Washington and Beijing in a Vicious Circle

Blinken’s negotiations with Chinese leadership were a challenging but necessary task in order to halt the deteriorating relations between the two countries. The situation had escalated to the point of direct “military friction” at sea and in the air, indicating the potential for a military confrontation in the absence of communication and coordination.

Beijing had adopted a tough stance regarding the resumption of communication and coordination with Washington. This was a result of the latter’s failure to fulfill the commitments made during the summit between the two presidents in Bali, held in November 2022.

Originally scheduled for February, Blinken’s visit to Beijing was postponed due to the infamous balloon incident. This incident further fueled tensions and led to an exchange of accusations between the two sides. The Chinese government denied the American allegations of sending the balloon for spying purposes, which subsequently led to its destruction by the United States.

The operation resulted in the severance of over a hundred communication channels between the two countries, rendering security and military coordination virtually impossible, particularly in the South China Sea where both US and Chinese naval vessels were present.

The continuous Chinese military maneuvers in the region, along with intensive air raids conducted by Chinese warplanes in what Washington considers international waters, are highly concerning. These actions are seen as a violation of the territorial waters of Taiwan. This situation poses a significant risk and increases the likelihood of an imminent war.

Since the balloon incident and Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Moscow in March, Beijing has adopted a more assertive approach in dealing with the US administration. This includes rejecting repeated US calls for dialogue.

Recently, Beijing has taken several steps to send strong messages to Washington, including hosting prominent figures such as Elon Musk and Bill Gates, the Chairman of the Mercedes Group, due to their economic significance and their potential influence on American decision-making.

There have been discussions about a potential cooperation agreement between Beijing and Cuba, which the United States interpreted as an attempt by Beijing to establish closer ties and potentially engage in espionage, thereby posing a threat to its national security. Additionally, there have been Western accusations that Beijing has signed contracts with former Western pilots who previously worked with NATO.

China has also imposed sanctions on the American company Micron. This indicates that China has shifted from a reactive approach to one of action and confrontation, as it has achieved a significant degree of self-sufficiency in electronic chip manufacturing.

President Biden extended an invitation to his Chinese counterpart for a virtual summit, but there was no response from the Chinese side. This lack of response was also evident when the US Secretary of Defense requested a meeting with his Chinese counterpart on the sidelines of the Shangri-La Security Dialogue Forum, which China did not accept. China stipulated that the US sanctions imposed on the Chinese Minister of Defense must be lifted in order for the meeting to take place. The US argued that it had no issue meeting with someone who had previously been subjected to sanctions, especially since those sanctions were imposed before the individual assumed the role of Minister of Defense.

Despite these attempts at dialogue, Beijing appeared more assertive and rejected the American invitation. Consequently, the US Secretary of Defense decided to approach his Chinese counterpart directly and shook hands with him during the summit’s opening, in an apparent effort by Washington to break the ice and alleviate the escalating tensions between the two countries.

During this period, despite America’s calls for dialogue, Washington continued to seek actions that destabilized security and stability in the South China Sea region. As a result, the G7 Summit in Hiroshima conveyed several negative messages to Beijing, urging China to unequivocally condemn the Russian war in Ukraine.

Beijing firmly rejected these messages and lodged a “strong protest” with the host country of the summit, Japan, considering all demands as interference in its internal affairs. China emphasized its unwillingness to discuss these matters with any external party and made it clear that such interference would not be tolerated or accepted.

The US also aimed to strengthen its cooperation with Seoul, promising to protect it with nuclear capabilities and urging an increase in its military budget, similar to its approach with Japan. While this move may positively impact US weapon sales to these countries, it simultaneously heightens tensions in China’s neighborhood and fuels the nuclear arms race in the region.

Washington has persisted in its efforts to “activate the Indian role” due to India’s status as a genuine competitor to Beijing. The ongoing border disputes between India and China have occasionally escalated into military clashes. Moreover, India’s membership in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad), which includes the United States, Japan, India, and Australia, further adds to its significance in countering China.

Furthermore, Washington has signed security treaties with the Philippines and conducted joint military exercises with several countries in the region. The explicit objective of these activities is to confront China and impede its development. These actions have intensified tensions between Washington and Beijing.

During the G7 summit, President Biden mentioned the prospect of resuming dialogue between the two countries in the coming days. However, some viewed this as one of Biden’s familiar slips, as he has occasionally struggled to differentiate between Beijing and London.

However, it was later revealed that a secret visit was made by CIA Director William Burns to Beijing in May, aimed at reestablishing communication channels between China and the United States, particularly in the military, security, and political realms. It appears that Burns’ visit was based on Blinken’s visit, with certain Chinese conditions being apparent. These conditions include an American apology for the balloon incident and the return of its wreckage to Beijing.

Therefore, President Biden’s statement was made prior to Blinken’s visit, suggesting that the Chinese government seemed to be unaware of the balloon issue, effectively exonerating Beijing from the accusations against it.

Blinken’s visit received limited attention from the Chinese media, and the exact details of his agenda were not disclosed. The progression from one level to a higher level in Blinken’s meetings with Chinese officials appeared to be contingent on the fulfillment of certain Chinese demands.

Following a seven-and-a-half-hour meeting between the foreign ministers of the United States and China, it became evident that a new mechanism was needed to implement the agreements that would be reached between the two countries. During the meeting, Blinken engaged with Wang Yi, the chief Chinese foreign affairs official who also held the position of Chinese foreign minister.

Wang Yi emphasized that the choice for the United States was between dialogue and conflict. Beijing was prepared for escalation if the US sought it, but it also expressed openness to establishing balanced relations and avoiding clashes. However, Beijing insisted on the importance of respecting its sovereignty and refraining from interfering in its internal affairs.

Blinken’s visit to Beijing culminated in a meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping. President Xi affirmed that China did not seek competition or confrontation with the US. Beijing maintained its right to have its sovereignty respected, just as it recognized Washington’s commitment to the one-China principle.

President Xi indicated that these meetings had laid the foundation for communication and cooperation. As a result, it was agreed that the Chinese foreign minister would visit the United States in the near future.

Blinken’s visit appeared to have achieved some success in several “lesser issues” between the two countries, such as cooperation on climate change. President Biden announced that climate envoy John Kerry would soon be visiting China. The United States had previously accused China of being one of the world’s biggest polluters. However, China argued that pollution should be assessed on a per capita basis, considering its large population, rather than comparing it to countries with much smaller populations.

The two sides also reached agreements on various matters, including the granting of travel visas for students between the two countries and increasing the number of direct flights. Additionally, discussions took place regarding the presence of detained Americans in China, as claimed by Washington.

Despite these successes, there are significant and deep differences between the two countries, particularly concerning China’s stance on the war in Ukraine. The US perceives China’s position as supportive of Moscow and calls for Beijing to condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Similarly, there are numerous contentious issues that contribute to the strained relationship between the United States and China. These include the American position on Taiwan, the treatment of Uighurs, the situation in Hong Kong, concerns about democracy and human rights in China, China’s perceived attempts to undermine the current international order, and a host of other controversial topics. Given the conflicting interests between the two countries, these issues appear extremely challenging to resolve.

Shortly after Blinken’s departure from Beijing to London to attend a conference in support of Ukraine, President Biden made surprising remarks during a fundraising campaign for his party in California, referring to the Chinese president as a “dictator.” These statements were both shocking and contradictory to the US administration’s stated commitment to establishing positive relations with Beijing. Such irresponsible and provocative remarks drew strong criticism from China.

It seems that Biden may have intended to appeal to his supporters by taking a firm stance against China, prioritizing personal and party interests over the overarching national interest of the United States. However, Beijing will not accept such behavior, viewing it as detrimental to the prospects of establishing good relations.

All available data suggests that the relationship between the two countries is currently at its lowest point. The highest aspiration is to halt this deterioration and prevent it from escalating into a military conflict that would have catastrophic consequences for the entire world.

Shaher Al Shaher
Shaher Al Shaher
Associate Professor School of International Studies Sun Yat-Sen University/ China Professor at the Faculty of Political Science - University of Damascus (previously)