SINGAPORE: United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken met Chinese President Xi Jinping on Monday (Jun 19), capping a highly anticipated trip to Beijing that had generated hopes US-China relations would improve.
Such hopes are understandably expected: Mr Blinken is the first US Secretary of State since 2018 and the highest-ranking member of the Biden administration to meet Mr Xi. He also met top diplomat Wang Yi and foreign minister Qin Gang during the two-day trip, which had been rescheduled amid furore over an alleged Chinese spy balloon in February.
Mr Xi told Mr Blinken that “state-to-state interactions should always be based on mutual respect and sincerity”, adding that the two sides have “made progress and reached agreement on some specific issues” without elaborating.
But beyond general statements like keeping “open channels of communication” (as Mr Blinken put it) or Taiwan being the “most prominent risk” for US-China relations (according to Mr Qin), there hasn’t been anything substantial emerging from the meeting.
But we should not be surprised. Diplomacy – as seasoned diplomats would attest to – involve both public and private conversations.
Given the difficult circumstances of the bilateral relationship, it would be foolhardy and imprudent for both countries to make grandstanding statements that do not cohere with the political reality.
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DOMESTIC POLITICS DRIVE PUBLIC NARRATIVE
No American policymaker can afford to look weak on China if they want popular support. A 2023 Pew Research Center survey found that a large majority of US adults have negative views on China, with about four in 10 describing China as an enemy rather than a competitor or partner.
For China, Mr Xi has painted a highly ideological narrative of the United States and the West as being out to contain and suppress China. Chinese foreign policymakers have little choice but to follow such a train of thought.
In other words, American and Chinese diplomats have little choice in veering away from the dominant political storylines at home, which is exactly what all diplomats are generally required to do.
PRIVATE CONVERSATIONS DRIVE THE AGENDA
Few are privy to what the private conversations hold. But given more than 10 hours of talks over the two days, including a reported seven-and-a-half-hour meeting between Mr Blinken and Mr Qin, it is unlikely that they kept to general talk.
Topics such as Taiwan, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, setting guardrails (especially for the US) and de-risking (instead of “decoupling”, since eschewed by US and G7 leaders) would all be on the agenda.
A breakthrough is unlikely, given the current lack of trust, but being able to “sense-make” the other in understanding how these issues are being spoken about might provide clues as to what policy steps may be possible moving forward.
In other words, a meeting – even in the absence of any clear policy outcomes – between both sides is better than refusing to meet, at the risk of further misunderstandings or suspicions towards one another. As Singapore Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan said when he met Mr Blinken in Washington DC on Saturday, the trip was “essential, but not sufficient”.
We are likely to witness more cycles of ups and downs. Both sides will have their own political calculations to make. So, anxious as the rest of the world may be when it comes to US-China relations, we should not be overly excited about the prospect of change nor be exasperated if things do not move the way we expect.
The hope now is that Mr Blinken’s visit will pave the way for more conversation between Mr Xi and Mr Biden after the two leaders last met on the sidelines of the G20 summit in November 2022. Ultimately, staying in the conversation is still better than not.
Benjamin Ho is an assistant professor and coordinator of the China Programme, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.