Expectations for Beijing and Washington to improve relations after a tough year are low.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken is scheduled to visit China on Sunday as the two countries attempt to move forward with rapprochement after an agitated year.
Antony Blinken was scheduled to visit China in February. However, his trip was postponed after the US shot down a so-called “Chinese spy balloon” discovered flying over US territory and allegedly gathering intelligence on domestic military sites.
Blinken is the highest-ranking US official to visit China in 2019 and the first secretary of state to visit since Mike Pompeo’s visit in 2018 during then-President Donald Trump’s trade war with Beijing. Antony Blinken will likely meet with Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang or top diplomat Wang Yi.
It is unclear whether Antony Blinken will meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping, as Pompeo did in June 2018, but it would be significant given that Xi is scheduled to meet Microsoft founder Bill Gates in Beijing on Friday.
According to Daniel Kritenbrink, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, the main focus of Antony Blinken trip will be re-establishing “communication channels” to “address misperceptions and prevent miscalculation,” while also ensuring that competition between rival superpowers does not devolve into “conflict.”
These are most likely not empty statements from the US State Department.
Last month, a Chinese fighter jet nearly collided with a US surveillance plane flying over international airspace in the South China Sea, prompting the US Pacific Command to accuse the Chinese pilot of being “unnecessarily aggressive.”
The incident was just the latest between the two countries, whose relationship deteriorated during the Trump administration and has continued to deteriorate under President Joe Biden.
A senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, Washington and Beijing, Ryan Hass, may be ready for a thaw. Antony Blinken trip is the “first stage of an exploratory process” by the two sides to see if they can improve their relationship.
“Neither President Biden nor President Xi benefits from the perception of a dangerous escalation in US-China relations.” At the same time, neither wants to appear to be softening their stance toward the other,” Hass told Al Jazeera.
“During the visit, both sides will be exploring this space.” Can we chart a course for the relationship that balances competition with open lines of communication? “We simply do not know,” Hass explained.
“However, this is why diplomats exist.” To investigate, test, and investigate non-hostile approaches to complex challenges. “Only time will tell,” he says.
The visit follows a phone call between Antony Blinken and Foreign Minister Qin and a meeting in Beijing between top US and Chinese officials. US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan met with senior Chinese diplomat Wang Yi in Vienna in May for “honest talks.”
On the other hand, Beijing rejected a meeting between US and Chinese military officials at the Shangri-La security forum in Singapore last month, ostensibly because Biden refused to lift sanctions imposed on China’s Minister of Defense Li Shangfu in 2018.
According to Qinduo Xu, a former journalist and senior fellow at the Pangoal Institution, a governance-focused think tank in Beijing, the two sides may also be testing the waters for a possible meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Biden later this year at the 2023 APEC Summit in the United States.
“Beijing would say there is little they can gain from meeting Antony Blinken, but I think people are still looking at any possibility or chance they may have to stabilize the relationship,” Xu said.
“Yes, it is bad,” he admitted, “but if we can do something to keep it from getting worse, that would be acceptable at least to Beijing.”
However, there are numerous sticking points.
The Wall Street Journal reported earlier this week that China was planning to build a new spy base in Cuba, just 145 kilometers (90 miles) from the US mainland – though US officials disputed the report, calling it an “ongoing issue.”
Antony Blinken will almost certainly bring up issues such as Americans detained in China and the illegal flow of fentanyl from China to the United States, which other diplomats have raised in recent meetings.
Beijing, for its part, will be eager to discuss US tariffs on Chinese goods and sanctions against high-ranking officials, as well as the growing number of Chinese companies barred from doing business with the US or placed on the US Department of Commerce’s trade-restrictive “Entity List.”
Beijing and Washington have also accused each other of confrontational behavior in the South and East China Seas, as well as the Taiwan Strait, raising the possibility of a collision between the US and China, according to Xu.
Meanwhile, according to Andy Mok, a senior research fellow at the Center for China and Globalization, they must deal with low levels of mutual trust.
Foreign Minister Qin has demanded that the United States respect “China’s sovereignty, security, and developmental interests” while urging the US to stop interfering in China’s interests “under the guise of competition,” according to Mok.
Moreover, because of “recent American economic coercion and escalators provocations toward China,” he said, “expectations for the visit remain modest.”
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