China/USA: A Stable Disagreement

Antony Blinken returns to China less than a year after his June visit. There are many divisive dossiers including the US ban on TikTok and aid to Taiwan. But it remains important that they continue to dialogue to responsibly manage a relationship that is crucial for global balances

These are no longer the times of the alleged spy ball that blew up Antony Blinken's visit in February 2023. But neither are they the times of the ping pong balls that launched diplomacy between the two countries during the Cold War. The United States and China continue to talk to each other, even without getting along. It's already something, of course. But no breakthroughs are expected on the thorniest dossiers of the most important bilateral relations on the planet, not even on the occasion of Blinken's new visit to China. The US Secretary of State will be in Shanghai and Beijing between 24 and 26 April, ten months after his visit last June.

The timing is very delicate. Both for international events, from the war in Ukraine to the ever-increasing tensions in the Middle East, and for bilateral ones, with the opposing maneuvers on the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait, not to mention the commercial and technological front. On the eve of Blinken's departure, the US House of Representatives also approved a foreign aid package which, in addition to Ukraine and Israel, also includes Taiwan, to which eight billion dollars will be allocated. Not only. The anti-TikTok rule was included in the same package, which requires the Chinese parent company ByteDance to sell its international creation within nine months to avoid being banned on American territory. As if that wasn't enough, the Biden administration has made it clear that in addition to tripling tariffs on Chinese steel, it is ready to insert tariffs on Beijing's solar panels as part of the battle over the green tech industry that looks set to soon include electric cars.

On the American side, it is leaked that relations between China and Russia will be at the top of Blinken's agenda. Blinken intends to "reiterate our deep concerns about the People's Republic of China's support for Russia's defense industrial base" as well as its human rights abuses and "unfair economic and trade practices," a combative but unnamed Department of Defense official said. State to US media in preparation for the trip.

In recent weeks, the rhetoric of Blinken and the Biden administration in general has become more explicit regarding alleged Chinese support for Russia. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen also spoke about it during her recent trip to China, which also took place almost simultaneously with that of Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. And Joe Biden himself said he was worried about this in the phone call a few weeks ago with Xi Jinping.

In particular, exports of dual use devices that could have military applications are targeted. Last week, senior US officials released a list of technologies that China would send to Russia. In 2023, they stated that 90% of chips imported by Russia came from China and were used to produce missiles, tanks and planes. 70% of Russian machine tool imports in the final quarter of last year came from China and were "probably used" to produce ballistic missiles.

Beijing has always denied and maintains that exaggerating the risk of military use of the export of civilian products is part of a strategy of "defamation" of China, which instead professes to be neutral and the only one capable of maintaining dialogue with all parties in cause. On this basis, it is very difficult to obtain results in this matter. Blinken could try to convince Beijing to participate in the peace conference scheduled for June in Switzerland, but China has made it clear that its presence is linked to that of Russia, which seems almost impossible.

We will also talk about the Middle East. Here too the positions are distant. China criticizes US support for Israel, particularly for new military aid. The rhetoric is the same as that used on Ukraine. In essence, Washington would be throwing "fuel on the fire" of conflicts, rather than contributing to easing tension and promoting peace.

One should pay attention to the dossiers most closely related to bilateral relations. Blinken's visit to China is expected just weeks before the inauguration of Taiwan's president-elect Lai Ching-te, who Beijing considers a "secessionist." For the inauguration, scheduled for May 20, the United States will send an unofficial delegation that includes former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage and Laura Rosenberger, who chairs the American Institute in Taiwan. The approval of the new aid adds tension to a dossier on which it is impossible to reach an agreement.

Blinken and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi will reiterate their respective red lines, but the most that can be hoped for is a stabilization of the disagreement and a full restart of dialogue also on the military front, which seems to have occurred with the phone call in recent days between the US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and Chinese Defense Minister Dong Jun.

No less important, and certainly no less tense, is the situation in the South China Sea. In particular around the islands disputed between China and the Philippines, where accidents between Beijing and Manila ships have been occurring for months. Recently, Beijing observed with annoyance the trilateral summit at the White House between Biden, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Junior, with a series of measures to strengthen security relations.

Blinken will clarify the boundaries beyond which Washington would be forced to intervene due to the mutual defense treaty that binds it to Manila, while Chinese officials will ask not to interfere in a matter that they believe to be of exclusive interest to Asian countries.

Blinken will also talk about fentanyl, the leading cause of death of Americans between 18 and 49. According to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, China remains the primary source of fentanyl-related substances trafficked through international mail and express operations. Blinken will ask for greater support in the fight against drug trafficking.

Even if the two powers suddenly disagree on a long series of issues, it remains important that they continue to dialogue to responsibly manage a relationship that is crucial for global balances.

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