US-China unlikely to find breakthrough during Blinken’s upcoming visit to Beijing

Ahmed Adel, Cairo-based geopolitics and political economy researcher

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken will try to prevent China from deepening its cooperation with Russia during his visit to Beijing. Although it will not succeed, Blinken hopes that perhaps other topics could de-escalate the trade war and lessen tensions over the Taiwan issue, and in this way, also incentivise Beijing’s move away from Moscow.

Politico reported that Blinken will visit China on February 5-6, where he will meet with his Chinese counterpart Qin Gang. This meeting was later confirmed by the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

It does raise the question why Blinken is seemingly desperate to meet with the Chinese foreign minister in Beijing. The US Secretary of State will likely try to divide Russia and China by raising the issue of Ukraine. Specifically, the US envoy may condemn the growing partnership between Moscow and Beijing, as it has done many times before, but offer incentives to move the Asian country away from Russia.

None-the-less, it is unlikely to work since China’s position is very firm and fully sympathises with Russia’s concerns about NATO’s encroachment and encirclement.

It is also speculated that during Blinken’s visit, the Americans would try to tactically reduce the extent of the trade war launched by former US president Donald Trump. Although the US are in public denial about it, policymakers in Washington are undoubtedly frustrated that the trade war against China and sanctions on Russia have failed to weaken them. In fact, this two-pronged American economic aggression has instead deepened trade ties and cooperation between the #2 (Russia) and #3 (Chinese) ranked military powers.

The visit will also relate to Taiwan. The US wants to find out if there is any possibility of a compromise or move following the victory of the staunchly “anti-China” Republicans in November’s midterm elections. They are even stepping up their military aid program to Taiwan and preparing for a visit by new House Speaker Kevin McCarthy. The visit is expected to take place in February or March.

Perhaps the Biden administration, along with Blinken, are trying to soften the future actions of the Republican-held House of Representatives. The problem for Washington is that the Chinese do not distinguish between Congress and the Office of the President. For Beijing – both offices are considered the official position of the US, even if it is contradictory.

It cannot be overlooked that Blinken’s visit will come before Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Moscow in March. For this reason, it is expected that the Secretary of State will try to conduct exploratory activities to find out what will happen when the Russian and Chinese leaders meet.

Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Wang Wenbin said on January 17 that Beijing hopes for the US to adopt a correct perception, stick to dialogue rather than confrontation, and pursue win-win results rather than a zero-sum game.

“It is hoped that the US can work with China to fully deliver on the important common understandings reached between the two heads of state, and bring China-US relations back to the track of sound and steady growth,” Wang stressed.

Politico said in a report that Blinken’s “much-anticipated” trip to Beijing is a follow-up to the meeting Chinese President Xi Jinping had with his US counterpart Joe Biden in Indonesia in November 2022. At the time, Biden pledged to “maintain open lines of communication” with China despite worsening bilateral tensions.

According to Politico, some US observers, like former deputy assistant secretary of state Susan Shirk, believe that the visit will test China’s “moderate” foreign and domestic policies to satisfy the US. However, such a notion is ridiculous and unhelpful in recovering bilateral ties as it once again signals to China to compromise on its values and instead adhere to Western liberalism.

In fact, it is the US who is more desperate to repair relations with China, especially considering their own economic problems. The problem Washington has is that it does not want to compromise on the tensions it has created for itself.

“The Biden administration needs to bring back economic confidence, so what the US needs to do at the moment is to make full use of engagement with China to fix the damaged supply chains and save its own economy which is certainly in trouble. For instance, they should cancel the restrictions and sanctions that target China’s development but in fact harm the US economy as well,” The Global Times reported.

As mentioned though, despite the US needing to overcome this impasse, it is also stubborn and uncompromising in its endeavour to limit Chinese influence and preserve a unipolar world system.  Biden has described China as the US’ only long-term competitor for global leadership and is orientating US foreign policy around this challenge, even whilst simultaneously attempting to contain Russia.

Although Blinken’s trip will also be the first by a top US official to China since Washington accused the country of perpetrating genocide against the Muslim Uyghurs, a charge rejected by Beijing, there is unlikely to be a major breakthrough during Blinken’s meetings with Chinese officials.

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