Experts and analysts in Washington and Beijing are offering contrasting assessments on the impending two-day visit by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken to China, reportedly originally set to start on February 5 but now postponed indefinitely. Indeed the only conclusion both sides have in common regarding the visit is that neither capital is expecting any significant breakthrough.
What is most striking is that while Washington perceives the visit as extremely timely, Beijing sees it as most ill-timed. Speaking last Monday at the Washington-based think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies, its Freeman Chair in China Studies Jude Blanchette said: “There’s a perception in the White House that now is an advantageous time to try to reset relations [with China].” But if it’s advantageous to Washington, it is not so for Beijing.
In China, hostile reactions emerged quickly after a mid-January report that the State Department was “eying February 6 for Blinken’s meeting in Beijing.” Overall, the responses were rather dismissive and unwelcoming. Regarding the timing of Blinken’s visit, a signed commentary by Wen Tao on China’s largest social media platform, WeChat – significantly, at a time when the whole of China was celebrating the Lunar New Year holiday – ridiculed the U.S. secretary of state, asking: “Why are you in such a hurry?”
Wen claimed that Blinken was uncharacteristically keen to come to China soon after Qin Gang’s appointment to head the Chinese Foreign Ministry. The commentary even said that Blinken had wanted to arrive in Beijing before the Lunar New Year on January 22. “It’s a pity we didn’t let him get his wish but agreed to let him visit after the New Year,” Wen wrote.
The last time the U.S. and China held a visit on each other’s soil, in March 2021, the meeting ended in disaster. In the first in-person China-U.S. engagement after President Joe Biden took office, China’s top diplomats, Wang Yi and Yang Jiechi, flew to Anchorage, Alaska to meet with Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan. The Chinese side gave a heavy dressing down to Blinken for his unusually blunt public remarks made at the start of the two-day verbal duel criticizing “China’s increasing authoritarianism and assertiveness at home and abroad.” Hence, it is not at all surprising that some Chinese commentators are puzzled as to why the secretary of state is “anxious” to visit China.
In a clear signal that Beijing is not at all warmed up to the visit, just two days before Blinken’s scheduled arrival in Beijing, the Chinese Foreign Ministry uncharacteristically refused to offer any details about his trip. Instead, the ministry refused to confirm the visit was happening at all. Replying to several specific queries regarding Blinken’s visit to China during a press briefing on February 3, the spokesperson flatly denied any knowledge, saying, “I have nothing to offer at the moment.”
A brief itinerary of the visit was widely reported in the Western media in January, citing unnamed U.S. officials and diplomats. However, no details have been revealed by the authorities in Beijing, other than a terse official statement to the effect that “Beijing welcomes Secretary Blinken’s visit to China.”
More recently, Zhao Menghao, an international relations professor at Shanghai’s prestigious Fudan University, observed in his regular op-ed column that though Blinken’s planned China visit is attracting much attention, observers in China are not expecting a big improvement in bilateral relations from the visit.
That’s hardly surprising, considering the political context. Late last week, U.S. Air Force General Michael Minihan predicted that the United States and China could go to war in 2025 over Taiwan. Likewise, a letter signed by several Republican senators last Wednesday and addressed to the secretary of state specifically reminded Blinken of China’s aggression against Taiwan and India.
Both developments are viewed in China as aimed at putting Beijing under pressure. In the words of influential military affairs commentator Song Zhongping: “This is a way of putting pressure on China to gain more leverage ahead of Blinken’s visit.”
In that latest ugly twist in relations, late on February 2, U.S. time, the U.S. military announced that a Chinese surveillance balloon was traveling over the continental United States. Chinese officials confirmed the balloon was from China but insisted it was a civilian airship that has been blown off course.
In China, both at the official level and among academics, two factors explain the opposition to Blinken’s visit. First, there is a dislike for Blinken personally. There is a strong belief that, having spent long years as a Democratic Party staffer, Blinken is not cut out for the job of conceptualizing and implementing foreign policy. Besides that, Blinken is viewed in Beijing as someone who not only has embraced the policy of containing China but is also an embodiment of ideological rigidity.
More broadly, Chinese experts are ill-disposed toward the United States as a whole at the moment, referring to latest three “anti-China” moves by the Biden administration – supplying arms to Taiwan, the complete U.S. ban on exports of American technology to Huawei, and the ban on the sale of chips to Beijing. Against that hostile backdrop, commentators in China are ridiculing the U.S. government and Blinken for holding talks at all.
Many commentators in China juxtapose the current atmosphere of extreme U.S. hostility to China – both in Congress and public opinion – with then-Secretary of State Michael Pompeo’s frosty trip to Beijing in October 2018, amid then-President Donald Trump’s trade war. It is pertinent to point out Blinken would be the first U.S. secretary of state to visit China since Pompeo. At the time, Pompeo was not warmly welcomed, as was evident from him and Wang airing their disagreements. In a sign of escalating tensions, President Xi Jinping declined to meet with the visiting top U.S. diplomat.
Hence, it is important to watch whether Blinken will be accorded a meeting with Xi. After initial reports in the U.S. media that Blinken would meet only with his counterpart, Qin Gang, on Friday a spate of media reports claimed that Xi would meet Blinken after all. No details have been offered in the Chinese media so far.
Given the fact that Xi is currently fighting fires on a number of different fronts, why would Beijing agree to host Blinken at the current moment? The Chinese leadership might see an opportunity in Blinken’s visit to push its own agenda of slowing down the pace of U.S. actions to block China’s progress in the technology space.
Perhaps worried about what Beijing might be aiming to extract from the visit, the collective letter from Republican senators to both Blinken and accompanying Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen urges the two U.S. leaders to “refrain from giving the Chinese Communist Party a propaganda win.”
On the other hand, at least a few Chinese analysts have been trying to deconstruct the hidden agenda of Blinken and Yellen visiting together.
Yellen had a high-profile meeting with Chinese Vice Premier Liu He in Zurich on January 18 – a day after media reports announced Blinken was preparing for meetings in Beijing on February 6. In fact, Yellen has virtually met Liu, a confidant of Xi’s, three times since taking office. She also traveled with Biden to Bali, Indonesia, where she set up a meeting with Chinese central bank governor Yi Gang. Yellen has also called up Chinese Commerce Minister Wang Wentao to discuss Sino-US trade-related issues.
In a significant move, China’s Ministry of Commerce released a statement saying “China welcomes Yellen to visit China at an appropriate time this year. Both countries agreed that their economic and trade teams will continue to maintain communications and exchanges at all levels.”
Emphasizing the trade and economic agenda of the Blinken-Yellen visit, a Chinese expert commented, “It’s kind of funny to say that, on the one hand, the U.S. rejects Chinese investments in the United States, but on the other hand, it wants to sell the U.S. government debt to China.” The expert went on to contend that Yellen, who is a former Federal Reserve chair, is proactively in touch with the Chinese government on behalf of the U.S. business community, and is persuading her government to adjust its trade strategy with China.
“During the current visit, although Secretary of State Blinken is loaded with a heavy diplomatic and political agenda, he will definitely pay attention to economic and trade issues,” the expert further added.
If what some Chinese experts are claiming is true, the real purpose of the Blinken-Yellen visit is to make China agree to buy a large amount of U.S. goods and thereby help the Biden administration reduce the trade deficit. But whatever the agenda, the trip has been derailed by the spy balloon incident, and perhaps by deeper-seated reticence within Beijing.
This piece has been updated following confirmation that Blinken will postpone his trip.