The press in both the US and China seem to be doing their best in applying porcine maquillage to the meeting between Anthony Blinken and China’s foreign minister Qin Gang yesterday. The session ran to seven and a half hours, longer than planned, which is seen as a good sign since neither party emerged with visible bruises.
The appearance of momentum continued, with Blinken meeting with China’s top foreign official Wang Yi today.1 Blinken may see Xi Jinpeng later today, which is not something to which Blinken would seem to be entitled merely because he flew across the ocean. However, Xi recently met with Bill Gates, so not meeting with Blinken in light of that would come off as a snub. So Xi has wound up creating the conditions where he sort of has to see Blinken…or did so deliberately so as to have an excuse for this gesture?
But the Chinese and US readouts of the meeting tell a much less cheery story, and we were talking only very muted optimism to begin with.
The Chinese like expansive readouts, so the fact that theirs was very short by Chinese standards, particularly in light of the length of the meeting and didn’t include any of Blinken’s positions, suggests the Chinese didn’t want to dignify them by reciting them.
I’ll go through the Chinese one first. These Chinese statements often come off as trying to sound lofty and principled but instead seem preachy, assuming seniority when that’s not a given. Perhaps that is just an artifact of translation. From the Ministry of Foreign Affairs website:
Qin pointed out that the China-U.S. relationship is at the lowest point since its establishment. This does not serve the fundamental interests of the two peoples or meet the shared expectations of the international community. China’s policy toward the U.S. remains consistent and stable. It is fundamentally guided by the principles of mutual respect, peaceful coexistence and win-win cooperation put forward by President Xi Jinping. These principles should also be the spirit jointly upheld, the red line jointly defended and the goal jointly pursued by both sides. China is committed to building a stable, predictable and constructive relationship with the U.S. China hopes that the U.S. will adopt an objective and rational perception of China, work with China in the same direction, uphold the political foundation of China-U.S. relations, and handle unexpected and sporadic events in a calm, professional and rational manner. The two sides should deliver on the common understandings reached by President Xi and President Biden in Bali in letter and spirit, and work to stabilize and steer the relations back to the right track.
Now admittedly, it’s cheeky for China to present itself as the spokescritter for the international community. China is also glossing over the fact that it’s been annoying and worrying its neighbors via its territorial claims on those fake islands in the South China Sea. But again, the US hegemonically sticking its nose in is also a bit much, particularly since if it were going to Do Something, the opportune time would have been years ago.
However, the Biden Administration has been relentlessly eyepoking China. And you can see the thinly-veiled references to l’affaire balloon. If I were China, the significance extends beyond trying to elevate a nothingburger into a major security breach. It’s also that the US looks to be staring to message that China is the Great Yellow Peril, that Americans need to watch out for Commies in the air and airwaves. China managed to escape that due to Commie demonization for generations targeting the Soviets, and also the Yellow Peril role having been taken by Japan, at least until the 1970s when America fell for Japanese cars.2
If I were China, I would be taking worried note of how easily the West was able to turn protracted maligning of the USSR into full bore Russia hatred and would be working hard to prevent the planting of similar hate-seeds if I could.
Global Times, the Chinese government’s English language organ, explained the significance of the Bali “understandings”:
Despite very low expectations for any breakthroughs made during Blinken’s visit to China, there is still hope that both sides can maintain their “bottom line” in the relationship. Although the relationship is at its lowest point since the establishment of diplomatic ties, there are still some key issues on which both sides have consensus, otherwise Blinken’s trip would be impossible. These consensuses were collectively reflected in the Bali meeting between the leaders of China and the US in November last year, which are also the fundamental guidance for maintaining stability in the relationship between the two countries. Because of the guidance, the two countries are able to conduct constructive communication when bilateral ties are at their lowest point.
Before his visit, Blinken stated that “what we are working to do on this trip is to really carry forward what President Biden and President Xi agreed to in Bali.” It should be noted that whether it helps to push the China-US relationship back to the consensus reached by the two leaders in Bali will be the golden standard for judging whether Blinken’s visit is successful or not.
The bigger point is that even if China is lecturing, it has every right to. The US has behaved in a highly reckless, ill-tempered, immature manner.
Next section of the Chinese readout:
Qin expounded on China’s firm position and raised clear demands on the Taiwan question and other core interests and major concerns. Qin pointed out that the Taiwan question is the core of China’s core interests, the most consequential issue and the most pronounced risk in the China-U.S. relationship. The Chinese side urged the U.S. side to abide by the one-China principle and the three China-U.S. joint communiqués, and truly deliver on its commitment of not supporting “Taiwan independence.”
This section is testy. It suggests China reiterated its long-standing position on Taiwan and encountered resistance or non-responsive responses. In past China-US exchanges, for instance, Xi-Biden talks, Biden has given lip service to the one-China principle and then carries on fomenting Taiwan independence. Perhaps Qin called that out.
And that’s really it. Because they two met, they have to present some sort of agreement, and the rest of the readout shows how shabby that list is. More student visas? Restoring the flights that China shut down during zero Covid (and didn’t yet care to resume)? More “joint working groups”? “People to people exchanges”? In fairness, the US cancellation of Chinese student/researcher visas looked more punitive and xenophobic than driven by security concerns (which would take case-by-case investigation, as in work), so rolling that back may chalk up real points in China. But Chinese student enrollments in the US started dropping before Covid due to increased American hostility.
The most serious commitment seemed to be to more high level sessions:
Both sides agreed to maintain high-level interactions. Secretary Blinken invited State Councilor and Foreign Minister Qin to visit the U.S., and Qin expressed his readiness to make the visit at a mutually convenient time.
The US readout was just as bad, in its own way. US readouts tend to be telegraphic, but this one had some zingers. From the State Department website:
Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken held candid, substantive, and constructive talks today with People’s Republic of China (PRC) State Councilor and Foreign Minister Qin Gang in Beijing. The Secretary emphasized the importance of diplomacy and maintaining open channels of communication across the full range of issues to reduce the risk of misperception and miscalculation. The Secretary raised a number of issues of concern, as well as opportunities to explore cooperation on shared transnational issues with the PRC where our interests align. The Secretary made clear that the United States will always stand up for the interests and values of the American people and work with its allies and partners to advance our vision for a world that is free, open, and upholds the international rules-based order.
Blinken and US leadership generally appears to be blind to the fact that “rules-based international order” is acquiring negative connotations outside the Collective West. It’s understood as the means for implementing the US hegemony, and the rest of the world is done with that. For that phrase to have made is way into the readout suggest that Blinken harped on that in his meeting with Qin.
The rest of the thin US readout was on the very few next steps.
China’s posture, as reflected in the Global Times editorial, seems to be, “The US needs to stop acting as if talking will do, it needs to make some concessions”:
The US’ “positive attitude” toward Blinken’s visit to China is not only a public opinion war that aims to shift the blame on China, but also because to a considerable extent “there is no alternative.” Externally, the international community, including US allies, hopes that China-US relations will stop falling and stabilize, so as to avoid shaking the foundation of world peace and stability. This puts pressure on the US and forces the Biden administration to quietly adjust its tone, emphasizing “it is not forcing any country to choose sides” and “no decoupling.”….
Most of the difficulties encountered in China-US relations were due to Washington’s unilateral and erratic policies and actions. So naturally the US needs to do more to improve the bilateral ties. On many specific issues, the US can create considerable space for cooperation. For example, on the issue of fentanyl, which Americans are highly concerned about, the lifting of the unreasonable sanctions imposed on China by the US will obviously remove a major obstacle to cooperation between the two countries. In addition, in the field of economy and trade, although Washington’s suppression on China is crazy, the economic and trade relations between the two countries still show strong endogenous momentum, which means that there is huge room for mutually beneficial cooperation between the two countries, a reality that the US cannot avoid. In addition, in terms of people-to-people and cultural exchanges, both China and the US agreed to encourage the expansion of cultural and educational exchanges between the two countries, so the US should make concrete moves on issues such as visas and cancel its neurotic and allergic practices in the past.
The attitude of the Chinese toward Blinken’s visit to China has indeed changed, but this does not mean that China refuses to engage and improve China-US relations. On the contrary, the Chinese are more strategically determined and patient about the stabilization and improvement of China-US relations, and more emphasis is placed on the sincerity and concrete and effective measures from the US side.
Churchill said, “Jaw jaw is always better than to war war.” But the US and China are only tenuously at that level.
1 Confusingly, at least from a protocol perspective, Qin is Blinken’s direct counterpart as head of the foreign ministry. But China just elevated the former Foreign Minister Wang Yi to the Politburo, making him a sort of super-minister.
2 My mother and her friends continued to regard the Japanese with considerable antipathy until their deaths.