Blinken’s Trip to China
“There were extraordinarily low expectations.”
Blinken went to China! Why did he go? What happened? What does it mean? Thanks to this long-weekend jaunt, is World War III more or less likely to happen? To answer these questions and more, I’ve invited Dali Yang, UChicago professor of China’s political economy, and Nathaniel Sher, a senior research analyst on China at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, to discuss Blinken’s visit to Beijing.
In this abridged transcript below we cover:
The low expectations for Blinken’s trip to China — but why both sides might favor stability;
The setting of Blinken’s meeting with Xi in the Great Hall of the People;
The value of tangible, issue-based outcomes amid otherwise icy relations; and
Why the Chinese have been reluctant to discuss deescalation protocols.
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During the height of the Cold War, there were a lot of efforts at confidence building. Open skies, arms control, and other measures followed the Cuban Missile Crisis.
The US has a lot of experience with managing like this. Some personnel are students of the Kissinger era. They believe you have to try to manage things. The Chinese side bought that rhetoric — that we need to stabilize the US-China relationship.
Jordan Schneider: There were extraordinarily low expectations. As Kurt Campbell said in his pre-briefing to reporters, “This is not a visit in which I would anticipate a long list of deliverables coming out of it.”
There was a desire to make sure that the Secretary of State would be the first to go rather than some other cabinet member, even though China appeared to be much more willing to let the others happen. Secretary Blinken has been leading the effort confronting China.
Meeting with Qin Gang, China’s Foreign Minister
Dali Yang: When Qin Gang 秦刚 was the Ambassador to the United States [July 27, 2021, to January 5, 2023], he was immensely frustrated because he couldn’t meet people in the administration in any serious way. He wasn’t received by the President.
Likewise for the US Ambassador to China Nicholas Burns — both he and Qin were making efforts to travel, although Burns was having greater difficulty because of the zero covid issues. Qin got a lot of attention back in China for traveling to Texas, to the Midwest, and other parts of the US as well.
Unlike Secretary Blinken, Qin Gang is not the highest ranking Foreign Ministry official, even though he is Foreign Minister. Within the Communist Party, there is the Central Commission on Foreign Affairs. The chairman of that commission happens to be Xi Jinping himself. The office director is the former Foreign Minister Wang Yi 王毅, who has gained a tremendous amount of attention for being a lead “wolf warrior” in recent years.
That’s why Qin is the first one to meet. Shouldn’t there be equals meeting equals? In the US and China lineups, it very often doesn’t work like that.
Qin and Blinken met for five and a half hours, followed by a working dinner. After that meeting, the Chinese bureaucracy works hard to produce minutes summarizing what happened. By the evening or overnight, they report what happened to Wang and Xi so they can plan out the next day. The US side is doing the same, but probably less elaborately, while also communicating back to the White House.
Jordan Schneider: The Qin readout seemed to suggest that both sides want to help students, scholars, and business people interact across the Pacific. It sounds nice, but China apparently had no interest in letting journalists with US passports triumphantly return to their posts.
Nathaniel Sher: Most of the progress was made at the lowest level during the first meeting, which was the longest at over seven hours, including the dinner. Compared to the readouts with Wang and Xi, the meeting with Qin is really where the action was.
There was somewhat of a good cop/bad cop strategy going on here.
Dali Yang: China was aggressive in expelling some journalists. US newspapers are now reporting on China from Singapore, Taipei, and Seoul. The PRC might have some idea that it’s not as a good to force those journalists to report on China from those places, especially Taipei rather than from Beijing. My hunch is the Chinese now have a greater desire to try to change.
Next Up: Wang Yi, Director of the Central Committee’s Foreign Affairs Commission Office
Wang led the effort introducing China’s aggressive diplomatic style. The irony is that he was a Japan specialist and known initially for being very diplomatic. It shows how the structure has changed.
Now he directs the General Office of the Central Foreign Affairs Commission. That commission also connects with the National Security Commission and other commissions as well. He’s really the chairman of most of those commissions in a way.
Jordan Schneider: I feel bad for Blinken. He’s jet-lagged. He just had a fourteen-hour work day. He was greeted with no red carpet. Then he has to listen to Wang tell him about the “historical logic” and “inevitable trend”of China’s rise…
Nathaniel Sher: The second day Blinken was in Beijing, he met with Wang and Xi, which already exceeded some people’s expectations, although the meetings themselves may not have been as productive.
Wang’s primary point during this three-hour meeting was that the US is “misjudg[ing] China” and that incorrect perceptions are leading to incorrect policy. Most of it was trying to explain that China isn’t seeking hegemony, isn’t challenging the US position, and that if China can convince the US of its strategic intentions, then it’ll lead to a correction.
This meeting was really to blame the United States for the downturn in relations, potentially to correct some sort of high-level strategic understanding about US-China’s intentions. It didn’t seem like any attempt to reach any common ground on any issues.
Waiting for Xi
Jordan Schneider: We had this awkward “will he or won’t he” for a few hours when it wasn’t clear Blinken would meet with Xi. I like the idea that Xi would just decide to go for a swim or something if the first two meetings went really badly — but they did end up spending a little time together.
Fujian happens to be the place where Xi served the longest in his career in the Chinese bureaucracy. The painting behind him shows the mountain range in Fujian and a lotus flower. In Chinese, the first word for “lotus” sounds like the first word for “peace” and also the first word for “cooperation.”
There is also another personal side to it. The lotus flower is practically the flower for the hometown of Madame Xi Jinping, namely Madame Peng Liyuan 彭丽媛.
A lot of thought has gone into the setting. It shows Xi is in control. The setting is made to his order. He is also the primary person talking, setting the tone and saying, “Oh, you have reached some agreements on details.”
If there were no such a meeting, it would have just fed into Washington’s disenchantment with China. It would have helped the coalition of the US, EU, and Japan as they deal with China. The Chinese leadership recognized the importance of this. They wanted to treat Blinken in such a way that they could manage this relationship.
Yet the hierarchical setting though put Mr. Xi in the role of the leader of the room — the convener, the moderator, the teacher of Mao.
Nathaniel Sher: There’s also an international audience. Xi multiple times mentioned the international community and the importance of handling the bilateral relationship well, which bears on the entirety of the international community.
There’s a wrestling match going as each side presents itself to the international community as the more responsible actor. The US requesting all these meetings just shows the importance the US places on them.
For the domestic audience, notice that Xi always speaks about high-level principles. This is the idea that Xi is this profound thinker. The tangible issues are not worth discussing in this meeting with the Secretary of State. Hopefully they do have those discussions at the head-of-state level.
Jordan Schneider: Perhaps the most interesting thing to come out of this was Blinken’s press conference, which he did at 6:20 a.m. Beijing time. He hoped for progress on food insecurity, particularly the Black Sea Grain initiative. He talked about fentanyl. Qin is coming to the US, apparently.
one of the important things for me to do on this trip was to disabuse our Chinese hosts of the notion that we are seeking to economically contain them. We’re not. And as I’ve said, we are not about decoupling; we’re about de-risking and diversifying.
He also talked about narrowly tailoring risks around dual-use military technology and technology used to repress. China would take issue with that characterization — also ByteDance and Alibaba.
Blinken makes the case — which is very out of vogue in DC nowadays — that Chinese economic success is in the US interest.
He also mentioned Russia. After Taiwan, Russia is the second Sword of Damocles hanging over the US-China relationship. Blinken said China promised it wouldn’t give lethal aid to Russia, but added that,
But what we are concerned about is private companies in China that may be providing assistance, in some cases dual use, in some cases clearly directed at enhancing Russia’s military capacity in Ukraine.
This is coming off of reporting that the US — both this spring and at the beginning of the war in Ukraine — aggressively told China not to do this. Blinken reiterated that this is a real red line for the US.
Finally, military-to-military communications is something that China is clearly just not interested in. The US has been asking about this for over a decade now, and there was a lot of discussion about this in the Obama Administration. But crisis communication in the Cold War didn’t really exist before the Cuban Missile Crisis. It might take something as bad as that near-disaster for the current Chinese leadership to change their minds and see this as in their interests.
Bill Bishop tweeted:
I hope the PRC side realizes that Biden is trying to stabilize things and take the hint, rather than just lecture in private too that everything is US’ fault. The message from G-7 leaders “don’t be the President that gets into a war with China” was important to Biden.
There’s a balance of being tough when it’s important, but also not going too far over your skis to build a global coalition against China.
It’s a little early to tell whether it’s paid off for the administration to have slow-rolled some stuff and made the 2023 Tiananmen Square announcement one paragraph instead of the five that it’s been for the past few years.
Nathaniel Sher: If we can keep US-China diplomacy boring, that might not be the worst thing — discussing tangible, low-hanging fruit in the relationship, not turning it into a conversation about whether the US is reverting to a policy of engagement.
Washington has given up the illusion of shaping China’s political and economic system, but we can still maintain communication and try to resolve specific issues in ways that advance US interests.
Qin may visit DC. US Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo or US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen may visit China. Xi may visit APEC in November. This is how US-China diplomacy should be. But the US shouldn’t give concessions to bring China to the negotiating table. That reinforces a pattern in Beijing so they can use dialogue as a bargaining chip.
The US is generally maintaining its competitive approach. There have been over 50 entity listings in the past month. If the US was really orchestrating a thaw for its own sake, in the interest of returning to the engagement policy, we would probably avoid doing things like that. In addition to a trilateral drone reconnaissance agreement with Taiwan and Japan, you can point to examples on all sides. I still think the administration is simultaneously competing and pursuing diplomacy, which has been their strategy from the beginning.
Next, we cover:
Michèle Flournoy on the correct endgame the US should pursue in its relations with China and why China is hesitant to establish military-to-military communication channels despite the ongoing risks
What the epic art surrounding Blinken in the Great Hall of the People says about China’s fraught twentieth century.