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Right Time to Talk?

As military leaders of China and the US laid out clashing views for the Asia-Pacific’s security future, top diplomats of the two countries resume talks to prevent the bilateral relationship from turning from bad to worse

By Yu Xiaodong Updated Aug.1

Chinese President Xi Jinping meets with visiting US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Beijing, June 19, 2023 (Photo by Xinhua)

Amid escalating tensions between the world’s two largest economies in recent months, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken paid a high-stake visit to China, where he held an unexpected meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, after meetings with his counterpart Qin Gang and Wang Yi, director of the Office of the Foreign Affairs Commission of the Communist Party of China Central Committee.  

Blinken’s visit came less than two weeks after defense ministers from the two countries laid out clashing visions for regional security at the IISS Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore between June 2 and 4, where they did not engage in direct talks with each other.  

As the first US Secretary of State to visit China in five years, Blinken’s trip is seen as the latest effort to halt bilateral relations from plummeting further amid a suspension of high-level diplomatic exchanges. 

Eroded Trust 
China suspended high-level defense communication mechanisms with the US following the controversial visit by former US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan in August 2022. In the past months, the US has called to resume high-level defense talks on several occasions. But in a statement released on May 31, the Pentagon said that China had declined an invitation extended in early May for a meeting between the two defense ministers at the Shangri-La Dialogue.  

China has requested the US to lift its sanctions on China’s Defense Minister Li Shangfu, imposed in response to China’s purchase of Russian arms in 2018, to ensure the meeting can be held under the principle of “mutual respect.” Li was director of the Equipment Development Department of the Chinese military from 2017 to 2022 and has been China’s defense minister since March 2023.  

US President Joe Biden initially stated that the sanctions are “under discussion,” though the White House later clarified that they are off the table.  

Li shook hands and exchanged brief greetings with his American counterpart Lloyd Austin at opening dinner at the Shangri-La Dialogue, but the two had no substantive exchanges during the most important and influential annual defense dialogue in the Asia-Pacific.  

China’s consideration in rejecting Washington’s request to hold talks between the defense ministers goes far beyond the sanctions.  

For Chinese officials and analysts, as Washington persistently steps up its anti-China measures, including restricting high-tech exports to China and multiplying its military presence around China, its calls for dialogue are not just hypocritical but serve as an integral part of its anti-China strategy.  

From China’s perspective, if China agrees to resume high-level talks between the two militaries amid intensifying US provocations, it can be used by the US to assure its allies and regional countries that its anti-China actions will not lead to conflicts. If China refuses to resume high-level talks, the US can gain the moral high-ground, portray itself as the responsible party, and blame China for the escalated tensions. Both scenarios would help the US push its anti-China agenda.  

The US releasing video clips of a Chinese fighter jet’s alleged “unprofessional” interception of a US warplane off the Chinese coast just ahead of the security dialogue further reinforced the perception.  

In an interview with media on the sidelines of the Shangri-La Dialogue, Cui Tiankai, China’s longest-serving ambassador to the US from 2013 to 2021, said that the Americans have lost credibility as they failed to keep their word following past high-level talks.  

“The problem is that the US does not always implement the promises they make,” Cui said. He pointed out that in the meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and US President Joe Biden in Bali in November 2022, the two sides agreed to stabilize relations on the Taiwan question. But the US sold more arms to Taiwan soon after and upgraded its security cooperation with the island.  

The US hype over the threat of an alleged “spy balloon” which it shot down in February, led to the cancelation of a planned trip to China by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken. This further eroded China’s confidence in reaching any meaningful results through communications with the US. China has always maintained the craft was an astray meteorological balloon.  

Regarding recent military encounters, including China’s interception of a US surveillance plane only 50 kilometers south of Guangzhou, capital of China’s Guangdong Province, and the Chinese warship interception of a US destroyer and a Canadian frigate in the Taiwan Strait, Cui said “the real question is why they are coming all the way across the ocean to our doorstep? They are getting too close to our territories, to our territorial waters.” Cui said that the US should reduce its military presence around China in “good faith” if it wishes to resume high-level defense talks.   

China’s Defense Minister and State Councilor Li Shangfu addresses the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) Shangri-La Dialogue, Singapore, June 4, 2023 (Photo by VCG)

Clashing Views 
Aside from the disputes about under what conditions the two sides would resume high-level talks on defense matters, the two defense ministers presented two competing visions on the future security of the Asia-Pacific at the dialogue.  

In his speech, US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin implicitly linked the Russia-Ukraine war with security in Asia and suggested that the region embrace the US-led alliances and networks and set up a deterrence against China. “Russia’s invasion shows us all the dangers of disorder and the cost of chaos,” Austin said.  

He reviewed the recent efforts of the US to consolidate its alliances with regional countries such as Japan, South Korea and the Philippines and to forge new networks like AUKUS with the United Kingdom and Australia. “We have forged new friendships and deepened old alliances. We have reinforced deterrence to prevent conflict,” Austin said.  

In his speech, Li Shangfu warned that a cold war mentality is resurgent in the Asia-Pacific region that could lead to dire consequences. In an unmistakable reference to the US, Li said that “certain countries” willfully interfered in other countries internal matters and regional affairs, frequently resorting to unilateral sanctions and armed coercion. “It has incited color revolutions and proxy wars in different regions, created chaos and turbulence and just walked away, leaving a mess behind. We must never allow such things to happen again in the Asia-Pacific,” Li said. 
On the US’ alliance building in the region, Li warned that the true intention behind a “NATO-like military alliance” is to hold countries in the region hostage and play up conflict and confrontation. “History has proven that bloc politics, division and confrontation have never delivered genuine security and they can only escalate tensions and destabilize the region,” Li said.  

Li also laid out several principles for promoting regional security – mutual respect over bullying and hegemony, fairness and justice over the law of the jungle, eliminating conflicts and confrontation through mutual trust and consultation, and preventing bloc confrontation with openness and inclusiveness.  

“Today, what the Asia-Pacific needs are big pies of open and inclusive cooperation, not small cliques that are self-serving and exclusive,” Li said.  

In pushing against growing calls for NATO to become more involved in Asia’s security affairs, Cui Tiankai said during the conference the breakout of the Russia-Ukraine war is evident that Europe has “mismanaged” its region’s security and it is time for Europe to learn the Asian way to peace, which Cui said is based on consultation, communication and economic cooperation, and a “recognition of diversity and respect for diversity.”  

The messages Chinese officials try to deliver is that by doubling down on its “deterrence,” which can easily be seen as provocations, and disregarding China’s core interests such as the Taiwan question, the US risks repeating its mistakes and causing a serious conflict with China.  

With both sides advocating clashing views without engaging in direct talks between their defense leaders, many are concerned that relations between the US and China have embarked on a dangerous path with no political trust on either side. 

Restoring Confidence? 
Many hope that Blinken’s visit can inject some stability into the increasingly fragile ties between the two countries. But other than re-iterating the importance of stabilizing bilateral ties, it appears that that the two sides are still far apart on major issues.  

In his meeting with Blinken, China’s top diplomat, State Councilor Wang Yi said that Blinken’s visit came at “a critical juncture in China-US relations, where a choice needs to be made between dialogue or confrontation, cooperation or conflict,” and called for the two countries to “reverse the downward spiral” in bilateral relations.  

Stressing that the root cause of the deteriorating relations stem from the US’s misperceptions toward China, Wang said that the US must stop playing up the so-called “China threat,” card, lift illegal unilateral sanctions against China, stop suppressing China’s scientific and technological advances, and not wantonly interfere in China’s internal affairs.  

Wang also reiterated the significance of the Taiwan question as “the core of China’s core interests.”  

“On the Taiwan question, China has no room for compromise or concession,” Wang said, “The US must earnestly abide by the one-China principle set out in the three China-US joint communiqués, respect China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, and unequivocally oppose ‘Taiwan independence.’”  

Speaking to the press in Beijing during his visit on May 19, Blinken said that the US and China had made “progress” in “a whole variety of areas.” But according to a readout the White House released on Blinken’s visit to China, Blinken made it clear that the US will continue to “compete vigorously” with China, while managing the competition to prevent it from “veering into conflict.” 

Reiterating the US concerns on China on various issues, Blinken said that the two sides agreed on further senior-level engagements in Washington and Beijing to continue open lines of communication. But Blinken admitted that there was “no immediate progress” on resuming direct talks between the defense ministers of the two countries.  

On May 19, Yang Tao, director-general of the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s North American and Oceanian Affairs department, reiterated China’s demand for the US to adopt “an objective and rational perception of China” and lift its sanctions.  

According to Wu Xinbo, a Professor and Dean of the Institute of International Studies with Shanghai-based Fudan University, as the 2024 presidential election campaign season is quickly approaching, the window of opportunity for the improvement of China-US relations is closing. The next keynote event to watch is the 2023 APEC Leaders’ Meeting Summit to be held in California in November.  

So far, it remains unclear whether Chinese President Xi Jinping or other senior Chinese leaders will attend the event, the first APEC meeting to be held in the US since 2011.  

“The biggest lesson the US can learn is that it cannot dictate the terms or timings of high-level interactions between the two countries,” Wu said, “It has to be a mutual decision.”