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Blinken visit unlikely to fix US-China differences, but Russia a possible area of progress: analysts

  • Tariffs, human rights and climate change among contentious items America’s top diplomat expected to discuss in Beijing

  • Bilateral differences over Taiwan present sharpest areas of disagreement amid talk of possible cross-strait conflict

By Robert Delaney in Washington and Khushboo Razdan in New York

January 31, 2023

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks in Jerusalem, Israel, on Monday. Blinken is expected to visit Chinese officials in Beijing in February. Photo: EPA-EFE

Washington and Beijing are too far apart on most outstanding bilateral issues for their relations to improve appreciably when US Secretary of State Antony Blinken meets his Chinese counterparts this weekend, with Russia likely to be the only front for possible progress, US analysts said on Monday.

Allegations of Chinese support for Russia’s war against Ukraine, tariffs, human rights, US export restrictions and cooperation on climate change are all poised to appear on the agenda, each with significant obstacles to potential breakthroughs.

Jude Blanchette, Freeman Chair in China Studies at the Washington-based think tank Centre for Strategic and International Studies, stressed there should not be “many expectations” of any “significant breakthroughs” from the trip. But he added this was not a “bad thing” given how far the relationship had deteriorated over the last five years.

Blinken’s visit was mainly about “re-establishing the undergirding of the relationship and putting in place some procedures and mechanisms to be able to manage through the tensions”, Blanchette said.

However, differences over Taiwan present the sharpest areas of disagreement owing to assessments of a possible armed conflict across the Taiwan Strait, making Blinken’s trip crucial in offsetting military rhetoric with diplomacy, said Michael Swaine, a senior fellow at the Quincy Institute, a Washington think tank.

“In a larger context of growing distrust over the overall motives of the other side in which China sees the US as supposedly trying to weaken and contain China [and] the US sees China supposedly trying to achieve dominance in Asia … both sides have increasingly relied on deterrence – particularly military deterrence – over forms of reassurance,” Swaine said.

“This has created a vicious cycle that is generating incipient arms racing … and a growing sense of the inevitability of conflict over one or the other of these issues, and particularly Taiwan,” he added. “Taiwan by far is the most important because of its historical nationalist relevance for China, and the long-standing formal nature of US support for Taiwan’s security.”

The latest example of attention-grabbing military assessments of the cross-strait situation was a memo by Mike Minihan, the head of US Air Mobility Command, leaked to NBC News. Minihan predicted the US and China would be at war in two years.

The memo, sent last week to Minihan’s colleagues, advised that Chinese President Xi Jinping might use any political upheaval in the US around the 2024 election as an opportunity to retake Taiwan, according to NBC.

Other recent warnings include one by Admiral Michael Gilday, chief of US naval operations, who in October warned of the possibility of a mainland Chinese invasion of Taiwan within “a 2022 window or potentially a 2023 window”.

Blinken’s trip will be the latest in a series of high-level engagements between Beijing officials and those of US President Joe Biden’s administration. Xi and Biden pledged in November during their first face-to-face meeting as heads of state to de-escalate tensions that have mounted steadily in recent years.

Blanchette said Beijing would likely push the Biden administration to say something publicly that appears more closely aligned with America’s long-standing one-China policy.

Traditionally the US has maintained “strategic ambiguity” towards Taiwan, a policy of being intentionally vague about whether it would come to the defence of the self-ruled island. Beijing claims Taiwan as part of its territory and has not renounced the use of force to achieve reunification.

Blanchette pointed to a “pretty fraught year ahead” citing a possible trip this year to Taiwan by US House Speaker Kevin McCarthy and, just over a year from now, a “very consequential election” in Taiwan. He said analysts were already framing the election as an “inherently destabilising event for cross-strait” relations.

A visit to Taiwan last August by McCarthy’s predecessor, Nancy Pelosi, prompted China to conduct unprecedented military drills around the self-governed island and suspend cooperation with the US on a wide range of issues including climate change and the opioid crisis.

Biden last year intensified efforts to hobble China’s semiconductor industry with the passage of the Chips and Science Act. The legislation aims to bolster American semiconductor research, development, and production through federal subsidies to cut China out of microchip supply chains.

Blanchette said it was clear Beijing would enter the dialogue with Blinken aiming to slow down “some of the US actions in the tech space”.

While some have expected progress in cooperation on climate change due to increasing droughts and flooding in both countries, Michael Davidson, assistant professor at the University of California San Diego, said in a discussion with Swaine that China and the US had contrasting approaches to how climate figures into bilateral negotiations.

“The US side has pretty consistently viewed climate change as a silo, an area that could be continued in cooperation even as the rest of the relationship is becoming more contentious,” said Davidson, who previously served as the US-China climate policy coordinator for the environmental non-profit Natural Resources Defence Council.

Beijing, meanwhile, sees climate talks as “more of a holistic relationship”, he said. “And so the Chinese don’t see this as an area that can just be siloed off from the rest of the relationship, and those are very fundamentally different perspectives on the bilateral relationship.”

If there is scope for optimism in the coming talks, it would likely be on Russia, said Swaine. While Scott Kennedy, a senior adviser also at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, said he believed China was unlikely to pivot away from Russia, pointing to “normal” economic activity and correspondence with US allies like India, he also cited indications that the government was facing some criticism domestically.

Blinken is expected to press his counterparts to address whether Chinese companies are providing non-lethal assistance to Russia’s war in Ukraine, a conflict that Beijing has already expressed reservations about after pledging a “no-limits” partnership before Moscow’s invasion.

Blinken and other US officials have stated repeatedly that they see no evidence of the Chinese government furnishing weapons or direct military assistance to the Kremlin.

“Here you have a problem on the Chinese side, between what the Chinese government as a central government might say it’s doing and what certain entities below the government might be doing vis-à-vis the Russians,” Swaine said.

“If they’re observing and supportive of certain types of sanctions against the Russians, they should, in fact, do that,” he added. “I don’t think it will be a hostile conversation on this topic, because the United States certainly wants to keep the Chinese, at the very least, where they are now.”

Kennedy explained that during a visit last year to China he learned some analysts in the country regarded Beijing’s policy towards Ukraine and Russia as a “strategic blunder”.

As for China’s “motive” for its discussions with Blinken, Kennedy said the country’s weakened economy following extreme shifts in its stringent zero-Covid policy was the “impetus” behind Xi’s efforts to try and stabilise Sino-US ties.

Blanchette said Xi was “fighting fires on a number of different fronts right now”, with scepticism over whether after putting out “a few of these fires” the government would return to the status quo and “a more assertive wolf-warrior diplomacy”.


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