Blinken blinkered in Beijing

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By John J. Metzler, May 5, 2024

Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited China for whirlwind discussions with the People’s Republic political grandees in Shanghai and Beijing with the hope of “stabilizing the relationship” between both countries. So into the Beijing/ Washington political turbulence Sec. Blinken flew, to smooth the Sino/American political rivalry, especially over China’s military assertiveness towards the South China Sea, Taiwan, the Ukraine war and naturally two-way trade.

“It was clear coming in that the relationship was at a point of instability,” Blinken told a press conference. “And both sides recognized the need to work to stabilize it.”

Among the key concerns, “shared by a growing number of countries” remains China’s “provocative actions to the Taiwan Strait, as well as in the South and East China Seas.” Sec. Blinken stated, “I discussed the PRC’s dangerous actions in the South China Sea, including against routine Philippine maintenance operations… Freedom of navigation and commerce in these water-ways is not only critical to the Philippines, but to the U.S. and to every other nation in the Indo-Pacific and indeed around the world.”

Significantly the Secretary reaffirmed the U.S.’s “one China” policy and stressed the critical importance of maintaining peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait.” He was referring to menacing flights of Chinese military aircraft which circle the self-ruled democratic island of Taiwan, as well as Beijing’s baseless territorial claims to islands, shoals and waters in the South China Sea.

Just before shaking U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s hand, the Chinese made a rare leak to social media of Xi Jinping saying, “When will he leave?” / Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs

On the human rights front, Secretary Blinken “raised concerns about the erosion of Hong Kong’s autonomy and democratic institution” as well as “ongoing human rights abuses in Xinjiang and Tibet.” Was it virtue signaling that the Secretary and his entourage visited a Tibetan restaurant while in the Chinese capital?

Commercial ties between the U.S./PRC are huge but still massively favor China through longstanding trade deficits with the United States. While American exports to China have importantly increased, the trade imbalance last year still reached a whopping $279 billion. To narrow the deficit Blinken visited a famous Beijing store Li Pi Records; he purchased the recent Taylor Swift album “Midnights” which the Secretary called a successful American export!

A point Blinken made to skeptical Chinese trade officials was to clarify the U.S. stance towards China, namely that the U.S. is not seeking to “contain” China economically. He added “We are for de-risking and diversifying. That means investing in our own capacities and in secure, resilient supply chains.”

Turning to the war in Ukraine, Secretary Blinken warned his Chinese counterparts, over “our serious concern about the PRC providing components that are powering Russia’s brutal war of aggression against Ukraine. China is the top supplier of machine tools, microelectronics, nitrocellulose, which is critical to making munitions and rocket propellants, and other dual-use items.” Washington is watching carefully.

Later discussions with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi were described as “candid, substantive and constructive,” in other words not exactly warm and friendly. Wang Yi, warned the U.S. Secretary that the United States should respect China’s “red lines,” namely the PRC’s territorial claim over democratic Taiwan as well as “introducing measures to contain China.”

The Chinese communist leader Xi Jinping using the grandiose setting of Beijing’s Great Hall of the People, acted as a latter-day Emperor in greeting Blinken advising his American visitor that China and the U.S. should be partners, not rivals with both countries seeking “mutual success.” Xi warned against “vicious competition” between Beijing and Washington over political flashpoints such as Taiwan and the South China Sea.

Related: Xi signals contempt, shows Blinken who is the new hegemon, April 30, 2024

One area of cooperation remains education but the balance tilts largely towards Chinese students coming to America. Blinken asserted, “While there are more than 290,000 Chinese students in the United States, there are fewer than 900 Americans studying here in China, and that’s a significant drop from a decade ago when we had about 15,000 Americans studying here.” Naturally the COVID-19 pandemic emanating from the Chinese city of Wuhan, closed the country to foreign visitors and students.

But China has indeed focused on American education, setting up the dubious “Confucius Institutes” on many campuses and emerging as a major donor to U.S. Universities. According to a survey by the Wall Street Journal, China made $2.3 billion in contracts and grants to over 200 American Colleges between 2012 and 2024.

The rivalry between China and the United States is rooted in profoundly different political systems not to mention serious trade imbalances and enduring strategic competition in East Asia, and the developing world. It’s all very complicated.

John J. Metzler is a United Nations correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He is the author of Divided Dynamism the Diplomacy of Separated Nations: Germany, Korea, China (2014). [See pre-2011 Archives]