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Strategic intimacy: US seeks face-to-face rivalry with China

President Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping opened a new chapter in the superpower rivalry with their November meeting, embracing open lines of communication despite simmering tensions over competing geopolitical and economic interests.  

Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s trip to Beijing this coming week will spotlight how this strategy is holding firm almost five months later, despite unresolved issues and global conflicts threatening to break the relationship apart at any moment. 

“We believe that intense competition requires intense diplomacy on a range of issues, and in-depth, face-to-face diplomacy is particularly important to managing tensions,” a senior administration official told reporters in a call Friday, previewing Blinken’s trip.

“The Secretary will make clear that the United States intends to responsibly manage our competition with the PRC [People’s Republic of China].”  

The high-level visit follows Biden and Xi committing last year in Woodside, California, to communicate more regularly, between each other and with regular meetings between their senior officials.

A visit by Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen earlier this month was lauded by Chinese state media, which brushed over her rebuke of Beijing’s anti-competitive industrial practices in favor of promoting Yellen’s skillful use of chopsticks and Chinese menu choices. 

Blinken’s trip likely would not happen unless Xi saw the benefit in promoting photos of a top U.S. official in China.

“China is playing nice with the Biden administration now, which, the Biden administration is also playing nice with China,” said Dmitri Alperovitch, author of the upcoming book, “World on the Brink: How America Can Beat China in the Race for the 21st Century.”

However, Alperovitch said the good will may not last long. 

“China will revert back to its wolf-warrior diplomacy by the summer, when they realize that U.S. direct investment is not back.”

Xi is in a difficult position at home, with an economy still struggling to recover from COVID-19 lockdowns and worsened by the U.S. and other allies diversifying supply chains away from Chinese manufacturing. To avoid U.S. tariffs on Chinese goods — a threat highlighted this week by Biden pushing for new tariffs on Chinese steel — these businesses are relocating operations to southeast Asia or Mexico. 

Beijing is fighting back by pouring incentives into manufacturing of green-technology: electric vehicles, solar panels and batteries. The initiative has spurred economic growth but has drawn warnings from the U.S. and Europe about “over-capacity,” harming domestic business by flooding their markets with cheaper goods. 

“We have and will continue to emphasize that our concern about overcapacity is not animated by anti-China sentiment or a desire to decouple,” Secretary Yellen said in Beijing last week. “Rather, it is driven by a desire to prevent global economic dislocation and move toward a healthy economic relationship with China.”

But American businesses and other interest groups are not abandoning China yet. Xi received a standing ovation during a dinner with U.S. business leaders when visiting San Francisco in November, and in March he welcomed a delegation of U.S. business and academic heads to Beijing. 

“President Xi Jinping emphasized that over the past couple of years, the China-U.S. relationship experienced some setbacks and serious challenges, from which lessons should be learned,” the Chinese Foreign Ministry wrote in a summary of the March meetings. 

”The most important understanding he reached with President Biden at last year’s San Francisco meeting was on the need to stabilize and improve China-U.S. relations.”

But Xi is also looking to diversify, in part by deepening ties with Europe. In March, he introduced up to two-weeks visa free travel for Europeans, as well as hosting Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, the presumptive next secretary-general of NATO, and German Chancellor Olaf Shulz in successive visits.

“I think the Chinese leaders are also aware that this is an election year, there’s only so much that President Biden can do,” said Yawei Liu, senior advisor on China at The Carter Center. 

“For China, I think it understands to what extent the US-China relationship can be stabilized, so they’re doing everything they can to hopefully create a gap between the U.S. and its allies…and China is one of the most important markets to Germany,” he added.

“It’s a very complicated relationship, but I think the China side has become more and more realistic, and realistic in the sense that, at least in 2024, the U.S.-China relationship is going to be rocky.”

Blinken, in his visit to Beijing, will bring a host of U.S. grievances.

Top of the list is China’s support for Russia’s war in Ukraine. While Washington has relied on Beijing to try and rein in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s threats to use nuclear weapons, the administration is increasingly calling out China’s support for Putin’s army.

The administration last week began raising alarm that China’s export to Russia of non-lethal military assistance is becoming a red line for the U.S. — declaring it akin to how China feels about Taiwan.   

“The point we’re trying to make to Chinese interlocutors is that this is our strategic interest, this is the most central issue,” said Deputy Secretary of State Kurt Campbell, during a town hall in early April hosted by the National Committee on U.S-China Relations.  

“China is involving themselves in a way that they think we don’t completely understand — we do understand what’s going on,” he added. 

“We’ve told China directly, if this continues, it will have an impact on the U.S.-China relationship. We will not sit by and say everything is fine if Russia’s offensives continue and they gain territory in Ukraine.” 

And Congress is on a warpath to ban one of China’s popular and profitable exports, TikTok, as part of House Speaker Mike Johnson’s (R-La.) national security supplemental package headed for a vote, likely on Saturday. Biden had earlier said if such legislation reached his desk, he would sign it. The bill also gives TikTok’s Chinese parent company ByteDance the option of selling off the social media company. 

Republicans and Democrats share a rare unanimity that China is an all-around threat to America’s security and prosperity. 

On Tuesday, bipartisan lawmakers on the House select committee on China unveiled an investigation accusing Beijing of fueling America’s opioid epidemic by incentivizing companies to produce chemicals for the production of fentanyl. 

“Congress needs to act alongside President Biden in getting the CCP to take immediate action to stop the fentanyl crisis,” said Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-Ill.), the ranking Democrat on the committee. “The American people are demanding it. There must be accountability.”

Xi committed to Biden in Woodside to step up efforts to address China’s export of precursor chemicals used to make fentanyl. Blinken will be joined on his trip by the State Department’s top official on counter narcotics, Assistant Secretary Todd Robinson. 

“We’ll underscore why we believe it’s in China’s interest to cooperate in ending the flow of chemical precursors to the United States,” the senior administration official told reporters.

And the U.S. has raised concern over what it criticizes as China’s provocative and destabilizing naval maneuvers in the South and East China Sea – threatening U.S.-treaty allies Japan and the Philippines.

The administration has put a priority focus on restarting military-to-military communications with Beijing to avoid potential conflicts in these waters – channels that were severed in August 2022 when then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin spoke with China’s defense minister on Tuesday, in the first top-level engagement in nearly two years. 

Biden has angered Beijing by promising to defend Taiwan in case of a Chinese invasion, as well as calling Xi a dictator. However, Liu, of the Carter Center, said the Biden administration’s constant reassurances of adhering to the one-China policy – which does not recognize Taiwan as independent – has helped bring Beijing back to the phone and table.

A major meeting between U.S. and Chinese military and naval officials took place on April 5, shortly after the latest phone call between Biden and Xi, their first since the November meeting. 

“In China, every time — whether it’s a meeting or a phone call — they always say ‘the U.S. has reaffirmed its one China policy.’ To China, that’s the most important thing,” said Liu.

Campbell, who previously served as Biden’s top official on Asia policy at the National Security Council, said recent developments were promising.

“These are all indications that both sides, I think for now, are determined to keep U.S.-China relations on a steady, stable path,” he said at the town hall.

Source: The Hill

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