Thursday, July 18, 2024
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US-China: Is The Ice Thawing?

Asad Mirza

Last week the US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken was in China, ostensibly to diffuse the tension build-up between the two super powers. However, in this latest bilateral exchange, China appears to have taken an upper hand over the US.

The top American and Chinese diplomats held tough talks in Beijing last week, as the sparring superpowers sought to clarify their growing differences on an array of bilateral and global issues that could further strain the already tense relationship.

While US Secretary of State Antony Blinken claimed that ties are “beginning to stabilise,” his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, did not mince words when addressing a number of contentious topics, including Ukraine, Taiwan and trade issues.

At the Beijing meeting, Wang warned Washington not to cross China's red lines on sovereignty, security and development, adding that “negative factors” have been mounting between the world’s two largest economies as the relationship “faces all kinds of disruptions”. Meaning, it told the US to keep its hands off the Chinese adventurism in the South China Sea.

“China's legitimate development rights have been unreasonably suppressed and our core interests are facing challenges," Wang told Blinken, asking whether the two countries should keep moving forward or “return to a downward spiral”.

For his part, Blinken, who also visited Shanghai and met President Xi Jinping during his latest three-day China trip, said he warned Beijing directly about its assertive moves around the Philippines and vowed to defend the ally.

Blinken said he raised Beijing's "dangerous actions in the South China Sea" during meetings with top leaders. Earlier, Blinken had promised to be “very clear, very direct” in the talks about “the areas where we have differences and where the United States stands”.

Blinken was hoping to build upon the progress made in recent months on resuming counter-narcotics cooperation, military-to-military communications, artificial intelligence and strengthening people-to-people ties.

Both Wang and Biden also referred to the heightened trade tensions between the two sides amid consistent complaints that Chinese overcapacity is flooding the US market and undercutting American firms. Though for this the US and the wider West itself is to be blamed

Antony Blinken also met Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing. During the meeting Xi told Blinken that the world’s two biggest economies should “be partners, not rivals.” according to state broadcaster CCTV.
During their meeting in Beijing’s Great Hall of the People, Xi proposed three major principles: mutual respect, peaceful coexistence, and win-win cooperation for improving ties with the US.

Apparently, Xi was reported as saying that the earth is big enough to hold the common development and… prosperity of China and the United States and China would be pleased to see a confident and open, prosperous and developing US, adding that he hopes the US can also take a “positive view of China’s development. When this fundamental problem is solved… relations can truly stabilise, get better, and move forward.

However, China’s increasing closeness to Russia in the wake of its invasion of Ukraine has heightened US distrust. Blinken told reporters that during his discussions, he reiterated serious American concern about the People’s Republic of China providing components that are powering Russia’s brutal war of aggression against Ukraine.

The Wall Street Journal reported ahead of Blinken’s trip that the US might threaten to remove some Chinese banks from the global financial system if China does not curtail outflow of dual-use components to Russia.

Officials of both countries said they had made progress on a few smaller, pragmatic fronts, including setting up the first U.S.-China talks on artificial intelligence in the coming weeks. They also said they would continue improving communications between their militaries and increase cultural exchanges. But on fundamental strategic issues, each side held little hope of moving the other, and they appeared wary of the possibility of sliding into further conflict.

Meanwhile, In an interview with CNN at the tail end of his China trip, Mr Blinken said he’d reiterated a warning President Joe Biden had delivered to Chinese leader Xi Jinping during their November 2023 summit, in which Mr Biden told Mr Xi not to get involved in the 2024 election. He said recently the United States has learned of Chinese efforts to “influence and arguably interfere” with this year’s upcoming general election and is working to stop them.

China professes that it does not get involved in other nations’ internal affairs, but over the years Beijing and its allies and affiliates have been the subject of election-meddling accusations from multiple countries.

Earlier this month, Microsoft warned that China might use AI to disrupt elections in the United States, India, and South Korea in 2024. The report said that “China tacitly approved efforts to try to influence a handful of midterm races involving members of both US political parties” with the idea to try to prevent certain candidates perceived as anti-China from winning and support certain candidates perceived to be pro-China.

All in all, the visit seemed to be full of rhetoric, and seemed to have gained nothing much for the United States but it gave an upper hand to China over the US on reiterating its position on many contentious issues. In the meanwhile, China continues to support Russia over Ukraine, and be a continuous headache for its neighbours in the South China Sea besides asserting its right over Taiwan, and being an international disruptor on major trade and technological issues while building-up its military power.

Moreover, the visit came at a time when the risk of confrontation between the two is growing, and areas where two could work together seem to be shrinking fast. But the message conveyed was that both countries are trying to salvage what they could.

(Asad Mirza is a Delhi-based senior political and international affairs commentator)

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