say-do gap are a genuine concern. It is the most cited reason for Chinese officials’ frustration with talking to their US counterparts. Blinken needs to take the point to Washington and try to bring about some message discipline on the US side. American officials, politicians and diplomats need to show more good faith in keeping presidential commitments, beginning with respect for the Bali agenda agreed last November.

Third, he needs to note in his work diary that what Washington calls “competition” is generally seen as containment in Beijing and by the Chinese public, if not around the world. Competition should be about making oneself better, not undercutting the other. In fact, some of its tactics are making its own allies fretful.

And finally, he should encourage the Biden administration to show mettle in crisis management. Unpleasant things will happen in this relationship, in the form of “black swan” or “gray rhino” incidents. Political forces will try to take advantage of them. If the Biden administration is thrown off track at every turn, what does it say about its effectiveness?

All in all, these are but firefighting strategies to prevent the two powerful nations from a near-term collision.

In the long run, they still need to find durable ways to get along. Washington should spend time thinking over this inevitable question: How is it going to live with rising powers not modeled on the US system? To rise above differences and foster cooperation, which is the right thing to do, extraordinary vision and political leadership are essential. Better work on that than tilt at windmills.

Yi Fan is a Beijing-based international affairs commentator.

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