UNITED STATES: US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s first trip to China on Sunday comes almost five months after a significant rift in relations over a Chinese spy balloon.
The balloon, which China says was used to monitor the weather, floated across the US before being shot down by American military jets, forcing an abrupt cancellation of his first trip.
Blinken’s tour includes discussions with China’s top foreign policy authorities, but there is no indication yet whether he will also see Chinese President Xi Jinping, who appeared with Microsoft founder Bill Gates in Beijing on Friday.
The two global superpowers have a long list of topics that worry them, including high-profile conflicts as well as potential areas of cooperation.
Here are three important topics that should be at the top of the agenda:
Blinken’s visit is primarily intended to resume any kind of diplomatic interaction. Senior US officials’ meeting in Vienna, Austria, last month served as an early icebreaker.
Blinken, though, is the highest-ranking Biden administration official to visit China, and this is the first time a US secretary of state has been to Beijing since October 2018.
In a pre-trip briefing, Deputy Assistant to the President and Coordinator for Indo-Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell said that now is a good moment to start talking again since doing so in and of itself lowers the chance of conflict.
“We can’t let the disagreements that might divide us stand in the way of moving forward on the global priorities that require us all to work together,” he said. However, the Chinese reaction to the Blinken visit has been a little chilly.
Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang reportedly informed Blinken that “it is very clear who is to blame” for the recent deterioration in relations during a call on Wednesday night, according to the official Chinese account of the conversation.
“The United States should respect China’s concerns, stop interfering in China’s internal affairs, and stop undermining China’s sovereignty, security, and development interests in the name of competition,” Qin reportedly stated.
The United States has downplayed any substantial announcements coming out of this trip. It appears that the only “deliverable” from the discussions will be that they ever took place, to use diplomatic jargon.
Daniel J. Kritenbrink, the senior East Asia diplomat for the State Department, warned against expecting any sort of revolution or change in how the two countries interact.
Both parties could advance if the meeting results in additional communication between US and Chinese officials.
Relaxing trade disputes
President Joe Biden’s relations with China began on a tough note, in part due to his reluctance to undo trade policies put in place by his predecessor, Donald Trump. This includes import levies on Chinese-made goods totaling billions of dollars.
Biden has tightened limits on US computer chip shipments to China in some areas in an effort to preserve US technological leadership in the most cutting-edge technology. In retaliation, China imposed its own ban on computer memory chips produced by Micron, the biggest US producer.
Campbell acknowledged China’s worries but added that the US would defend and explain what it has done thus far and what might come next.
If the two countries are going to compete fiercely in computer technology, there may be more room for cooperation in the illegal drug market.
The US wants to restrict the export of chemical components made in China that are used to create fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that is several times more potent than heroin.
In the previous seven years, the number of fentanyl-related drug overdose deaths in the US has more than tripled.
“This is an absolutely critical and urgent issue for the United States,” stated Kritenbrink, but it also comes with its own set of challenges.
There were reports after the balloon incident that China was considering shipping weaponry to Russia, where it would be deployed right away in the conflict with Ukraine.
US government officials have since distanced themselves from these claims, eliminating what would have been a particularly sensitive topic between the two countries that had the potential to turn the crisis between Russia and Ukraine into a proxy war between the US and China.
However, Blinken is likely to reiterate the Vienna-issued warnings to the Chinese that providing Russia with military and financial support would have dire repercussions.
Over the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea, US and Chinese warships have been engaged in a high-stakes game of chicken. China claims ownership of the region, but the US maintains that the waters are international.
Blinken and his diplomatic team have stated that their objective is to “de-risk” the tensions during this visit and that rekindled contact is a good place to start.
Achieving more might be a challenge for the time being, and Biden may find it harder to get more widespread cooperation as the 2024 presidential elections draw near and Washington’s anti-China rhetoric is set to intensify.
A successful outcome from this tour for all parties could be as simple as creating communication channels that prevent an incident from leading to military conflict.