US Secretary of State’s Visit to China Marks Potential Shift in Relations
Antony Blinken, the US Secretary of State, is scheduled to travel to China on Sunday, signaling an effort to improve bilateral ties after a tense year. Originally planned for February, Blinken’s visit was delayed due to an incident involving a “Chinese spy balloon” flying over US territory, which led to heightened tensions. As the highest-ranking US official to visit China since 2019, Blinken is expected to hold discussions with Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang or top diplomat Wang Yi, although a meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping remains uncertain. Notably, President Xi is set to meet with Microsoft founder Bill Gates in Beijing.
The primary objective of Blinken’s trip is to reestablish communication channels, address misperceptions, and prevent miscalculations between the two superpowers. Daniel Kritenbrink, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, emphasized the need to avoid conflicts and ensure that the competition between the US and China remains manageable. Recent incidents, such as a near collision between a Chinese fighter jet and a US surveillance plane in the South China Sea, underscore the urgency of improving communication and reducing tensions.
Both Washington and Beijing may be ready for a thaw in their relationship. Ryan Hass, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, described Blinken’s visit as the first step in an exploratory process to assess the prospects of improving ties. Neither President Biden nor President Xi wants the perception of an escalating US-China conflict, yet they also aim to maintain a firm stance. The diplomats will use this visit to explore non-hostile ways of managing their challenges, although the outcome remains uncertain.
This visit follows recent engagements, including a call between Blinken and Foreign Minister Qin, as well as a meeting between senior US and Chinese officials in Beijing. However, Beijing rejected a meeting between US and Chinese military officials at the Shangri-La security forum in Singapore, likely due to US sanctions on China’s Minister of Defence. Qinduo Xu, a senior fellow at the Pangoal Institution, believes that both sides are also testing the waters for a potential meeting between President Xi Jinping and President Biden at the 2023 APEC Summit in the US.
While there are still many unresolved issues, such as the reported plan for a Chinese spy base in Cuba, Blinken is expected to raise concerns about Americans detained in China and the illegal flow of fentanyl from China to the US. On the other hand, Beijing will likely address US tariffs, sanctions on officials, and restrictions on Chinese companies. Both sides have accused each other of confrontational behavior in the South and East China Seas and the Taiwan Strait, increasing the risk of strategic competition turning into a collision.
Given the current low levels of mutual trust, rebuilding confidence will be a gradual process. China’s Foreign Minister Qin has emphasized the importance of respecting China’s sovereignty, security, and developmental interests, urging the US to avoid interference under the pretext of competition. However, due to recent economic coercion and escalators actions by the US, expectations for the visit remain modest.