US-China: the Xi-Blinken meeting in Beijing

Both top officials acknowledged that critical issues between the US and China remain unresolved.
20 June 2023

Now, the Trump-era focus of the US to decouple from China is being phased out by a new concept. (Photo by Kevin Dietsch / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA / Getty Images via AFP)

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• Blinken is the first US Secretary of State to visit China in 5 years.
• Progress does not come from just one meeting, he said.
• Pressure from China to stop “suppressing” the country’s tech expansion.

Diplomatic channels between China and the US have mostly dried up, given relations between the superpowers have steadily deteriorated over two successive administrations. Although both nations have held the world’s most crucial bilateral relationship for decades, the US and China have been locked in a stalemate for years.

Former US President Donald Trump ushered in a more aggressive era in US-China relations. On the other hand, President Biden has primarily maintained his predecessor’s approach to Beijing, albeit with a more equanimous tone and an embrace of multilateralism. But the Biden administration has been doing more than just “suppressing” China’s rise.

Now, the Trump-era focus, the US’ decoupling from China, is being phased out by a new concept. Biden has expressed the idea that his administration is shifting its policy on China from decoupling to de-risking. So, on an early Sunday morning on June 18, 2023, Anthony Blinken arrived in Beijing – the first US Secretary of State visit to China in five years. 

The mission remained the same – to try to cool the rising tensions that have set many worldwide on edge.

The closely watched two-day visit involved Blinken meeting with Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang on Sunday, followed by the Director of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Central Committee Foreign Affairs Commission Office, Wang Yi, on Monday.

What caught global attention though was his meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping to wrap up his visit.

“President Biden asked me to travel to Beijing because he believes that the US and China have an obligation and responsibility to manage our relationship. The US is committed to doing that. It’s in the interest of the US, in the interests of China, and in the interest of the world,” Blinked said in his welcome note at the Chinese capital on Monday.

While Blinken’s talks with senior Chinese officials were seen as a critical litmus test for whether the two governments could stop relations from continuing to plummet at a time of lingering distrust, his 30-minute meeting with Xi was mainly to echo his administration’s desire for “de-risking and diversifying” its economic relationships with China, rather than “decoupling.”

What did Xi and Blinken discuss?

Blinken and Xi held talks at the Great Hall of the People, the grand building on the west side of Tiananmen Square, where the latter often receives dignitaries.

“Mr. Secretary, welcome to China. Director Wang Yi and State Councilor Qin Gang have met or held talks with you at length, and generally speaking, the two sides have had candid [inaudible] discussions,” Xi said.

On a relatively friendly note, at the top of the meeting, Xi praised the US and China for progressing in the right direction. “The Chinese side has made our decision clear, and the two sides have agreed to follow through with the common understandings President Biden and I had reached in Bali. The two sides have also made progress and agreed on specific issues. This is very good,” Xi noted.

Xi and Biden at Bali - the beginnings of a thaw in Us China relations?

Xi and Biden at Bali – the beginnings of a thaw?

In context, China and the US, the world’s two largest economies, have been under growing pressure from other nations to tamp down their governments’ increasingly contentious stances toward each other. The two countries have opposing positions on towering issues:

  • The status of Taiwan, the de facto independent island that Beijing claims as its territory.
  • The Chinese military’s growing footprint.
  • The development of advanced technologies.
  • Russia’s war in Ukraine.
  • Human rights.

report by the South China Morning Post (SCMP) indicated that Xi, in what appeared to be a conciliatory tone, said China hoped for the return of “healthy and stable” relations with the US and that he believed the two countries could “overcome all difficulties and find the right way to get along.”

US china relations have several sticking points.

How far will the US go to mend relations with China?

Xi even urged Washington to adopt a “rational and pragmatic attitude” when dealing with Beijing, put their positive statements into action, and work towards improving US-China ties. He even called for Blinken to contribute more positively to stabilizing China-US relations. The Chinese leader believes that since China respects the interests of the US and will not challenge or replace the latter, he expects the same from the US. 

“Similarly, the United States must also respect China and not harm China’s legitimate rights and interests. Neither party can shape the other according to its wishes, let alone deprive the other of its legitimate right to development,” Xi said, according to SCMP

Blinken and Xi - a meeting that represents progress in US China relations?

Blinken and Xi – a meeting that represents progress in US China relations? Source: Leah MILLIS / POOL / AFP

Acknowledging that his visit to China had been a step in the right direction, Blinken reiterated that Washington and Beijing recognized the need to stabilize the relationship. However, it was still far from solving every problem between the two countries. “Progress is hard, it takes time, and it’s not the product of one visit, one trip, one conversation,” he added.

He also anticipates visits by other senior US officials to China “over the coming weeks.” So far, US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen and Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo have indicated their hope to travel to China this year.  

While it remains unclear whether high-level diplomacy can change the trajectory of relations, US officials say they hope, at the very least, that such talks will allow each side to see more clearly the intentions of the other and avert miscalculations.

Some harsh reality for the US

While the meeting with Xi was a gentle end-note to Blinken’s visit, the US top official also heard some harsh words over his two-day visit. In his meeting with Wang on Monday morning, the CCP Central Foreign Affairs Office director delivered a blunt message during a three-hour session at the Diaoyutai State guesthouse, blaming Washington for recent tensions.

According to the Chinese government, Wang said Washington should cooperate with Beijing instead of “hyping” the “China threat theory.” He even repeated that Washington must lift sanctions on China and stop suppressing the country’s technological development.

Wang also accused the US of “recklessly interfering in China’s internal affairs” on issues such as Taiwan, which the United States supplies with weapons.

While American politicians have tried to portray the Biden administration as soft on China, Biden and his aides have enacted tough, sweeping commercial policies such as export controls to limit China’s growth in strategic sectors, notably semiconductors. The US has even strengthened military cooperation with other countries across Asia.