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Dhaka Tribune

Blinken's China visit: Can he avoid war becoming a reality?

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken heads to China as increasing tensions over Taiwan make the lack of communication between Washington and Beijing more dangerous than ever

Update : 16 Jun 2023, 11:30 PM

Manage "the competition with China so that it doesn't turn into a conflict" — that's what US President Joe Biden asked his top diplomats to do at a White House reception a few days before US Secretary of State Antony Blinken set off for Beijing. Blinken's main mission during his two-day visit to China will be to reestablish reliable communication lines.

Washington and Beijing on collision course

A near collision between a Chinese warship and a US military vessel in the Taiwan Strait two weeks ago demonstrated how quickly a situation can escalate. 

The incident happened as China was carrying out a joint exercise that it insisted was "lawful" and "safe." The US criticized it as "unsafe and unprofessional." Even more worrying than the near collision between two military ships was the fact that the world's biggest superpowers communicated through the media instead of direct lines. Beijing's military is still refusing to pick up calls from the Pentagon.

This increases the risk of potentially devastating misunderstandings. Shortly after the incident, US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin told the annual Shangri La forum in Singapore that the US would not "flinch in the face of bullying or coercion" by China. At that very summit, his Chinese counterpart, Li Shangfu, refused to meet him for a bilateral meeting on the sidelines — as would have been expected from the biggest powers in the room.

Washington's refraining from making this a diplomatic incident underlines its concern to avoid further escalation. "I think this is going to be a long and arduous process from the ground up to reestablish communication channels with Beijing," Noah Barkin, a China analyst and senior adviser for the Rhodium Group research institute, told DW. He expects Blinken's China visit to be part of a "delicate process" with no big results.

‘Robust' exchange between China and US

The US State Department has billed the visit as a series of "robust" exchanges behind closed doors.

Blinken and Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang are expected to discuss several issues ranging from Taiwan and China's support for Russia over Ukraine, to reports of a Chinese spy facility in Cuba.

The White House coordinator for Indo-Pacific affairs, Kurt Campbell, believes "both sides have an interest in maintaining consistent, clear and open lines of communication" and says this is the overarching aim of the visit. And yet the two sides seem to have different takes on the merit of the upcoming talks.

"The Chinese still view contacts, exchanges, summits as a favor they grant," Dean Cheng, a senior adviser at the US Institute of Peace think tank told DW.

The fact that the US has not published its findings on the spy balloon that led to Blinken postponing his first scheduled visit in February, is widely seen as a concession by Washington that has allowed for the current visit to go ahead.

Competing with China in Asia

US President Biden declared a "new era" of cooperation in the Indo-Pacific last year and backed it up with an economic framework involving more than a dozen Asian states, including Japan, the Philippines, and South Korea.

Just recently, the US has secured access to four more military bases in the Philippines alone. China sees this new dynamic in Washington's Asia policy as a constant provocation.

This will likely play a role when Blinken presses Qin Gang on Beijing's support for Russia as he is expected to do.

The US remains concerned that China may supply Russia with weapons against Ukraine, but so far the White House says it has no evidence of actual deliveries taking place.

Beijing is likely to ask why it should consider delivering arms to Russia any differently from the US and its allies supplying weapons to Ukraine, said Cheng.

A senior US official described Blinken's mission as "a really critical series of engagements" that come "at a crucial time" with a visit by President Biden to Beijing, which is not yet being officially discussed but is widely expected to take place later this year. The hope is that such a summit could go some way towards stabilizing the standoff over Taiwan.

Nobody wants a conflict

"I don't think anybody wants a conflict in the Taiwan Strait. But sending the right messages is difficult, especially when Beijing sees just about everything that's being done on Taiwan as a provocation," China analyst Barkin underlined.

Since the appearance of the Chinese spy balloon in February, US members of Congress have been outbidding each other in their "tough-on-China" rhetoric. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy followed in the footsteps of his Democrat Predecessor Nancy Pelosi when he met Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-Wen.

Faced with export controls on high-tech chips and other future technology, the Chinese side is expected to ask for concessions from Washington, particularly on the issue of technology controls, Barkin said. But given the current anti-China climate in Congress, he didn't expect the US to "make any promises on that front."

Despite the export bans, Barkin sees trade as the most promising source of stability as "the US and its allies are wrestling with how best to deter a conflict."

US technology export bans against China implemented last October range from software to equipment used to produce advanced computer chips. Cheng said it has been a "shock" to the Chinese leadership to discover just how "remarkably dependent on Western software and hardware" they are. China is expected to seek assurances that the US will refrain from further export restrictions, something the US is unlikely to commit to.

While Washington has adopted the European term of "de-risking" to describe its drive to wean itself and its allies off supply chain and product dependence on China, Beijing also has an interest in talking to the US to reassure global investors, Barkin pointed out. The world's two largest economies remain closely intertwined as their strategic interests and competition for world leadership increasingly set them against each other.

Human rights

When Blinken and Qin Gang sit down to face each other with their delegations, it will be a face-off of fundamentally different political value systems — the world's most powerful democracy and the world's most powerful authoritarian regime.

Dozens of human rights organizations have signed a letter ahead of the visit calling on Blinken to raise a long list of human rights concerns ranging from what the US has officially recognized as the genocide of the Uyghurs to press freedom.

While the US secretary of state has let it be known that he raises US values as a matter of standard procedure, the US special climate envoy recently drew praise from China and criticism back home for dismissing a request for comment on China's human rights record as not his "lane." In an October interview, John Kerry said that "climate should not be part of the bilateral differences" between the US and China.

Beijing is expected to try and expand on more issues of common interest to be treated separately from the question of human rights. Blinken faces nothing less than the challenge of reasserting US positions while bridging a vast diplomatic disconnect. The stakes are high in what amounts to a geopolitical game of chess.

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