US-China Relations Thaw: Blinken’s Visit to Beijing Imminent, Yet Mistrust Persists

In a significant development indicating a potential improvement in US-China relations, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken is expected to visit Beijing on June 18th.

Despite the escalating tensions between the two countries in recent months, both sides will need to address a longstanding mutual mistrust that has been fueled by various incidents.

President Joe Biden expressed his anticipation of a thaw in US-China relations during the G7 summit in Japan in May. This coincided with a strong statement from the group, criticizing China’s actions on issues such as regional security and economic coercion.

Initially, the united stance taken by the allied economies, with the US at the forefront, seemed to cast doubt on the possibility of any improvement in US-China relations. However, there have been gradual indications of increased dialogue between the two superpowers in recent weeks.

Last week, two mid-level US officials traveled to Beijing and held meetings with their Chinese counterparts. Daniel Kritenbrink, the Assistant US Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, and Sarah Beran, the Senior Director for China at the National Security Council, met with Ma Zhaoxu, the Deputy Foreign Minister, and Yang Tao, the Director of the North American and Oceanian Affairs Department.

In May, reports surfaced that William Burns, the Director of the CIA, had secretly visited Beijing for meetings with intelligence officials. Furthermore, US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan met with China’s top diplomat, Wang Yi, in Vienna.

These efforts are part of an ongoing initiative to rebuild relations following an incident earlier this year involving a spy balloon. The incident led to the cancellation of Blinken’s planned visit to Beijing in February.

In that incident, US fighter jets shot down a large Chinese balloon off the coast of South Carolina. The Biden administration concluded that it was a surveillance airship that had violated sensitive military areas. China acknowledged ownership of the balloon but claimed it was used for civilian purposes, specifically meteorological research.

This incident sparked a global controversy surrounding the use of Chinese spy balloons in multiple countries and undermined the positive momentum established during President Biden’s meeting with President Xi Jinping at the G20 summit in Indonesia in November.

Unfortunately, recent efforts to build trust encountered a setback when the Wall Street Journal reported a multibillion-dollar agreement between China and Cuba for the construction of a listening facility on the island. Both the US and China, along with Cuba, denied these reports. Some analysts speculated that the timing of the article, coinciding with Blinken’s second attempt to visit Beijing, raised suspicions of a deliberate leak to disrupt the trip.

Trade Friction

Both the US and China face challenges as they express a desire for dialogue while simultaneously taking actions to decouple their economies.

China, after implementing strict zero-Covid policies for three years, claims to be open for business again. However, it has also been conducting raids on foreign companies.

The US maintains that it is not seeking to contain China’s growth, yet it has imposed sanctions on crucial sectors such as semiconductors. Beijing recently instructed Chinese companies operating in vital industries to refrain from purchasing chips from Micron, a US-based company. This move appeared to be a retaliatory response to the Biden administration’s export controls on advanced chipmaking technology.

Moreover, the US has convinced Japan and the Netherlands to block the sale of chip equipment, a measure aimed at limiting China’s military and technological advancements.

Wang Huiyao, President of the Centre for China and Globalisation, a thinktank in Beijing, expressed China’s objection to what it perceives as the US’s “double standards.”

Taiwan tensions

The US asserts its support for the One China policy and claims it does not intend to impede China’s development. However, Wang noted that the US’s actions have been contradictory to its claims, which has significantly hindered the prospects for negotiations.

The One China policy acknowledges the US’s recognition of the Beijing government as the sole governing authority of China. In contrast, Beijing considers Taiwan as part of its territory.

In recent weeks, the US military has accused Chinese forces of engaging in “unsafe” and “unnecessarily aggressive” maneuvers in the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea. These regions are of particular concern to the US due to China’s growing presence. Additionally, Taiwan reported on Thursday that 37 Chinese military aircraft had entered its air defense zone.

Areas of cooperation

The upcoming visit by Blinken will serve as a delayed follow-up to the meeting between Xi and Biden. In November, the two presidents discussed collaboration on “transnational challenges” such as climate change and health security. However, even these objectives have faced obstacles in recent months.

Last week, US Ambassador Nicholas Burns expressed concerns about China’s insufficient efforts to curb the influx of fentanyl into the US. He highlighted that addressing the drug supply issue was a key topic in discussions with Beijing. The following day, Chinese state broadcaster CGTN released a documentary on the opioid crisis in the US, accusing the US of placing blame on China for a problem it brought upon itself.

“There are no areas unaffected by politics in the US-China realm,” stated Isaac Stone Fish, the founder of Strategy Risks, a data company focused on China. “Whether we like it or not, Beijing insists that politics permeates and dominates all of these domains.”

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