By Alex Willemyns
Nothing can stop U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s trip to Beijing this time. Not the Chinese military’s “unsafe” moves in the South China Sea. Not a war of words over Chinese fentanyl exports. And not even the revelations of a multibillion-dollar Chinese spy base in Cuba.
In a dramatic about-face over the weekend, the Biden administration reversed its denials of a Wall Street Journal report about the spy base to instead say it was not even news: The spy base, it said, had in fact been known to U.S. intelligence since the Trump administration.
That only raised more questions about the initial denials.
John Kirby, spokesman for the White House’s National Security Council, on Monday flat-out denied that the repudiation of the story last week was intended to not derail Blinken’s coming trip to China, as the spy-balloon saga did with his late trip cancellation in February.
Kirby told reporters at the White House that the denials were due to the verb forms used in last week’s reports. The headlines should have used the past tense, he said, not the present.
Still, he denied that the White House had been caught in hamfisted cover-up of untimely news, and queried the reason for the leak.
“It’s shameful that somebody – or somebodies – somehow think it’s okay to put this kind of information in the public bloodstream,” Kirby said. “We were as forthcoming as we should have been and could have been in the moment, and remain that way right now.”
We need to talk
Blinken’s trip is yet to be officially announced by the State Department, but media reports suggest he will arrive in Beijing on Sunday and meet top officials from China’s government during an event on Monday.
The visit comes after almost a year of strained relations between Washington and Beijing, which began with then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan in August and has since been punctuated by an near unending list of disputes between the two major world powers, including tech export bans and the rise in near-accidents at sea.
Amid those complaints, some have queried why the White House is trying so hard now for a thaw, having even “held back human rights-related sanctions, export controls and other sensitive actions to try to limit damage to the U.S.-China relationship,” per one report.
It’s all part of the precarious high-wire act of managing the extensive economic ties and military tensions in what President Joe Biden has called “the most important relationship” that the United States has.
“The Biden administration is trying to walk a fine line,” Stephen Walt, a professor of international affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School, told Radio Free Asia, noting that the White House’s main aim was to build a “balancing coalition to keep China from gaining hegemony in Asia.”
“But they also want to cooperate with Beijing in other areas and avoid a complete economic or political rupture” that would damage both sides, he said. “A thaw with Beijing will also reassure our Asian allies, who are sometimes spooked when the risk of war seems too high.”
Both of those latter aims, Walt explained, require dialogue, which China has shut off since Blinken’s nixed February trip. But that also means the U.S. side stands to gain more from resumed talks.
“For the United States, restarting regular dialogue and clarifying some points of agreement would be enough,” he said. “China faces a tougher task: ‘success’ probably means getting the United States to back away from some of its recent measures, and that is unlikely to happen.”
To thaw or not to thaw
Some, including Bonnie Glaser, managing director of the Indo-Pacific Program at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, don’t even see Blinken’s trip amid mounting tensions as the pursuit of a thaw.
“Rather, it is seeking to responsibly manage competition with China, which is impossible to do in the absence of dialogue,” Glaser told RFA. “Blinken likely hopes to restore mechanisms of dialogue that have been suspended, especially the military dialogues, and to reinvigorate cooperation on global issues.”
“I expect he will cover the full range of issues in the relationship, including human rights, actions against Chinese companies, the war in Ukraine, as well as North Korea, Iran, and Taiwan,” she said.
While the United States and China may be locked in a “strategic competition” to influence world politics in their favor, they are also economically intertwined in a way the United States and Soviet Union never were during the Cold War, said Richard Harknett, director of the University of Cincinnat’s School of Public and International Affairs.
“Competition is not inevitably conflict, and neither country’s interests are advanced through direct conflict/war,” Harknett told RFA. “Just talking at high levels is an advancement as it reduces the chances for misperceptions to lead to unintended incidents.”
He said that could only be achieved by restoring dialogue to create “some basic rules of the road” that benefit both sides long-term.
“This is establishing ground rules for the next decades,” he said.
In the shorter term, said Kharis Templeman, the director of the Project on Taiwan in the Indo-Pacific Region at Stanford University, bilateral dialogue is also “useful for clarifying U.S. interests and capabilities” to Beijing, even if most issues “won’t be resolved simply by talking.”
That will put the United States in a better position in its competition with China, he said, and could help avoid a conflict. Beyond that, it “doesn’t cost much to send Blinken to Beijing,” Templeman argued.
“It’s also useful because the U.S. side can learn more about the CCP leadership,” he added, referring to the Chinese Communist Party, and there is value in seeing “who’s advising Xi Jinping, how Xi spends his time, what issues they want to talk about and avoid, and so forth.”
“The primary way that hot conflicts happen is via misperception of the other side’s interests, commitments and capabilities,” he said.
In the end, the many points of dispute between the United States and China might also be seen as more of a reason for a meeting between their top diplomats than an impediment to it, said Carl Thayer, emeritus professor at the Australian Defense Force Academy in Canberra.
“It is precisely because of the growing list of issues affecting bilateral relations that there is increased urgency for dialogue to address these disputes and stabilize relations,” Thayer said, and to break a cycle of “both putting the blame on the other for the failure of dialogue.”
Besides allowing both sides to “take stock of the main irritants in bilateral relations and how they can be managed,” the trip could lay the groundwork for another face-to-face at the ASEAN summit in Jakarta in September or G-20 Summit in New Delhi in December, he added.
“It is likely both China and the United States will find it in their interest to schedule a meeting between Xi and Biden before the end of the year, when the regional diplomatic calendar of events provides a convenient opportunity for them to meet,” Thayer said.