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Blinken Meets Chinese Leaders in Shanghai and Beijing

US meets China, and the outcome is predictable.

Diplomatic visits to China have not been fruitful for the Biden administration thus far. Secretary of State Antony Blinken gave it the old college try again – but little has changed. Secretary Blinken visited Shanghai, China’s financial center, and Beijing, the nation’s capital, from April 24  to 26. There was no shortage of topics crucial to successful US foreign policy and national security. The relationship between the US and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has been on shaky ground since the Biden administration took office. Meetings began in Shanghai and concluded in Beijing. But was any progress made?

Blinken Searches for Progress

Blinken’s trip was promoted at the State Department as an opportunity to build on the progress made to improve the atmosphere between the two nations during China’s President Xi Jinping’s trip to San Francisco in November of last year. One positive outcome of the San Francisco meeting between Xi and President Biden was re-establishing US-PRC military-to-military meetings. Those meetings were discontinued following China’s sending a spy balloon over the Continental US.

During the stopover in Shanghai, the US chief diplomat met with Shanghai Party Secretary Chen Jining. According to the meeting readout issued by State Department Spokesman Matthew Miller, the conversation was a “Constructive and candid exchange” centering on the US concerns about “PRC trade policies and non-market economic practices.” Blinken pointed out that the US “seeks a healthy economic competition with the PRC,” but there must be “a level playing field for US workers and firms operating in China.”

The PRC foreign ministry’s take on the issue of China’s maintaining a fair and level playing field for trade between the two nations is, of course, self-serving and predictable. “China carries out trade and economic cooperation in accordance with market principles, firmly supports the multilateral trade regime, and fully abides by WTO [World Trade Organization] rules,” the Chinese Communist Party’s Foreign Ministry Spokesman Wang Wenbin told reporters. “We hope the US will respect the principle of fair competition, observe WTO rules too,” Wang said. When listening to the Chinese talk about such concepts as “economic cooperation” and “market principles,” understand what those words mean to them. Simply put, China establishes a trade environment where they win, you lose. If you want to do business in the PRC, your intellectual property is their intellectual property.

In Beijing, Blinken met with China’s President Xi Jinping, Foreign Minister Wang Yi, and Minister of Public Security Wang Xiaohong. The discussion picked up on themes similar to those covered in Shanghai. However, as the State Department Readout described:

“The Secretary pressed for continued progress in implementing the leaders’ Woodside Summit commitments on key issues, including advancing counternarcotics cooperation to disrupt the global flow of synthetic drugs – including fentanyl and their precursor chemicals – into the United States, enhancing military-to-military communication to avoid miscalculation and conflict, and launching talks on managing the risk and safety challenges posed by advanced forms of artificial intelligence.”

What was missing from the conversation was persuading Xi to stop the flood of military-age Chinese illegal aliens streaming across the US southern border – over 24,000 in the first seven months of FY2024 – more than all of FY2023. To his credit, Blinken did not shy away from asserting the US’s firm position that China was responsible for “maintaining peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait.” He also reaffirmed the US one-China policy. Blinken expressed US concerns about the PRC’s aggressive naval engagements in the South China Sea and stressed the necessity of maintaining freedom of navigation in the region. The meetings closed with the standard rhetoric about the importance of keeping “open lines of communication at all times,” and the need to continue “high-level diplomacy and interaction.”

PRC Viewed the Meeting Different

The PRC readout on the meeting between Blinken and Xi had all the trappings of a charm offensive, but below the nuanced surface was the same old Chinese Communist Party (CCP) double-speak. Xi reiterated much of the boilerplate narrative he’s said before. Comments like “We live in an interdependent world and rise and fall together” give the impression the US and PRC are bosom buddies. When China catches a cold, the US sneezes.

Xi dipped into his book of wise Chinese sayings and came up with “Passengers in the same boat should help each other,” and “No progress means regress.” Who is he trying to kid? The US isn’t going to help the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) subjugate the islands belonging to the Philippines or Vietnam in the South China Sea. Nor is the US going to assist the PLAN in harassing Taiwan. “China is committed to non-alliance, and the US should not create small blocs,” Xi cautioned. In other words, the US should stop participating in NATO and dissolve multilateral relationships in the Indo-Pacific.

Those relationships keep the PRC in check. It’s never a bad thing for the US to engage enemies in dialogue, keeping in mind they are America’s top threat. China will not be persuaded to change its aggressive behavior if it perceives the US as weak or indecisive. Whether Secretary Blinken’s messages were persuasive, however, is debatable.

The views expressed are those of the author and not of any other affiliate.

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