Blinken back in China seeking pressure but also stability

Published April 24, 2024
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken waves on his arrival in Shanghai on April 24, 2024.—AFP
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken waves on his arrival in Shanghai on April 24, 2024.—AFP

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken returned to China on Wednesday on his second visit in a year, as the United States ramps up pressure on its rival over its support for Russia while also seeking to manage tensions with Beijing.

The US diplomat will meet China’s top brass on Friday in Beijing, where he is also expected to plead for restraint as Taiwan inaugurates a new leader and to raise US concerns on Chinese trade practices — a vital issue for President Joe Biden in an election year.

But Blinken is also seeking to stabilise ties, with tensions between the world’s two largest economies palpably easing since his last visit in June.

At the time, he was the highest-ranking US official to visit China in five years, and the trip was followed by a meeting between the countries’ presidents in November.

At that summit in California, Chinese President Xi Jinping agreed to a US wish list, including restoring contact between militaries and cracking down on precursor chemicals to fentanyl, the powerful painkiller behind an addiction epidemic in the United States.

Blinken arrived in Shanghai, where he will kick off his visit by attending a Chinese basketball play-off match between two teams with American players on their rosters.

The friendly side trip — the first visit by a US secretary of state to the bustling metropolis since Hillary Clinton in 2010 — would have been unthinkable until recently, with hawks on both sides previously speaking of a new Cold War between the two powers.

Pressing on Russia

A senior US official previewing Blinken’s trip said the relationship between the countries was at a “different place” to a year ago when it was at a “historic low point”.

However, “responsibly managing competition does not mean we will pull back from measures to protect US national interests”, he added.

The Biden administration’s eagerness to engage China stands in stark contrast to its efforts to isolate Russia since its invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

The United States has accused China in recent weeks of lavishing industrial material and technology on Moscow.

Washington has encouraged European leaders to stand firm on China not backing Russia, believing Beijing wants stable ties with the West as it focuses on addressing economic headwinds at home.

“If China purports on the one hand to want good relations with Europe and other countries, it can’t on the other hand be fuelling what is the biggest threat to European security since the end of the Cold War,” Blinken said on Friday.

Progress on fentanyl

The Biden administration has trumpeted the agreement with Xi on fentanyl as a success.

A State Department official said that since the November summit, China appears to have taken its first law enforcement measures on the matter since 2017.

Blinken would be asking for further implementation, the official said.

More regular law enforcement action from Beijing against China-based companies involved in fentanyl supply chains “would send a strong signal of China’s commitment to address this issue”, the official said.

Other issues likely to come up will be more fraught.

The US Congress gave final approval on Tuesday night to a $95 billion package of assistance to allies, including self-ruled Taiwan, which Beijing claims as part of its territory.

In response, China said on Wednesday that US military support for the island only increased the “risk of conflict”, and warned it would take “resolute and effective measures to safeguard its sovereignty, security and territorial integrity”.

The US Congress also approved legislation on Tuesday requiring the wildly popular social media app TikTok to be divested from its Chinese parent company ByteDance or be shut out of the American market.

Asked about the development, a spokesman for China’s foreign ministry declined to respond, referring journalists to China’s “previously explained … principled position”.

Beijing has furiously denounced the plans, urging Washington to “truly respect the principles of market economy and fair competition”.

Biden faces a rematch in November against former president Donald Trump, who has vowed a more confrontational approach against China.

Yun Sun, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Stimson Centre, said that China’s leaders, eager to focus on their economy, were in a wait-and-see mode ahead of the US election.

“The Chinese understand that the Biden administration is unlikely to deliver any good news on trade because that simply does not support the election agenda,” she said.

For Chinese leaders this year, “their priority is to keep the relationship stable”.

“Until there is clarity on who the next administration will be, I don’t think they see a better strategy,” she said.

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