Anthony Blinken spent most of his first overseas trip charging into China and back home, calming down its leaders. The last stop was not Seoul, but Alaska, where the US secretary of state met last night with the highest diplomats of Chinese foreign policy, State Councilor Wang Yi and the head of Foreign Affairs of the Communist Party Yang Jiechi.
The first high-level meeting between China and the United States during the Joe Biden administration was neither courteous nor did it start off on a good note. Washington had put on the table during Blinken’s Asian tour and Pentagon chief Lloyd Austin all the issues that bother Beijing the most: human rights in Tibet, the ethnic cleansing of Uyghurs in Xinjiang, aspirations for Taiwan, the repression of the autonomous communities. in Hong Kong and, of course, commerce.
This last aspect is the only one that has mattered during the four years of Donald Trump’s rule and, although relations have deteriorated greatly with the imposition of arbitrary sanctions and the trade war, Beijing may be missing it. At heart Biden is more of a change in form than in substance, because he is also determined to stand up to China and to negotiate from a position of strength. Hence, Blinken has left this meeting for the end of its Asian tour, after joining forces with its allies in the region and whipping China unceremoniously in all its public interventions.
“Our eyes are very clear on Beijing’s consistent failure to meet its commitments,” Blinken said in South Korea before getting on the plane. During that stop, he had spoken with his Korean counterpart about “Beijing’s aggressive and authoritarian behavior” as well as “the security, stability and prosperity of the Indian Pacific region.”
The day before, it had announced new sanctions on Chinese officials in response to the crackdown on pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong, something that China interpreted as interference in its domestic affairs.
It is not surprising that the Chinese leaders confessed to facing this bilateral “without illusions”, said the spokesman of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Zhao Lijian. “We have no margin for compromises on security and sovereignty issues,” he warned.
There is, however, one issue where they can find common ground: North Korea. According to tradition, Pyongyang will soon make the US nervous with some of its nuclear tests. Washington wants China to pressure the young dictator to reopen negotiations, which never went beyond love letters with Trump. A possible bargaining chip between two rivals who have “a very complex relationship,” Blinken admitted.
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