U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken traveled to China last week as part of a series of recent high-level contacts between Washington and Beijing. Although no major breakthroughs came out of the trip, it demonstrates that both sides want to prevent bilateral ties from sinking any lower, even as U.S.-China competition continues to intensify.

President Biden and senior U.S. officials meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping and senior Chinese officials, during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, Woodside, Calif., Nov. 15, 2023. (Doug Mills/The New York Times)
President Biden and senior U.S. officials meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping and senior Chinese officials, during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, Woodside, Calif., Nov. 15, 2023. (Doug Mills/The New York Times)

Tensions in the South China Sea remain a dangerous flash point, as the U.S. has responded to China’s aggressive actions there by strengthening its alliances and partnerships in the region and ramping up maritime military exercises. While it’s unlikely the two sides will come to a resolution any time soon on the wide range of bilateral and international domains of disagreement, Blinken’s trip highlighted key areas for U.S.-China cooperation and engagement.

USIP’s Rosie Levine, Carla Freeman and Andrew Scobell discuss what this visit tells us about the U.S. approach to China and what it means for relations between the two powers.

What was expected for Blinken’s visit to Beijing and did it deliver? 

Levine: The U.S.-China bilateral relationship is still marked by deep-seated tensions and intensifying strategic competition. The visit is the latest in a series of high-level contacts between the United States and China aimed at improving communication. This is Blinken’s second visit to China within the last 12 months. The last visit, in June, marked the resumption of communications after a period of frozen high-level contact following former House speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan in August 2022 and Blinken’s derailed February 2023 visit, which canceled in reaction to China’s spy balloon.

President Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s recent phone call built upon the shared agenda generated at their San Francisco meeting in November 2023. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen led an economic delegation to China earlier this month, and Foreign Minister Wang Yi and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan have been meeting regularly over the past few years, including in Washington, Bangkok and Vienna. Notably, in April, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin resumed military dialogues with his Chinese counterpart in Hawaii, allowing for the first high-level, military-to-military exchange since November 2022.

Despite the higher frequency of contact, there was limited optimism that this visit would bring a significant change in the bilateral relationship. It was clear that Blinken approached the meetings with a wish list of agenda items, including cooperation on AI governance, managing the supply chain of precursor chemicals used in the production of fentanyl, risks of conflict over Taiwan, increasing hostilities in the South China Sea and warnings to Xi about China’s support for Russia’s war in Ukraine.

The areas where the meeting seemed to break ground were on the issues of cooperation on curbing the flow of synthetic opioids, a willingness to collaborate on AI governance and people-to-people ties. Blinken met China's minister of public security, Wang Xiaohong, and noted the early successes of the bilateral Counter Narcotics Working Group. He also pointed to official U.S.-China talks on artificial intelligence that will be held in the coming weeks. Blinken visited the New York University Shanghai campus and underscored the importance for the next generations of Americans and Chinese to better understand one another to solve shared challenges in the future.

Xi greeted Blinken and both reiterated the desire to stabilize the relationship. If Xi had failed to greet Blinken, it could have signaled de-prioritization of mending ties with the United States.

It is clear that Blinken sent various messages on issues of importance to American interests and global peace and security. One point Blinken underscored in his press briefing was the dissatisfaction from the U.S., NATO allies and G7 partners toward China for its role in supporting Russia’s war effort by supplying machine tools and other components Russia uses for producing ammunition. While it is clear that the message was delivered, it remains unclear if or how China will respond to this critique. Russian President Vladimir Putin is scheduled to travel to China in May, and there is little indication China will change its approach to its relationship with Russia.

What does Blinken’s visit signal about the U.S. approach to China? 

Freeman: Blinken’s visit marks a U.S. effort to steady the U.S.-China relationship. The administration’s policy of “managed competition” with China continues to define its approach but Washington now seeks to inject greater stability into the bilateral relationship with its rival by pursuing a number of key approaches.

First, Blinken’s visit made clear that there is no new framing for the bilateral relationship that might refocus it on expanding U.S.-China cooperation amid significant areas of difference between the two sides. However, Blinken laid out a set of U.S. priorities for its diplomacy toward China. Amid mistrust and friction across a range of issues, action-reaction dynamics have typified recent bilateral interactions, giving the relationship a risky unpredictability and further aggravating tensions. The effort to articulate a focused set of administration priorities for the relationship aims to curb this volatility by focusing bilateral diplomacy on key U.S. interests. These include the areas of potential U.S.-China cooperation mentioned above as well areas where the U.S. sees China’s policies and actions as harming the interests of the United States and its allies.

Second, the visit made clear that the administration will work to open and sustain more channels of bilateral communication to reduce the risk of miscalculation and military escalation between the two sides. A key priority is military-to-military communications, which Blinken emphasized is urgently needed to reduce the risk of an escalatory military encounter between the two countries facing off in the waters and skies in the Taiwan Strait and South China Sea.  

But these also include more diplomatic lines of communication, people-to-people ties and information flows that help reduce misunderstanding between the two sides. As Blinken underscored, information flows are also key to curbing trafficking in illicit drugs and their precursors, as well as other areas of transnational crime. Sustaining open channels will be a priority as the administration seeks to address its concerns on such sensitive issues as how China uses advanced U.S. technologies, as well as China’s industrial capacity.

Third, while Blinken carried a warning on the impact of China’s ongoing economic cooperation with Russia as “powering” the war in Ukraine, the top U.S. diplomat also suggested that the administration views China as a potentially constructive actor in helping to resolve international conflict, including in the Middle East. 

That Blinken offered no grand visions for the U.S.-China relationship during his visit to Beijing makes clear that the administration has no plans to reframe the U.S.-China relationship. Instead, Washington will focus on mitigating turbulence in the relationship through more robust diplomacy on issues of friction in the relationship. Cooperation is not off the table but will not be the thrust of U.S.-China interactions.

What does Blinken’s visit mean for U.S.-China relations? 

Scobell: Blinken’s recent three-day visit to China underscores both the value and limitations of in-person meetings between senior U.S. officials and their Chinese counterparts. During the on-going frosty era in U.S.-China relations, high-level direct dialogue is important. As Blinken noted before his meeting with Chinese Minister of Foreign Affairs Wang Yi: “There’s no substitute for face-to-face diplomacy … in order to try and move forward, but also to make sure that we’re as clear as possible about the areas where we have differences … to avoid misunderstandings [and] miscalculations.” It is noteworthy that other more focused dialogues have resumed or are scheduled to begin in the near future. The latter includes military-to-military discussions, while the former includes talks on Artificial Intelligence.

But the limitations on face-to-face talks are also real. While objectively speaking, Xi is correct in reportedly saying to Blinken that “[t]he world is big enough to accommodate the simultaneous development and prosperity of both China and the United States,” this is frankly not the way leaders in Beijing — or in Washington for that matter — perceive each other and the tumultuous current global situation. China’s communist rulers perceive that the United States is trying to contain China militarily and restrain its economic growth. U.S. leaders, meanwhile, perceive that China’s communist rulers are actively working to undermine the rules-based international order and weaken the United States. China’s rulers believe that the United States is strengthening security ties with its allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific and beyond to encircle China while U.S. leaders believe Beijing is stepping up its coercive activities against multiple neighbors, notably Taiwan and the Philippines, as well as strengthening an alliance-like relationship with Moscow.

While Blinken’s discussions with Xi, Wang and other senior Chinese communist rulers last week were far from being dialogues of the deaf, it does appear that to at least to a considerable extent each side was talking past the other. That said, the good news is that both sides sincerely seem to want a more stable bilateral relationship and are prepared to try and work toward this end. The bad news is that each side blames the other for the abysmal state of U.S.-China relations and expects the other side to take the first step to ameliorate ties. At least neither side wants to take a step backwards.

PHOTO: President Biden and senior U.S. officials meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping and senior Chinese officials, during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, Woodside, Calif., Nov. 15, 2023. (Doug Mills/The New York Times)

The views expressed in this publication are those of the author(s).

PUBLICATION TYPE: Question and Answer