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US claims to have made position clear during Blinken's Beijing visit

Both sides profess to be “satisfied” a first step has been taken on communications.

By Chris Taylor for RFA

June 20, 2023

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken briefs journalists at the end of his trip in Beijing, Monday, June 19, 2023.

The mood was cautiously buoyant in both the U.S. and China – as well as Taiwan – that U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s trip to China was the right move in “stabilizing” relations between the two superpowers that have grown increasingly precarious in recent months.

The State Department issued a statement saying the two sides had “candid, substantive, and constructive discussions on key priorities in the bilateral relationship and on a range of global and regional issues.”

“The Secretary emphasized the importance of maintaining open channels of communication across the full range of issues to reduce the risk of miscalculation. He made clear that while we will compete vigorously, the United States will responsibly manage that competition so that the relationship does not veer into conflict,” department spokesperson Matthew Miller said.

In a digital press briefing on Tuesday, Daniel J. Kritenbrink, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs and Sarah Beran, Special Assistant to the President of the United States and U.S. National Security Council Senior Director for China and Taiwan Affairs, broadly described Blinken’s trip as having been successful in terms of reestablishing lines of communication and managing competition.

Chinese President Xi Jinping, center, talks to U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, second left, as Wang Yi, third right, Chinese Communist Party's foreign policy chief, listens during a meeting at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, Monday, June 19, 2023. Credit: Wang Ye/Xinhua via AP

During his meeting with Blinken, Xi Jinping rejected the term “strategic competition,” according to Chinese-language sources, saying, “Great power competition does not conform to the trend of the times.”

But as Wen-Ti Sung, a nonresident fellow with the Atlantic Council's Global China Hub, sessional lecturer in the Australian National University’s College of Asia and the Pacific and a member of the Australian Centre on China in the World, wrote in a tweet, the framing of the great power relations as non-competitive is “long-standing,” dating back to 2012.

“If China were to change, and to accept [the] U.S.' preferred framing, it would symbolize China compromising,” he wrote, saying that would only be likely to happen when Xi met his equal, President Biden.

Sung told RFA that, symbolically, the meeting was important.

“The visuals of Xi-Blinken meeting will embolden Chinese diplomats to more proactively engage with the U.S. and possibly show a little more flexibility,” he said.

Sung said that the fact that Xi had met with a U.S. envoy, someone lower than himself, showed that China was in a “gracious mood” and that would give Chinese bureaucrats “political cover” to extend olive branches and “make occasional compromises necessary to repair relations.”

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken meets with Chinese President Xi Jinping in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, Monday, June 19, 2023. Credit: Leah Millis/Pool Photo via AP

Another area of concern is China’s apparent disdain for reestablishing military-to-military communications, which Blinken said the U.S. wants in order to avoid any miscalculations in the Taiwan Strait or the South China Sea turning into outright conflict.

But both sides expressed satisfaction with the outcome of Blinken’s visit, even if there was little in the way of substantive agreement on specifics beyond returning to the agreement reached by Xi and President Joe Biden at a summit in Bali last November.

Exiled Tiananmen Square student leader Wu’er Kaixi, speaking to RFA in Taiwan, said it was possible that military-to-military exchanges were a “no go” for Beijing due to the non-negotiable nature of its claims on Taiwan. He said Beijing may also be reluctant to appear to be in too much of a hurry to offer concessions to Blinken for fear of looking weak and caving into Washington based on one visit by a U.S. Secretary of State.

Wu’er Kaixi described Blinken’s statements on the U.S. position on the One-China policy and on Taiwan independence, as “new definitions of old policies, an effort to regain control of [the] narrative.”

“I think it was a success, the U.S. playing their game on China’s home turf,” he said, adding that China cannot appear too willing to admit it has overstepped in a game of bluff and lost.

“The fact is that the whole wolf warrior diplomacy thing was a mistake and I think Blinken took that message to Beijing whether China likes it or not.

“Beijing probably realizes that it’s up against a firmer, more no-nonsense U.S. administration than any it has had to deal with before,” he added, while cautioning it may not signal an end to provocative military maneuvers in the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea.

A Chinese J-16 fighter jet carries out a maneuver that the U.S. military said was “unnecessarily aggressive” near an American reconnaissance plane flying above contested waters in the South China Sea, May 26, 2023. Credit: U.S military handout

State tabloid Global Times reported Monday that H-6K bombers of the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) Air Force had carried out nighttime sorties encircling Taiwan, without specifying when it had occurred and with no official confirmation by Taiwan at the time.

According to Sung, the fact that Xi called for cooperation rather than strategic competition signaled that “Beijing is confident enough to reject American overtures [on competition] but also that the Chinese government can engage the U.S. government more now because Xi himself reaffirmed the need for cooperation.”

Sung added, “Chances are [that] functional issues such as people-to-people exchanges between students, scholars, and businesspeople will see a slow thaw, but it may not take long until tensions return again.

“Chinese military activities in the East and South China Sea as well as Taiwan Strait will likely go on unabated,” said Sung.

“All it takes is another near-miss between Chinese and American warships or military jets to turn up the default temperature of US-China rhetoric up again. Like it or not, strategic competition is here to stay.”

Edited by Mike Firn.


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