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US, China upbeat on ties after Blinken visit but few specifics

US, China upbeat on ties after Blinken visit but few specifics
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks during a press conference on January 30, 2023 in Jerusalem, Israel. (Photo by Amir Levy/Getty Images)

The US and China agreed to reopen talks after the highest-level visit to Beijing by an American official in five years, as the world’s largest economies seek to put frayed ties on more stable footing. 

“My hope and expectation is we’ll have better communications, better engagement going forward,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken told reporters in Beijing on Monday, hours after meeting President Xi Jinping. “I think we took a positive step in that direction over the last few days.”

The Chinese leader earlier had rare praise for Blinken’s two-day visit, saying it was “very good” that their countries made progress on stabilizing the relationship. He also cited “agreements on some specific issues,” but didn’t elaborate in comments shown on state TV.

But while the US diplomat’s visit may have helped get ties back on track, there was no sign that his meetings helped to resolve major differences on a range of issues that divide the two countries. There was no progress on restoring direct contacts between the two countries’ militaries, something the US has been eager for amid increasing tensions between forces around Taiwan and elsewhere. 

Taiwan security

The US and China also remain at odds over trade and intellectual-property disputes, human rights concerns, China’s support for Russia’s war in Ukraine and US limits on advanced technology.

While specific agreements were sparse, the upbeat words suggest that both sides are ready to turn back the clock to November, when Xi and US President Joe Biden pledged to improve relations during a meeting in Indonesia. That process was derailed in February after an alleged Chinese spy balloon floated through US airspace, causing Blinken to cancel a trip to Beijing and bringing US-China relations to their lowest point in decades.

Blinken’s meeting with Xi lays the groundwork for in-person talks between the two countries’ leaders later this year. On Sunday, Foreign Minister Qin Gang accepted an invitation to visit Washington, the State Department said, after seven and a half hours of talks with Blinken that both sides described as “productive” and “candid”. 

China has reasons to want to cool tensions. Beijing is facing an increasingly challenging geopolitical landscape, as the US blocks China’s access to high-tech chips to thwart its military progress and puts pressure on Xi to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Geopolitical strains are also deterring foreign investment as China’s economy faces domestic headwinds.

“The economy in China is not in great shape,” George Magnus, a research associate at Oxford University’s China Centre, told Bloomberg TV. “He wants to appeal and be seen to be constructive to Global South partners.”

Chinese Defense Minister Li Shangfu has declined to meet with his US counterpart Lloyd Austin until Washington lifts sanctions against him. The US and Chinese militaries recently had two confrontations between naval vessels and jets in the region, which the Pentagon characterized as “dangerous.”  

Xi-Biden meeting

In his meeting with Blinken, Wang Yi, China’s top foreign policy official blasted “illegal” US sanctions and put the blame for worsening ties on Washington, which he said had misunderstood China, according to China’s Foreign Ministry. The US called it a “candid and productive discussion” – diplomat-speak for a tough conversation. 

“Blinken sets the stage for future interactions between different levels of government, the business community and academia and research,” said Henry Wang, founder of the Center for China and Globalisation. “He’s brought a period of stabilisation, of easing tensions for at least the second half of the year.”

Blinken’s visit became one of the top ten trending topics on China’s Twitter-like Weibo after Xi’s comments on Monday afternoon, with related hashtags getting millions of views. Under photos of Xi shaking hands with Blinken, some users called for US-China relations to “return to the right track”.

That response was in contrast to the beginning of Blinken’s visit, when Weibo users pointed out the US official was greeted by red lines on the tarmac rather than a red carpet — a reference to China’s core concerns on Taiwan and other issues — and Chinese state media gave his trip muted coverage.

But after the Xi meeting, the official Xinhua news agency posted an item highlighting the lotus blossoms shown at the session, noting that the Chinese word for the flowers has the same pronunciation as the character for “cooperation”.

Blinken underlined that the US is seeking to “de-risk” its relationship with China but isn’t seeking to “de-couple” from its largest trading partner or contain its economic rise. He portrayed the limits the US has imposed on technology exports to China as narrowly focused on sensitive national security areas, not sweeping limits. 

Beijing so far doesn’t appear to have been convinced.

“We have no illusions about the challenges of managing this relationship,” Blinken said. “There are many issues on which we profoundly even vehemently disagree.” DM

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