Blinken’s visit: What it was, and what it wasn’t

June 21, 2023 09:59
China’s top diplomat Wang Yi meets with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Beijing. Photo: Xinhua

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited China over the weekend of June 17 - 18.

His visit saw him engage in extensive talks with Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang, China’s top diplomat Wang Yi, and - eventually - President Xi Jinping himself.

There has been much discussion concerning both the motivations and implications of this rather historic visit. After all, Sino-American relations had, in the words of Qin, descended to unprecedented nadirs since the re-establishment of relations between the two countries, at the height of the Cold War. Countries around the world are - rightfully - concerned that the acrimonious relations between Beijing and Washington are threatening to drag the world into a repeat of the four-decade-long Cold War that had defined the post-WW2 world order.

This is something that neither the Americans nor the Chinese, per the words of their respective representatives, would wish to see. More fraught and vitriolic confrontations and clashes between the two largest economic national powers in the world, would only result in a more fractious global order - one that strains to deliver upon international public goods (indirectly amplifying the Kindleberger Trap), that struggles to keep peace amidst prospectively unbridled escalation in violence (the classic Thucydides Trap narrative), and that ultimately forces third-party states to choose sides, often to the detriment of their own interests.

Let’s get one thing straight. Blinken’s visit did not resolve the many structural, underlying issues that have come to the forefront of this incredibly significant bilateral relationship. As I have noted on my comments on Al-Jazeera, Nikkei, and the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs, China and the US are locked in a mutual threat perception trap. China sees America as bent on containing its rise, thwarting its economic and technological growth, and instigating and forming a compact with ‘allies’ to accomplish such pernicious agenda.

The US, on the other hand, sees China as a revisionist power that will eventually displace the US as the global hegemon. Neither side sees much value in maintaining the façade pretense that Sino-American relations can be ‘win-win’ in the long run. The ‘Bide your time, hide your strength’ mantra that Deng Xiaoping had introduced, has given way in China to a more entrenched and widely shared belief that the East has already risen, and that the West is due for irrevocable decline. In Washington, parliamentarians are jostling with one another over whoever can produce the most outrageously anti-China comments. These animosities are not going away anytime soon.

As a result of such engrained perceptions, then, the two ‘trains’ that have been set into motion by the political establishments of China and the US, will not be easily halted. The Chinese train of increasing self-reliance and quasi-autarkic pursuit of trade and resource security is propelled by a primal fear that American sanctions and blockade would kneecap the country’s economy, and thus its political order. The American train of ‘moralised’ containment and thinly veiled attempts at undermining China’s overarching national strength, is driven by its elite’s being convinced that now is America’s last chance at preventing China’s displacement of the US as the no. 1 power. Blinken’s numerous meetings did not alter the fundamentals of these perceptions.

However, his visit did play a crucial role in doing two things. Firstly, in decelerating the seemingly inevitable showdown and kicking the can down the road. Through pledging an ‘acknowledgment’ of China’s baseline concerns over Taiwan and - presumably - technological containment and encirclement, Blinken went to Beijing with the intention of communicating to the Chinese establishment, Washington is by no means bent on, ready for, or keen on pursuing imminent head-on conflict with China. Furthermore, the visit also put an effective stop to the crescendo of D.C. hawks seeking to out-maneuver one another in terms of bellicosity towards China - the Biden administration wanted to signal loudly and clearly, that the next year and a half would see his team pursue a more cautious China policy, in the run-up to his potential re-election.

Secondly, from the Chinese perspective, the visit served as a valuable means for the highest levels of government in China to communicate with the fourth-most-senior, and arguably second-most-powerful official within the American political system. There have been some bizarre commentaries by select Hong Kong figures who suggested that Blinken was a ‘nobody’ - and hence his being received at the airport by a ‘nobody’.

This statement is wrong on multiple levels - Blinken was received a Vice-Ministerial level official (senior official) at the airport; despite the lack of a red carpet, it was clear that he was accorded the usual level of decorum and formalities that one would expect a cabinet member of a prominent counterpart nation to be accorded. Furthermore, Blinken is himself an incredibly powerful - de jure and de facto - player within the American leadership. To frame him as an inconsequential and unimportant envoy, reflects a rather tragic dearth of understanding of American politics.

Through the seven-hour talks between Qin Gang and Antony Blinken, Beijing thus came to acquire a more refined and proximate close-up view on where the Biden administration stands on core issues such as Taiwan, South China Sea, and other regions of dispute within Chinese borders. This, in turn, would prove crucial in helping the Chinese recalibrate their bargaining positions, operational protocol, and modus vivendi with the US.

It has also offered China the instrumental opening to reclaim and clarify clearly its narrative concerning its ties with the US: in openly repudiating the suggestion that China and the US ought to be locked in inevitable competition, Beijing has signalled to the world that its relations with Washington must not, and will not go further south - a pivotal step in reigniting the confidence and trust of foreign investors who have been deterred by the simmering geopolitical tensions over the past year or so.

It's imperative that we get to recognise what Blinken’s visit was, and what it was not.

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Assistant Professor, HKU