by Matthew Teasdale
Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with Chinese President Xi Jinping in June to shore up relations with China and, hopefully, move toward dialogue and away from confrontation in the Indo-Pacific. Following a dual track strategy, Blinken paired words of cooperation and the possibility of a Biden-Xi summit with a slew of enhanced security partnerships after visits to South Korea, Japan, the Philippines and strategically important island nations. With Chinese leaders increasingly aware that their economy is fragile and their expansionist policy is viewed by neighbors as threatening, the time is ripe to show Beijing an opening to addressing regional tensions aside from military adventures.
After a month-long tour of East Asia, U.S. officials successfully negotiated a collection of partnerships to counter China’s regional ambitions. The United States, Philippines and Japan signed an agreement to combine maritime exercises and coast guards as well as coordinate information in response to economic coercion. Secretary Blinken signed a security pact with Papua New Guinea that gave the U.S. military “unimpeded access” to station troops and operate six strategically located ports. The Indian Prime Minister even paid a visit to the White House after stepping up cooperation in trade and arms sales. President Joe Biden similarly hosted Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak to announce the purchase of three nuclear-powered submarines and the development of new submarine designs under the AUKUS agreement.
Simultaneously, Blinken tempered the Sino-American competition. He affirmed that the United States is not trying to contain China economically and that Washington only took “narrowly focused” actions on semiconductor technology in response to Chinese abuses of its access to such technologies. Blinken and his counterpart, top diplomat Wang Yi, agreed to work together to address shared transnational challenges, such as climate change, global macroeconomic stability, food security, public health and counter-narcotics. Wang expressed his immediate priority to put consensus between the two heads of state into practice and proposed the principles of mutual respect, peaceful coexistence and win-win cooperation as guidance.
Flowery diplomatic language aside, China accepted such soft talk followed by a big stick because its global strategy and economy is slumping. Chinese neutrality toward — and subtle support for — Russia’s invasion of Ukraine soured relations between Brussels and Beijing. Even French President Emmanuel Macron’s recent rapprochement with Xi has looked a little hollow. China’s expansionist policies in the South China Sea and elsewhere have led South Korea, Japan, India and many pacific island nations to seek American support. The Chinese economy, Beijing’s usual ace in the hole, hit a wall after the country lifted pandemic restrictions. Double-digit growth rates are slipping to optimistic three and five percent estimates.
The prospect of a non-proliferation agreement with China still has a long way to go. President Xi rebuffed Blinken’s proposal to reopen military communication channels that were closed after former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan. Defense Minister Li Shangfu and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin both attended the 20th Shangri-La dialogue summit in June but reportedly did not speak to one another. Considering recent near-collisions between Chinese and American aircraft over the Taiwanese strait, Beijing’s decision to refrain from these discussions is disappointing. Nonetheless, Blinken’s visit to China marks an important step that builds confidence, trust and global norms between strategic competitors.
Dialogue and diplomacy are part and parcel to global strategy. Blinken’s effort to open a path to productive relations shows that there is more to American policy than confrontation. Mutual security also plays an important role in strategy — as recently signed security agreements show — but without a hotline between competitors, minor tussles risk devolving into wider brawls. U.S. officials are reportedly discussing more secretarial visits as well as the possibility of a Biden-Xi summit. Let’s hope that Blinken’s visit, though not groundbreaking, paves the way for sensibility and foresight as Sino-American interests and values veer farther away from one another.