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US looks to thaw relations with China, starting with picking up the phone

The fraught U.S.-China relationship is unlikely to improve upon the visit of Secretary of State Antony Blinken to the country this week, with Washington and Beijing in a clash for global influence, on opposing sides of Russia’s war in Ukraine, and confronting a series of unexpected crises.

U.S. officials are setting low expectations for the two-day visit beginning Sunday. But they are hoping to walk away with at least one commitment: When the U.S. phones China, they pick up. 

Blinken “wants to establish communication channels that are open and empowered — to discuss important challenges, address misperceptions and prevent miscalculation — so as to manage competition that does not veer into conflict,” Daniel Kritenbrink, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, said in a briefing call with reporters Wednesday. 

“This is not a visit in which I would anticipate a long list of deliverables coming out of it.”

The Biden administration has spoken with frustration over instances where Chinese officials have failed to answer a phone call from Washington, saying that direct lines of communication are necessary to cut through crises and tamp down high tensions before they spiral into conflict.

National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, in a speech earlier this month on managing nuclear weapons risk, criticized China as failing to show a willingness “to compartmentalize strategic stability from broader issues in the relationship.”  

This was on full display in February when Chinese officials held back from answering a call from Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin in the wake of the U.S. shooting down a Chinese spy balloon. The secretary was rejected again this month when China’s defense minister refused to meet with him at a defense summit in Singapore.

“I think Beijing feels less need to establish better communications than the U.S. does,” said Jonah Blank of the RAND Corporation, and who served as South and Southeast Asia adviser on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee when President Biden was chairman.

“Chinese officials are quite able to reach their American counterparts when they wish to do so, but the reverse isn’t always true – a mid-level Party official has less authority than a State Department or Pentagon one about whether to return a phone call.”

Yet China has shown openness to other meetings with Biden officials, focused on issues that “are substantive and targeted,” said Patricia Kim, an expert on U.S.-China relations and fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Foreign Policy Center for East Asia Policy Studies.

This includes talks with U.S. officials like Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo and Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry.

“What I’ve heard from visiting Chinese experts and delegations, is that the top leaders in Beijing were not interested in engaging with the top leadership of the Biden administration. They felt like it wasn’t going to change anything in the relationship,” Kim said.

“But I think it was right for the Biden administration to make it clear that Beijing shouldn’t dictate which of its officials that it wants to meet with, or which select issues to engage on.”

A ‘testy rivalry’

Still, Blinken’s trip to China signals more willingness on the part of Beijing to engage on crisis communication channels — even as public rhetoric remains heated. 

“I don’t see why relations would get markedly worse in the near term — or markedly better,” said Blank. 

“The relationship right now might be described as a testy rivalry, and that’s likely to be the case for years to come.”

Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang, in a phone call Wednesday morning, pointed to the U.S. need to “take concrete actions… stabilize the relationship from further deterioration and bring it back to the track of healthy and stable development,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said in a press briefing.

Blinken’s visit is, in one way, a capstone to months of groundwork laid by the Biden administration to stabilize communication between Washington and Beijing that had broken down with the discovery of the Chinese spy balloon, the catalyst for canceling the secretary’s trip at the time.

While Biden engaged the military and spent millions of dollars to destroy the balloon – along with at least three other suspicious, floating objects — he later referred to the whole episode as “silly” when predicting a new thaw in relations with Beijing during the Group of Seven summit in Japan last month. 

Those remarks came with the knowledge that CIA Director Bill Burns had succeeded in carrying out a clandestine meeting with Chinese intelligence officials in May. Following that, Sullivan held an unannounced meeting in Vienna with Wang Yi, the Chinese Communist Party’s top official for foreign affairs.

But over the past few months, the U.S. and China have clashed publicly over a visit in April by Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen to California to meet with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), air and naval confrontations in the South China Sea and Taiwan Strait, and the revelation last week of a Chinese spying base in Cuba, which the White House was forced to acknowledge has been present since 2019. 

Congress assessing China threat

Blinken’s travel to China is being closely watched on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers from both sides of the aisle have identified the Chinese Communist Party as an overall threat to the U.S.

“The CCP’s recent moves towards the United States – from spy balloons to surveillance bases – cannot go unnoticed or unchallenged,” Rep. Young Kim (R-Calif.), chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on the Indo-Pacific said in a statement after Kritenbrink postponed an appearance because of travel to the region. 

“I will continue to press for answers and transparency from this administration, so we can hold authoritarian regimes accountable and project strength on the world stage.”

And Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-Ill.), ranking member of the House Select Committee on U.S. competition with China, struck a defiant tone in a comment to The Hill on his expectations for Blinken’s visit. 

“Relations between countries improve not just when they engage, but when that engagement produces results. Secretary Blinken’s trip comes at a time in which the CCP has become more aggressive towards its neighbors, more hostile towards businesses operating in the PRC, and more authoritarian towards their own people,” he said.

“I hope the Secretary’s message to General Secretary Xi is one of strength and conviction, and one that articulates our interests in promoting healthy competition between our countries, not an escalating conflict.”

Blinken’s arrival in Beijing will mark his first time in China as secretary of State and the first visit by a Cabinet official since 2019.

The genesis of his travel came following a meeting between Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of November’s G-20 summit in Bali — marking the last time the two leaders spoke. 

A successful trip by Blinken could set up the potential for another face-to-face between Biden and Xi on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit set to take place in San Francisco this November, said Kim, of the Brookings Institution.

“As much as Chinese officials and Chinese media have cast doubt on the United States sincerity in diplomatically engaging with China, there’s also anxiety about the speed at which U.S.-China relations has deteriorated and a desire to stop the relationship from really veering into catastrophe,” she said.

Tackling climate change, preventing the next pandemic and finding an off-ramp to Russia’s war in Ukraine and dealing with the reverberating consequences are some of the larger issues to be discussed during the visit.

All those topics will be at the forefront of Blinken’s meetings in Beijing, even as officials play down progress. 

“We know efforts to shape or reform China, over several decades have failed, and we expect China to be around, to be a major player on the world stage for the rest of our lifetimes,” said Kurt Campbell, deputy assistant to the president and coordinator for Indo-Pacific affairs, and who was on the briefing call with Kritebrink. 

“As the competition continues, the PRC will take provocative steps – from the Taiwan Strait to Cuba – and we will push back. But intense competition requires intense diplomacy.” 

Source: The Hill

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