Chinese technical support for Russian mercenaries in Ukraine, North Korean nuclear weapons and the prospect of a Chinese military invasion of Taiwan could all be on the table when Secretary of State Antony Blinken touches down in Beijing for a high-stakes diplomatic visit this weekend.
The Biden administration has been tight-lipped about Mr. Blinken’s agenda for the visit Sunday and Monday, although sources say the central goal is to tamp down rising Cold War-style tensions between Washington and Beijing that nearly hit a boiling point after Rep. Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, visited Taiwan as House speaker last summer.
Mr. Blinken is being dispatched to try to build on the guarded smiles that President Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping exchanged in November on the sidelines of the Group of 20 gathering in Indonesia. Mr. Biden vowed that the U.S. will “compete vigorously” with China but seek to “maintain open lines of communication.” The two sides agreed to explore areas where they could cooperate, including on issues such as climate change and curbing the trafficking into the U.S. of the deadly synthetic opioid fentanyl.
White House national security spokesman John Kirby portrayed the trip as a way to restart conversations on issues frozen in recent months as bilateral relations cratered.
“One of the goals of this trip is to see about getting some of those vehicles restored and/or revitalized,” he said, calling the U.S.-Chinese relationship “the most consequential bilateral relationship in the world.”
Yet the relationship is so fraught overall that analysts say success for Mr. Blinken may consist of simply establishing a fundamental and stable diplomatic track with Chinese Communist Party officials to cool down talk of a direct military clash between the world’s most powerful democracy and its most powerful autocracy.
“This is really about reestablishing the undergirding of the relationship and putting in place some procedures and mechanisms,” said Jude Blanchette, a China expert with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“The White House views this trip as just another step in building on the trajectory since November,” he told reporters on a call previewing the trip. “They don’t say this, but I think the goal is to fast-forward this Cold War to its detente phase, thereby skipping a Cuban missile crisis.”
It remains to be seen whether the most sensitive matters will be pushed to the back burner during Mr. Blinken’s trip.
With the White House eager to promote calm in the relationship, items such as coordination on climate change initiatives likely will be expressed. More divisive issues, such as Beijing’s purchase of Iranian oil in violation of U.S. sanctions, its blind eye toward the sale of nuclear equipment by Chinese companies to North Korea, and its repressive policies against the minority Uyghur Muslims in western China are unlikely to be front and center.
China has its own grievances, including rising U.S. engagement with Taiwan, the continuing high tariffs on Chinese exports and frustration over the Biden administration’s widening push to limit Beijing’s access to the high-tech microchips that U.S. officials fear could be used in futuristic weapons for China’s expanding military forces.
Taiwan is a top producer of such chips, and Washington has pushed Taipei for months to block their sale to Chinese companies. The New York Times has reported that the Netherlands and Japan, both makers of some of the world’s most advanced equipment for manufacturing the chips, have agreed to join the U.S.-led effort to curb sales to China.
The broader issue of Mr. Xi’s vow to bring U.S.-backed Taiwan under Beijing’s control — using military force if necessary — hangs more broadly over Mr. Blinken’s visit. The secretary of state’s trip coincides with rising outrage in Beijing over a U.S. general’s leaked memo predicting war with China by 2025 and reports that House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, California Republican, intends to follow Mrs. Pelosi with a visit to Taiwan.
“China opposes any form of official interaction between its Taiwan region and countries having diplomatic ties with China,” a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman told reporters this week, referring to the autonomous island democracy as part of mainland China.
A recent commentary published by the state-aligned Global Times newspaper in Beijing warned that “if McCarthy does visit Taiwan in 2023 … China-U.S. relations will witness another shock comparable to or even worse than that in August 2022 when Pelosi visited Taiwan.”
Mrs. Pelosi, California Democrat, in August became the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit Taiwan in a quarter-century. Beijing responded with a series of aerial and naval maneuvers of unprecedented score in the waters around Taiwan.
The trip would symbolize the House Republican majority’s support for Taiwan, which Mr. Biden has repeatedly said would be backed by U.S. military forces in the event of a Chinese attack.
Mr. McCarthy first signaled in July that he would visit Taiwan if he became speaker.
House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Michael McCaul, Texas Republican, told Fox News recently that the risk of a U.S.-Chinese conflict is “very high.” While Mr. McCaul criticized the Biden administration, claiming a clash over Taiwan could happen because the president is “projecting weakness,” the lawmaker’s warning dovetailed with a sobering assessment that the two sides are headed for sharper conflicts.
Taiwan looms large
Analysts say Mr. Blinken is likely to tread carefully on the Taiwan issue in meetings with Chinese diplomats.
The State Department has not officially announced the dates of Mr. Blinken’s visit to Beijing and dodged questions about his specific agenda. A Chinese Foreign Ministry official confirmed the trip on Jan. 17 by telling reporters that the two sides were “in communication” about plans for the visit.
Politico has reported that Mr. Blinken will meet with Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang on Sunday and Monday. It is not known whether the secretary of state will be granted a meeting with Mr. Xi.
A meeting with Mr. Xi could indicate the Chinese leadership’s desire for a thaw in tensions over Taiwan and other issues, perhaps even those involving North Korea.
China is North Korea’s primary economic backer and main ally. Pyongyang has refused all diplomatic overtures from the Biden White House and set regional tensions soaring with a series of weapons tests last year that many fear is a prelude to the North’s seventh test of a nuclear weapon.
After the Biden-Xi meeting in November, Mr. Biden said he told Mr. Xi that Beijing had an obligation to stop North Korea from carrying out a nuclear weapon test.
U.S. intelligence began warning as far back as May that such a test may be imminent. Pyongyang has refrained, prompting some in the U.S. national security community to question privately whether China may have successfully persuaded North Korea to hold off.
Another delicate issue involves Beijing’s ambivalent stance on Russia’s war in Ukraine and, more recently, the apparent tacit support for the Wagner Group, the Kremlin-allied Russian mercenary force taking a leading role in the fight against Ukrainian military forces.
Bonny Lin, who heads the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said Mr. Blinken likely will raise the issue while in Beijing.
Ms. Lin noted this week that the Treasury Department leveled sanctions on Thursday against a Chinese company for providing satellite imagery to support the Wagner Group’s combat operations in Ukraine. “So this, as well as other concerns about the China-Russia dynamic and what that means for Russia’s operation in Ukraine, are likely to feature in the conversation,” she said.
Mr. Blinken will be the highest-level U.S. official to visit Beijing since Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited in 2018. President Trump held talks with Mr. Xi there in 2017.
“We should be watching who Secretary Blinken will meet and what will come from each of those meetings,” said Ms. Lin, who noted that Mr. Pompeo was granted meetings only with high-level Chinese officials Wang Yi and Yang Jiechi, but not with Mr. Xi, who visited with Secretary of State John Kerry three years earlier.
Whether or not the Chinese leader grants Mr. Blinken an audience is likely to depend on how contentious the secretary of state’s initial meeting gets with the foreign minister.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry has suggested that Mr. Qin will be welcoming but could be combative.
“We … hope that the U.S. will perceive China correctly, pursue dialogue and win-win cooperation, not confrontation and zero-sum competition,” ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin told reporters in mid-January.
The goal will be to get the U.S. and China working “in the same direction” and deliver on “common understandings” identified at the Biden-Xi meeting in November to “bring the China-U.S. relations back to the track of sound and steady growth,” Mr. Wang said.