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Chinese experts express moderate outlook for Sino-U.S. ties as Blinken departs
Beijing Channel exclusively interviewed 4 Chinese experts on the much-hyped Blinken visit.
Here are some of the key takeaways from the interviewees, including ZHU Feng of Nanjing University, WANG Yong of Peking University, DA Wei of Tsinghua University, and JIE Dalei of Peking University.
▲ The experts welcomed the visit, saying it signals a step toward stabilizing ties and may be a prelude to other high-level meetings later this year.
▲ The experts agree that the meeting itself is an accomplishment, but have different opinions on how much the meeting accomplished. They say the key lies in the implementation, which is not guaranteed to materialize.
▲ While recognizing the meeting could set a stable tone for the rest of the year, the experts were reluctant to speculate on the course of bilateral ties going into 2024, especially with the looming U.S. presidential election.
▲The experts are pleased with a shared desire for people-to-people exchanges between China and Washington but point to flight issues, security concerns, and red tape as reasons for a slow revival.
▲ZHU Feng, Professor and Executive Dean of the School of International Studies, Nanjing University.
This visit cannot be seen as the beginning of a substantive change in the Biden administration's China policy, and it is hard to say that China-U.S. relations will bottom out and rise.
Blinken's visit to China, to a large extent, reflects that the Biden administration has to pursue a certain degree of balance in handling its China policy. On the one hand, the U.S. has maintained its containment and suppression against China. On the other hand, in the face of a volatile international political and economic situation, the U.S. seeks to avoid being accused by other countries and the international community of adopting a confrontational policy towards China in the form of a new Cold War. China and the United States are the world's first and second-largest economies, therefore, if the U.S. persists in suppressing China, it will only bring deeper political and economic damage to the world. In times of turbulence, the U.S. is pursuing a balanced policy between suppressing China and dialogue and cooperation with China in its chosen areas.
Blinken's visit continues the Biden administration's policy stance toward China, which calls for overall competition with limited cooperation. This visit cannot be seen as the beginning of a substantive change in the Biden administration's China policy, and it is hard to say that China-U.S. relations will bottom out and rise. Instead, this visit reflects more about the Biden administration's consideration of its diplomatic interests and domestic politics. The Biden administration showed its multifaceted China policy and the balance it seeks to achieve.
Nonetheless, the visit was a positive development. China-U.S. relations have been unprecedentedly at the lowest point since Nixon's trip to China. The most crucial thing in bilateral ties is avoiding outright confrontation and conflict. In this sense, China and the U.S. need to re-establish a relatively stable channel of communication and dialogue. At the same time, both sides should make clear to each other to avoid miscalculations on some core strategic issues. In any case, China and the United States still need to control disputes and prevent further deterioration of relations. On the other hand, China and the United States should discuss the opportunities for cooperation under current turbulent international political and economic conditions.
President Xi's meeting with Blinken has two implications. One is that, as is known to all, Biden is personally close to Blinken and that President Xi and Biden are familiar with each other, and the historical trajectory of China-U.S. relations shows that bilateral relations need to be driven by head-of-state diplomacy. Second, President Xi's meeting with Blinken manifests the head of state's leadership in managing China-U.S. relations and reflects the Chinese leadership's positive gesture and top-level input to the relationship. President Xi's meeting with Blinken was also a highlight during the latter’s visit to China due to the close attention from the U.S. media.
In Blinken’s meeting with senior Chinese officials, the two sides agreed on strengthening people-to-people exchanges. President Xi also made a positive statement on this issue during his meeting with Bill Gates, reflecting the Chinese leaders' determination to deepen people-to-people exchanges between China and the U.S., as well as China's advocacy and vision in stabilizing and developing China-U.S. relations. Because one of the essentials of the relationship between the two countries lies in the constant mobilization, activation, and promotion of this social interaction, enabling the relationship between the two countries has a broad basis of public opinion and, more importantly, benefits the people of both countries. It should be noted, however, that the people-to-people exchanges are always an integral part of the bilateral relationship, and it is difficult for them to exist in isolation from the overall trend of China-U.S. relations.
▲WANG Yong, Professor at the School of International Studies, and the Director of the Center for American Studies, Peking University.
Washington committed a strategic mistake by simultaneously engaging in competition with two major powers, which, on the contrary, enhanced Beijing's position in this strategic triangle.
In a broader context, the timing of this visit could be comprehended in several ways. Firstly, tensions between China and the United States could further escalate, increasing the risk of a potential conflict. Particularly concerning Taiwan, while Washington claims to adhere to the One China policy verbally, it is gradually eroding the consensus between China and the U.S. on the Taiwan question, seriously infringing upon China's sovereignty and interests.
The second aspect is related to the changes in the international strategic landscape. Over the past year, the United States has sought to contain China and Russia, notably by hyping the notion of "Ukraine today, Taiwan tomorrow." Washington committed a strategic mistake by simultaneously engaging in competition with two major powers, which, on the contrary, enhanced Beijing's position in this strategic triangle. The United States is also concerned about a further deepening relationship between Beijing and Moscow.
The third is about the changes in the global landscape. The U.S. policy toward the Russia-Ukraine conflict has further divided the world. The global South did not go along with the U.S.-led massive sanctions against Russia or support U.S. efforts to contain China or a new Cold War. Feeling pressure from regional countries and the international community, the U.S. adjusts its posture toward China.
Blinken’s visit to China marks a resumption of high-level engagement between China and the United States, and the fact that this meeting took place itself is an accomplishment. Both countries are returning to the consensus reached by the two leaders last November in Bali, which prioritizes stabilizing the relationship and promoting communication at various levels.
The two sides reached some consensus, albeit limited, on issues such as exchanges of academics and business, as well as the restoring flights. Of particular note is establishing working groups to jointly address specific issues. These are positive developments and provide some expectations for China-U.S. relations in the next phase.
However, we cannot expect this visit to improve China-U.S. relations; it can only be seen as an easing of tensions. Additionally, the Biden administration faces domestic political pressures, especially with the upcoming election. The prospects of China-U.S. relations will likely encounter more uncertainties and even further obstacles.
The overall decline in the bilateral relationship has dramatically impacted the current people-to-people exchanges between China and the United States. Academic and student exchanges face substantial obstacles, and Chinese scholars face more challenges in the United States than American scholars in China. The uncertainties in China-U.S. relations and geopolitical competition also impede exchanges in the business sector and among journalists.
Some forces within the United States continue to promote a new Cold War narrative, and the consequence of this is the gradual severance of people-to-people exchanges between the two countries. This is highly dangerous and does not benefit China and the United States.
It is hoped that through Secretary Blinken's visit, China and the United States can find specific ways to improve people-to-people exchanges based on the initial consensus reached. Both sides need to move towards each other and create more favorable conditions for exchanges, especially on the part of China. Currently, China is mostly reacting passively to certain measures taken by the United States. It might benefit China to adopt a more inclusive and open approach to expand people-to-people exchanges with the United States. The present moment provides a good opportunity as the pandemic is receding, and Secretary Blinken has just concluded his visit to China. Against this backdrop, China and the United States should take concrete measures to promote people-to-people exchanges.
President Xi's meeting with Secretary Blinken represents Beijing's affirmation of the Biden administration's efforts to stabilize China-U.S. relations. There have been some adjustments in U.S. policy towards China recently, such as promoting high-level contacts and changes in rhetoric, which the Chinese side has noticed.
President Xi and President Biden have two meeting opportunities in the coming months. One is at the G20 summit in New Delhi, and the other is at the APEC summit in San Francisco. In this regard, President Xi's meeting with Blinken sends an important positive signal to Biden.
▲DA Wei, Director, CISS and Professor, Department of International Relations, Tsinghua University
We can't afford to delay a meeting any further. We must take action now if we want concrete results.
The two countries reached a consensus last year in Bali to stabilize bilateral ties. Considering that Xi and Biden may meet in the latter half of this year during APEC, the two meetings are bookends to a window of opportunity to stabilize ties. Therefore, it is crucial to make some progress in this window.
Due to the balloon incident in February, which caused quite a disturbance in their relations, the two countries have struggled to grasp this window of opportunities to stabilize their relations, wasting a few months in between. Now is the time to give this window another chance, and we can't afford to delay it any further. We must take action now if we want concrete results.
Within this context, we are still left with some time for both sides to do something until the end of 2023. This is the backdrop of Blinken’s visit.
As for deliverables coming out of the meeting, to be honest, I don’t think we achieved a lot yet. The biggest achievement might be the visit itself, which initiated a process and paved the road for following official visits, such as Yellen and Raimondo’s visits to China and Qin Gang's to the United States. The significance of Blinken’s visit lies in its positive implications for these future events.
Other achievements may need further discussion. For example, issues like flights, fentanyl, and dialogue mechanisms between China and the United States are still being explored, although no official announcements have been made. However, the absence of an announcement does not mean that those conversations are at dead ends. It may require additional discussions at the working level to move forward.
Guiding principles of the Sino-U.S. relationship was one of the consensuses reached at the Bali summit last year. President Xi pointed out that to navigate the relationship between two countries as socially and ideologically different as China and the U.S., we need guiding principles and strategic frameworks to achieve peace. We brought up this point, and the U.S side agreed to discuss it with us.
While China focused on broader guiding principles such as mutual respect, peaceful coexistence, and win-win cooperation, Washington preferred to focus on establishing so-called guardrails.
China’s proposals are more general, which are to be specified in dialogue. For example, what does mutual respect mean? The United States claims it respects China, to the disagreement of Beijing, so the two sides may need to hammer out the specifics and agree on how to realize those principles. The U.S., on the other hand, has mainly wanted to discuss specific issues, such as crisis management mechanisms, or the so-called guardrails.
Both sides came out of the Bali meeting realizing each wanted to talk about different things, but both expressed openness to talk about the thing the other party wanted. Beijing says it wants to address guiding principles first with the understanding that Washington preferred guardrails and Washington understands that it needs to meet China halfway on guiding principles before getting to guardrails. I think the two sides may have come to a consensus on a common language during Blinken’s visit, which could be beneficial to dialogues in the future.
Both sides are encouraging the resumption of people-to-people exchanges, but it’s the reality that those exchanges have not recovered to 2019 levels. I think there are a few reasons for that.
First, there are national security concerns over the risks of rekindling mutual connections. Then there are difficulties over flights. Of course, I believe human connection takes time, and revivals are always slow. For example, according to the U.S. ambassador to China, there were only 350 American students in China last semester. I think that’s rather understandable considering that they needed to apply for the study away last fall when the Zero Covid policy was still in place here. So I think it will slowly recover.
Even if we may never return to the high level of cultural exchange before, the number of American students should be over 350 this fall, as China opened up before spring this year, coinciding with their time of application.
If we are lucky enough, Sino-American relations may be more stable for the rest of the year. It probably won’t continue to deteriorate, and there will be more interactions between officials and citizens. Next year is an election year, I don’t think we ought to be too pessimistic about Sino-American relations, but it will be hard for both countries to achieve huge steps ahead in the next few years. So if we can at least achieve some results by the end of this year, we will just try to maintain the momentum next year.
The election result next year will be consequential as well. If the U.S. president changes next year, policies towards China will also change. If not, there might be more stability. We can’t change the structural issues in the China-U.S. relationship but may achieve a level of stability in the next half of the year within a larger framework of competition.
▲JIE Dalei, Associate Professor, School of International Studies, Peking University
If talks with Blinken proceeded as they did in Munich, it would be unlikely for a meeting between Xi and Blinken to take place.
Despite the low expectations that many people had for the meeting, I personally found it to be quite productive.
First of all, starting a series of high-level exchanges was a significant achievement in itself and should not be overlooked. At first, we were unsure whether President Xi would meet with Blinken, but he ended up talking with him for over half an hour, which indicates that the meeting went quite well for both sides.
Secondly, both sides agreed to jointly implement the common understandings reached by the two presidents in Bali and to keep moving forward with consultations on the guiding principles of China-U.S. relations. They also agreed to continue advancing consultations through the joint working group to address specific issues in the relations.
Thirdly, both sides agreed to encourage more people-to-people and educational exchanges and had discussions on increasing passenger flights between the two countries. This is particularly encouraging for frequent travelers who have experienced difficulties due to limited flight options.
Finally, Blinken formally stated that the United States welcomes China to play a constructive role in resolving the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, which he had previously mentioned but made more overt this time.
Most people believe that there are structural conflicts between China and the United States and that one or two meetings cannot bring fundamental changes. From the readouts, it is clear that the two sides have different views and interests on bilateral, regional, and global issues. However, Qin Gang stated after meeting with Blinken that China is committed to building a stable, predictable, and constructive relationship with the U.S., which I think is achievable. If over the next 5-10 years, China-U.S. relations can become more stable and predictable even amidst the intensifying competition and if there can also be some cooperation and no unexpected setbacks, it would be really great.
The fact that neither side confirmed a Xi-Blinken meeting until well into Blinken’s visit shows China was uncertain whether the visit would improve relations. However, after two rounds of talks, I noticed that both sides were relatively aligned in their statements. Building on this consensus, President Xi was able to further elaborate on China-U.S. relations from a more strategic and forward-thinking perspective.
During the Munich Security Conference, the meeting between Wang Yi and Blinken was tense, as Blinken suggested that China might provide lethal weapons to Russia. If talks with Blinken proceeded like last time, it would be unlikely for a meeting between Xi and Blinken to take place.
It's really tough for both sides to agree on the guiding principles for China-U.S. relations. Our principles have always centered around mutual respect and win-win cooperation, and we're not a fan of the U.S. characterization of strategic competition.
There are several obstacles to achieving the desired level of people-to-people exchanges. One is practical, such as flight issues, partly due to the impact of the pandemic. The other is psychological, as scholars may experience mental stress when being questioned by customs officials while traveling to the other country. The restoration of cultural communication requires a snowball effect of reducing restrictions, making people feel at ease, and promoting more exchanges.
Issues involving national security are also a challenge. In the past, educational and academic exchanges were much easier. Even minor restrictions borne out of security considerations can have negative effects.
For myself, I feel there is a lot of red tape in conducting international events. Hosting a conference where foreigners attend may even require the hosting party to file for approval one semester prior. Academics must also get approvals before granting foreign media interviews. Some would entirely give up on the outreach given the onerous effort.
But the picture is not uniform. Based on conversations with fellow researchers, some would not seek approval before granting interviews to foreign media or give notice to their schools after interviews. So the rules are executed with various strictness.
Beijing Channel interns Jin Sirui, Liao Hongqing, Luo Zhiyu, and Yin Yixin contributed to the translation.
The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect that of this publication or Xinhua News Agency.