Commentary on Political Economy

Monday 22 April 2024



Blinken Needs to Show China There’s a Way Out

There could be a real opportunity to mend strained ties between the two superpowers. But Beijing is feeling boxed in and that’s not helping. 

A lighter touch.
A lighter touch. Photographer: Greg Baker/AFP/Getty Images


When the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken touches down in Shanghai and Beijing this week, he will have two important goals in mind: First, ensure that China plays ball and stops its companies funding Russia’s war in Ukraine. Second, convince President Xi Jinping to help de-escalate the Iran-Israel conflict.

But he’ll also have to manage an increasingly strained relationship with Beijing, which is under pressure on several fronts from Washington, as it ratchets up the pressure with fresh trade tariffs, enhanced security alliances and comments from President Joe Biden calling China “xenophobic.” A boxed-in Beijing will not be easy to negotiate with. If Washington is keen to work with the world’s second-largest economy to tackle some of the most pressing global issues, then some compromise and a lighter touch would go a long way.

The visit is part of the agreement to keep talking that Biden and Xi committed to when they met in San Francisco in 2023. They also spoke by phone earlier this month, in what was described as a “candid constructive” discussion that covered AI, fentanyl, climate change and other subjects. Since then, there’s been a visit by US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, where she outlined her tough stance on subsidies. Yellen castigated China for boosting its already huge manufacturing capacity as a way to drive domestic growth, saying that massive government spending on certain sectors will “lead to significant risk to workers and businesses in the United States and the rest of the world.”

Blinken will likely take a strong line, too, against fresh tariffs on imports of Chinese steel, which would see the US impose new 25% levies on certain products. China’s Commerce Ministry has blasted the decision, saying it was “full of false accusations” and “based on the need of domestic politics.”

To Beijing, everywhere it looks it sees the US seeking to limit China’s horizons. The annual joint military exercises between the Philippines and the US this week are the biggest ever — a clear sign to China that the lattice-like alliances Washington is building are strengthening. State media has said the drills threaten “regional peace and stability,” noting that the Australian Defense Force and the French Navy, for the first time, will also join as participants. Another 14 countries, including Japan and India, will take part as observers.

Then there is the TikTok divest-or-ban bill, which on Saturday came one step closer to becoming reality. The US House put legislation on a fast track to force ByteDance Ltd. to divest its ownership stake. All of this is convincing China that the US is not keen to engage, but rather to contain, and that means a far less productive conversation on the cards for Blinken.

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Beijing is already bristling about the trilateral summit on April 11 between the US, Japan and the Philippines. China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has asked whether the true purpose was to engage in “group politics” and form “exclusive groupings.” On the South China Sea, Beijing’s position is clear: “No provocation or coercion will deter China from safeguarding its sovereignty and rights and interests.”

China doesn’t make it easy for countries to cooperate with it. Beijing consistently advances its ownership claims in the South China Sea, and refuses to acknowledge the rights of other nations. It doesn’t believe the US should be anywhere near the contested waterway, seeing it as interference in its own backyard.

This has been the tenor of the US-China relationship for a while now, as Ryan Haas notes for the Brookings Institute. “At their core,” he writes, “both countries believe their governance and economic models are best equipped to meet the 21st century’s challenges. Both believe they are natural leaders in Asia and on the world stage.”

But this amount of conflict is unproductive and unsustainable. The China that the US is dealing with today is on the back foot economically, and as the pile of problems keeps growing there is a discernible crisis of confidence among citizens, particularly the youth who are now looking at a future that is likely to be nowhere near as fulfilling or successful as their parents’ generation.

There is nothing more important to the Chinese Communist Party than its survival. The pressures on Xi and his regime are mounting on multiple fronts. If the US really wants to get China on its side to work on resolving some of the most urgent issues of our time, like climate change, the war in Ukraine and a potentially explosive Middle East, then more cooperation rather than confrontation could help to achieve that. The US has put together a lot of compelling sticks lately that have got China’s attention. Now is the time to dangle some carrots — perhaps in the form of further AI collaboration, countering the illicit drug trade, and improving people-to-people ties. Blinken should keep that in mind this week.

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This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Karishma Vaswani is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Asia politics with a special focus on China. Previously, she was the BBC's lead Asia presenter and worked for the BBC across Asia and South Asia for two decades.
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