The United States seeks to repair its relations with China amid global turmoil

Foreign Minister Wang Yi meets in Washington with Blinken and senior administration officials

Antony Blinken y Wang Yi
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi (left) and Secretary of State Antony Blinken at a meeting in Nusa Dua (Indonesia) in November 2022POOL (REUTERS)
Macarena Vidal Liy

While facing two very serious conflicts simultaneously — the war in Ukraine and the crisis in the Middle East between Israel and Hamas — the United States is also trying to soften its ties with China, its great systemic rival. And, if not to extend an olive branch, at least try to establish a working relationship that yields results. An objective in which the visit to Washington by China’s top diplomat, Wang Yi, is a fundamental piece these days.

Starting this Thursday and continuing for three days, the State Councilor and Foreign Minister — in order of importance — of the People’s Republic will meet with the Secretary of State Antony Blinken for a private dinner this Thursday and a series of meetings with the National Security Advisor, Jake Sullivan, and other figures from the US Government. It has not been officially announced, but it is considered very likely that he could even be seen with President Joe Biden himself, as Blinken was with the Chinese leader Xi Jinping on his visit to Beijing in June.

At the beginning of his meeting with Blinken at the State Department, with which he opened his official agenda, Wang insisted that China and the United States “have differences and disagreements, but we also share common interests and we face challenges that we need to respond [to] together.” In a press release by China’s Foreign Ministry, the diplomat stated that both countries needed to maintain dialogue “to improve mutual understanding, reduce misunderstanding and misjudgment, forge and broaden our common ground and begin mutually beneficial cooperation,” he urged. His American counterpart spoke in a much more taciturn manner: “I look forward to continuing to work with my counterpart from the People’s Republic of China [...] later this week,” he simply said.

The objective of the visit is to prepare Xi’s possible participation at the APEC (the Asia-Pacific economic cooperation forum) summit, which the United States is hosting in San Francisco in just over two weeks. His attendance would lead to a meeting between Xi and Biden, the first face-to-face meeting between both leaders in twelve months, and one that comes at a key moment in geopolitics, one of those that, according to Biden himself, “will mark the coming decades.”

The two great powers and systemic rivals have stated that, although there are issues on which they will never be able to agree — human rights or the situation in Taiwan are some of the most obvious — they want to manage their ties responsibly. Their relationship is the most important and complex in the world: while they compete in areas such as technological innovation, military strength, or diplomatic influence, they maintain commercial codependency and share interests in the fight against climate change.

President Biden said on Wednesday that the U.S. will “compete” with China “according to the international rules — economically, politically and other ways – but I’m not looking for conflict,” in a press conference with the Australian Prime Minister, Anthony Albanese, in the Rose Garden of the White House. Albanese, leader of one of Washington’s closest allies, plans to travel to Beijing to meet with Xi immediately before the Chinese leader’s possible trip to California in mid-November.

Senior US officials have indicated their hope that meetings with Wang and Xi will allow for “a more constructive approach” to relations. For its part, China has assured the United States that it wants the visits by its representatives to serve to “straighten the path” in those ties.

According to the White House, senior US officials have had discussions with Wang on issues such as Beijing’s activities in the South China Sea, whose sovereignty Beijing claims almost entirely. This week, the Philippines, which claims part of those waters, reported two collisions between ships of the People’s Republic and its ships in a disputed area. On Thursday, the Pentagon reported that a Chinese military plane came too close to an American bomber flying over the South China Sea.

The White House will also raise the need to reestablish contacts between the respective Armed Forces with its Chinese interlocutor, to prevent any incidents leading to a crisis with serious consequences. These contacts have remained interrupted since the visit of the then-Speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan in August of last year. The current crisis in the Middle East also figures prominently on the agenda, as noted this Thursday by the spokesman for the US National Security Council, John Kirby.

So far, Washington has watched with disappointment as China has, at least indirectly, supported Russia in the war in Ukraine, and taken the Arab side in the conflict in the Middle East. The Biden Administration hopes that Beijing will play a constructive role in both conflicts and exert its influence on the parties to achieve a peaceful and prompt solution in Ukraine, and deter Iran and groups sponsored by that country’s regime from intervening in the crisis between Israel and Hamas.

Relations between the two countries had hit rock bottom following Pelosi’s trip and, above all, the US shooting down of a Chinese hot air balloon that crossed its territory in February. The action (ordered by the Pentagon) caused Blinken to postpone a trip to Beijing at the last minute. Biden and Xi had personally agreed on the trip three months earlier at the G20 summit in Bali in November 2022, the only time so far that they have seen each other face to face since the Democrat assumed the presidency. Both then agreed to relaunch relations that had begun to deteriorate in 2018, when the Trump Administration imposed tariffs on $50 billion in Chinese imports.

Since the balloon fiasco, both countries have taken cautious steps to defuse the relationship. Sullivan and Wang have met twice, in Vienna and Malta. Several senior officials from the Biden Administration have traveled to Beijing: from Blinken himself in June to the Secretary of the Treasury, Janet Yellen, to the head of Commerce, Gina Raimondo. In September, the Secretary of State spoke with the Chinese Vice President, Han Zheng, when the latter participated in the UN General Assembly. And two weeks ago, Blinken was talking to Wang about the crisis in the Middle East.

But, despite declarations of good will, the rivalry continues. In its request to Congress last week for $105 billion primarily for military assistance to Ukraine and Israel, the Biden Administration has included $7.4 billion for economic and military investments to respond to China’s rise in Asia. And Beijing vetoed a US resolution proposal on humanitarian aid in Gaza in the UN Security Council.

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