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With Blinken in China, Beijing Deprioritizes Taiwan

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With Blinken in China, Beijing Deprioritizes Taiwan

China’s emphasis on Taiwan has weakened, even though China-U.S. relations are currently in a more stable phase.

With Blinken in China, Beijing Deprioritizes Taiwan

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken (right) hosts a working dinner for Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi at the Department of State, Oct. 26, 2023.

Credit: U.S. State Department photo

Following his initial visit in June of last year, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken is making his second visit to China from April 24 to 26. On the 23, Chinese state media CCTV’s new media platform “Yu Yuan Tan Tian” (玉渊谭天) published five key objectives outlined by the head of the North American and Oceanian Affairs Department of China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs regarding Blinken’s visit.

Among these objectives, the third point emphasizes that the United States should respect China’s “red line” on Taiwan. However, comparing this with the five pillars proposed by President Xi Jinping during his meeting with President Joe Biden last November, China’s emphasis on Taiwan has weakened, even though China-U.S. relations are currently in a more stable phase.

China Has Bigger Problems Than Taiwan

According to CCTV, the five major objectives of this visit are: developing the right understanding, enhancing dialogue between both sides, managing disagreements effectively, advancing mutually beneficial cooperation, and jointly shouldering responsibilities as major countries. In contrast, the five pillars proposed by Xi during last year’s meeting with Biden in California were: jointly developing the right understanding, jointly managing disagreements effectively, jointly advancing mutually beneficial cooperation, jointly shouldering responsibilities as major countries, and jointly promoting people-to-people exchanges.

The first objectives of both meetings emphasized “developing the right understanding,” meaning setting the tone of China-U.S. relations; this remains the top priority for Beijing. However, “enhancing dialogue”’ has been moved up to be the second objective, surpassing “managing disagreements,” which includes the Taiwan issue.

In other words, China has an even more pressing problem than Taiwan.

According to the head of the North American and Oceania Affairs Department, enhancing dialogue means “the U.S. should not engage in communication for the sake of communication, should not say one thing and do another, and should not fantasize about dealing with China through ‘strength.’”

The United States has used various legislative and economic measures to reduce China’s geopolitical advantages in the areas of technology and economic development. Although the U.S. has sought and maintained communication with China, it is in the context of “managing conflict” and to demonstrate to U.S. allies its efforts to stabilize the bilateral relationship. The U.S. strategy makes it difficult for China to bargain with Washington and resolve economic pressure during its economic downturn. By prioritizing “enhancing dialogue,” China is hoping to reduce pressure from the United States through more substantive negotiations.

During the recent call between Xi and Biden, the Chinese leader also emphasized the importance of “building trust and taking action to fulfill respective commitments, turning the ‘San Francisco Consensus’ into ‘real-life scenarios.’” China needs meaningful dialogue that can promote economic cooperation between the two countries – arguably more than the U.S. does.

However, this expectation may be difficult to achieve during Blinken’s visit.

The U.S. State Department has stated that Blinken’s discussions in China will cover the Israel-Gaza war as well as Israel-Iran tensions, Russia’s war against Ukraine, China-Taiwan issues, and the South China Sea. Regarding bilateral issues, discussions will continue on “resuming counternarcotics cooperation, military-to-military communication, artificial intelligence, and strengthening people-to-people ties, and will reiterate the importance of the United States and China responsibly managing competition, even in areas where our two countries disagree.” 

Compared with China’s stated objectives, the United States places a higher priority on global stability. On the bilateral relations, combating drugs and people-to-people ties have more potential to bring some initiatives and developments, while for military communication and artificial intelligence, China’s ongoing trend as the primary competitor to the U.S. will remain unchanged.

Notably, the agenda laid out by the State Department does not include China’s most pressing concern: economic issues. The U.S. likely feels that these topics were already covered during Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen’s recent visit to China. From Beijing’s perspective, however, Yellen’s trip only introduced yet another topic – overcapacity – that will be used to further ramp up economic pressure on China.

Broken Record

Beijing has repeatedly declared its stance on Taiwan for years. Most recently at the G-20 Summit in 2022 and in the recent call between Xi and Biden this month, China had claimed that Taiwan is an “inviolable red line” in China-U.S. relations. Reiterating the exact same words before the upcoming Blinken visit may not have much impact.

Whenever Beijing brings up the Taiwan “red line,” the Biden White House has not directly responded but instead emphasized the importance of maintaining peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait.

The U.S. is unlikely to change that strategy for Blinken’s visit, if not give it even less heed than in the past. By now Taiwan has finished its elections, while China has continued to subtly encroach on Taiwan’s sovereignty through various means, including the boat capsizing incident near Kinmen in February, unilaterally changing the M503 flight route to be closer to Taiwan’s airspace, initiating early anti-dumping reviews, and imposing anti-dumping duties on Taiwan’s polycarbonate imports.

Furthermore, with Japan and the Philippines playing increasingly important roles in the U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy and Taiwan’s issues gradually expand from a China-U.S. topic to a common concern among Indo-Pacific allies, China’s continued emphasis on Taiwan as a “red line in China-U.S. relations” will diminish in significance.

Comparing China’s rhetoric before Blinken’s visit last year, it is evident that China has set different objectives before this visit. China’s insistence on the Taiwan “red line” has been relegated to a lower priority for Beijing in favor of “enhancing dialogue,” showing China’s pressing need to get a handle on its economy.

Whether these discussions will lead to progress, however, is another issue. Currently, international conflicts have increased compared to last year, with the addition of the Israeli-Hamas conflict in the Middle East. The United States also faces increased election pressure this year. For the Biden administration, there is a greater desire to keep the China-U.S. relationship exactly where it is. In this context, the likely direction of development is continued dialogue between the U.S. and China but few substantial results.

China will continue to demand “meaningful communication” due to economic pressure but may struggle to receive a substantive response. Meanwhile, its negotiating position on Taiwan has only weakened, by becoming not much more than an irritating broken record.