US Secretary of State Antony Blinken will visit China on 5-6 February. This will be his first visit to China since becoming state secretary, and he will be the highest-ranking US official to visit China in the more than two years since the Biden administration took office.
After the US started a trade war against China in 2018, it has continued to exert pressure on China in the political, security, technology, public opinion and even economic and trade fields, and China has from time to time implemented countermeasures against the US. China-US relations have been on a downward spiral ever since, and competition and even confrontation have become its dominant theme.
Against this backdrop, the world is watching to see what effect Blinken’s visit to China can have. But judging from the recent performance of China-US relations, it is difficult to be optimistic.
China’s ambassador to the WTO Li Chenggang lambasted the US as “a unilateral bully, a rule breaker, and a supply chain disruptor”.
Latest escalation in rhetoric
At a World Trade Organization (WTO) meeting on 27 January, Chinese and US representatives sparred over the WTO’s arbitration procedures and practices.
China’s ambassador to the WTO Li Chenggang lambasted the US as “a unilateral bully, a rule breaker, and a supply chain disruptor”. Meanwhile, deputy US trade representative Maria Pagan accused China of imposing “illegal unilateral retaliatory measures” on US exports and denounced the WTO as an organisation that “serves to shield China’s non-market policies and practices”.
Reuters described this heated exchange as “the latest escalation of rhetoric between the two trade rivals” in a 27 January report.
Quoting people familiar with the matter, Bloomberg reported on 28 January that after negotiations concluded on 27 January, Japan and the Netherlands are set to join the US in limiting China’s access to advanced semiconductor manufacturing equipment. Dutch multinational corporation ASML and Japan’s Nikon Corp and Tokyo Electron will implement the export control rules adopted by the US in October 2022. Clearly, the US is escalating its plans to curtail China’s technological abilities by roping in allies.
US official visit to Taiwan
On the sensitive issue of Taiwan, US President Joe Biden signed the Fiscal Year 2023 National Defense Authorization Act into law in late December 2022, which authorises up to US$10 billion in military aid to Taiwan.
Furthermore, a US Navy integrated supply ship transited through the Taiwan Strait on 25 January and sailed just four nautical miles from the island at one point, encroaching on the 12 nautical miles of territorial water. China naturally sees this move as the US hollowing out the one-China policy and interfering with China’s internal affairs.
He [General Mike Minihan, head of Air Mobility Command] urged the troops to intensify their training, increase combat readiness, be “ready to fight and win inside the first island chain”, and to deter “and, if required, defeat” China.
In a leaked memo, General Mike Minihan, head of Air Mobility Command, claimed that China will take military action against Taiwan in 2025. He urged the troops to intensify their training, increase combat readiness, be “ready to fight and win inside the first island chain”, and to deter “and, if required, defeat” China.
Although the authenticity of the memo has been verified by the US Air Force, a defence department official said that Minihan’s comments are not representative of the department’s view on China. However, the official acknowledged that “China is the pacing challenge for the Department of Defense”.
Previously, several notable US intelligence and military officials predicted that China will take back Taiwan by force in 2027, and the US Congress has expressed bipartisan support for Taiwan.
Former US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan last August prompted the People’s Liberation Army to fire missiles across Taiwan airspace and carry out military exercises around Taiwan. Mainland China will surely respond vehemently to newly appointed US House Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s planned visit to Taiwan in April.
Furthermore, the House of Representatives’ new House Select Committee on China recently said that it will hold hearings in Taiwan to discuss issues such as arms sales; this would set off another significant storm in China-US relations.
Indeed, Blinken will find it difficult to achieve substantial results from his visit to China amid these troubles.
US media has revealed the four topics that Blinken wants to discuss with China: the war in Ukraine, China’s nuclear arsenal, boosting bilateral dialogue, and the release of US citizens detained in China.
Amid the war in Ukraine, the US supports Ukraine and is trying to prevent China from helping Russia. Meanwhile, China emphasises neutrality and peace talks, and wants to maintain normal trade relations with Russia. China would not give up this strategic partner, nor would it join in the Western sanctions against Russia. However, China and the US could reach a consensus to object to the expansion of war, and in particular the use of nuclear weapons.
On China’s nuclear arsenal, the US hopes to bring China into the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START). But it is highly unlikely that China would agree to join the discussions on reducing nuclear weapons as it has continually stressed that its nuclear warheads are far fewer than the US’s and Russia’s.
Even if China agrees to resume dialogue with the US on security, climate issues and anti-drug efforts, they would come to a halt once McCarthy visits Taiwan or US lawmakers hold hearings in Taiwan.
Both China and the US should work towards promoting bilateral dialogue, and Blinken might ask China to lift the eight retaliatory measures against the US following Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan. However, China strongly objects to the US’s insistence on playing the Taiwan card. Even if China agrees to resume dialogue with the US on security, climate issues and anti-drug efforts, they would come to a halt once McCarthy visits Taiwan or US lawmakers hold hearings in Taiwan.
As for releasing detained US citizens, China would reiterate that the matter is under the rule of law and they would not interfere with judicial sentencing.
Indeed, Blinken’s visit to China is paved with thorns. Improving China-US relations will prove difficult, but the high-level bilateral exchanges are still a positive sign. In fact, as the two largest economies in the world, the interests of China and the US have long been deeply intertwined. Even if US politicians make calls for decoupling from China, in the short term the US cannot abandon the Chinese market and its products. Both sides still need to work together on major international issues.
Amid the all-out tussling between China and the US, Blinken’s visit to China at least shows that the top leaders on both sides are keen to manage bilateral relations and keep it under control. So, even if Blinken’s visit does not lead to practical results, the visit itself is noteworthy.
This article was first published in Lianhe Zaobao as “布林肯访华难以改善中美关系”.
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