Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited Washington last week after a telling interval of five years. Official readouts indicate some bilateral progress during his trip. Important were the disclosures that consultations on maritime affairs and arms control would resume and Chinese President Xi Jinping would visit San Francisco later this month for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit — this will be the second meeting between the two since US President Joe Biden assumed office.
In this interim, China’s leaders and official media have kept up a steady rhetoric critical of the US. Beijing has persisted with aggressive actions against the Philippines, Japan and Taiwan and Xi continues to confidently push his global agenda offering the world an alternative model with his Global Security Initiative, Global Development Initiative and Global Civilisation Initiative. Speaking on October 30, at the ongoing 10th Beijing Xiangshan Forum, the Vice-Chairman of China’s Central Military Commission, General Zhang Youxia, again stressed that ‘China will never tolerate and will be relentless against anyone who dares to split Taiwan from China in any way’.
That China decided to send Wang Yi, who, as member of the Politburo and Director of the CCP’s Central Foreign Affairs Commission, is the seniormost diplomat and foreign policy adviser to Xi, for talks and to discuss Xi’s meeting with Biden on the sidelines of the APEC summit in San Francisco next month, is significant. It points to the US and China deciding to arrest the deterioration in their relations.
Wang Yi’s visit comes amid China continuing to assess US strength and capability to interfere in the Indo-Pacific region while being engaged in the Ukraine war and making efforts to contain Israel’s war on Hamas from spreading across West Asia. Chinese calculations will factor in its firm friendship with Russia and strengthening ties with Iran. Inside China, there is widespread lack of trust, including among officials, in the pronouncements of the US and West that they do not desire to ‘contain’ China. The statements by General Zhang Youxia and other leaders address this audience.
Notwithstanding the negative rhetoric, meetings have taken place between US and Chinese officials in third countries to try and ease tensions. Officials have met in Italy, Switzerland, Indonesia and Malta. The US made the first substantive move with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken visiting China this June, his first since assuming office in January 2021. This was followed by the visits of US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen early this July, US Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry in July and US Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo in August. During this period, only Chinese Commerce Vice-Minister Wang Wentao visited the US to attend an APEC meeting in May.
In September, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson said Chinese Premier Li Qiang had a brief exchange with Biden at the G20 summit in New Delhi; Li Qiang emphasised that China’s development was an opportunity rather than a challenge to the US, and China and the US should strengthen exchanges. Biden was reported replying that “the United States hopes that China’s economy will continue to grow and will not prevent China’s economic development.”
Negative rhetoric in China’s official media has noticeably become more conciliatory recently. The People’s Daily (October 27) reported the congratulatory messages sent by Xi and Biden to the annual Gala Dinner of the National Committee on US-China Relations. Xi’s meetings with California Governor Gavin Newsom in Beijing on October 25 and earlier on October 9, with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer received positive coverage. Xinhua said Xi had told Schumer: “China maintains that the common interests of the two countries far outweigh their differences” and that “the ‘Thucydides Trap’ is not inevitable.” According to Xinhua, Schumer responded: “The US side does not seek a conflict with China, nor does it seek to decouple” and “the United States is willing to enhance dialogue and communication with China in an open and candid manner…and stabilise and strengthen US-China relations.”
Official and media reports confirmed that Wang Yi had two rounds of closed-door meetings with Blinken on October 26 and 27 before meeting US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and Biden on October 27. Prior to meeting Blinken, Wang Yi reiterated the Chinese position that China and the US need to resume dialogue and stabilise China-US relations. The US State Department spokesperson said they discussed a range of bilateral, regional and global issues, and addressed areas of difference and cooperation. Blinken, it said, reiterated that the “United States will continue to stand up for our interests and values and those of our allies and partners.” He expressed condolences on the passing of former Premier Li Keqiang.
China has noticeably stayed firm with its policy of becoming a major world power and dominating the Indo-Pacific region and not eased its aggressive policies towards India and the region. There are simultaneously adequate indications of rising domestic dissatisfaction in China. Among the factors is that people blame Xi for mishandling the relationship with the US and accentuating economic hardship.
As the window of opportunity for Xi to defuse tensions or divert the people’s attention by attempting a military adventure shrinks, Wang Yi will try and assess the US’ resolve to ‘contain’ China. The window for the US is shrinking too. As Washington pursues a policy of only economic competition with China, it risks allowing China to overtake it in global influence and economic and military power.
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