US Secretary of State Antony Blinken is expected to visit Beijing after a series of talks between the United States and China this week. Experts stressed that at the top of the agenda would likely be a blueprint to avoid conflict between the two geopolitical rivals.
Blinken’s planned trip earlier this year was put on hold after a suspected Chinese spy balloon was spotted flying across the US in February.
Since then, the two countries have agreed to “open lines of communications,” according to a statement released after Dan Kritenbrink, the assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, held talks with his Chinese counterparts on Monday.
China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin told reporters that the two countries discussed “improving bilateral relations and managing differences.”
The move followed CIA Director William Burns’ apparent secret trip to Beijing last month – first reported by the Financial Times on June 2 – and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan’s meeting with his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi in Vienna in May.
“The United States and China are moving slowly and cautiously to restore normal dialogue channels,” Evans Revere, who served as acting assistant secretary for East Asian and Pacific affairs during the George W Bush administration, told Voice of America.
“The goal [is] to establish so-called ‘guardrails’ to prevent bilateral relations from careening off track and leading to confrontation,” he said in an email, adding:
It’s extremely important for Washington and Beijing to find a way to manage bilateral relations in a way that prevents misunderstanding, misperception and strategic competition from leading to conflict.
China and the United States are at odds over a range of issues, each seeing the other’s demands as attempts to undermine national interests.
Washington has been vocal about Beijing’s disregard for the rule of law, human rights and fair-trade practices. The US has also defended the right of passage in the Taiwan Strait against growing Chinese aggression.
Beijing, in turn, has insisted that it does respect international law while accusing Washington of undermining its sovereignty and advocating for human rights as a way to interfere in its domestic affairs.
China claims Taiwan, a self-governing island, as its own and takes Washington’s military presence in the region as a provocation.
Hal Brands, the professor of global affairs at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, stressed that neither side wants the situation to spiral into conflict. But he warned of the complexity of the “issues” facing Beijing and Washington.
“Both sides have reasons to keep the competition within bounds. Neither side really wants a war, for instance. But neither side is willing to retreat on issues it cares most about,” Brands said, adding:
“There is virtually no [chance] of a substantive improvement in US-China relations in the coming year or so because differences on the key issues driving the competition – technology, Taiwan, trade, the balance of power in the Western Pacific and beyond – are nowhere near a resolution.”
Despite renewed discussions between diplomatic and intelligence officials, military talks have not resumed. This comes at a time when defense chiefs from China and the US have warned that a conflict would be catastrophic.
Chinese Defense Minister Li Shangfu said at the Shangri-La Dialogue security summit in Singapore last week that “a severe conflict or confrontation between China and the US will be an unbearable disaster.” He proposed “seeking common ground.”
US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin also stressed that a “conflict in the Taiwan Strait would be devastating.” But he then told the Shangri-La summit that he was “deeply concerned” that Beijing had been “unwilling to engage” in talks “for crisis management.”
Yet while senior military chiefs were in Singapore, a Chinese navy ship made an “unsafe” move on a US destroyer navigating the Taiwan Strait with a Canadian frigate to demonstrate their right to navigate, according to the US Indo-Pacific Command.
Still, the key to the problem of China-US relations is the differences over fundamental values such as democracy and the rule of law. They have become major sticking points.
“The ideological and value gap between Beijing and Washington is large and growing. Under [President] Xi Jinping, China has taken a historic turn toward authoritarianism, illiberalism and strict centralization under Communist Party control,” Revere, the former diplomat, told VOA, adding:
At the same time, China’s unprecedented military buildup and desire to become the dominant actor in the Western Pacific is clashing with the United States’ long-term role as the major power in the region.
Zack Cooper, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, also highlighted the “ideological gap” between Beijing and Washington.
“The two sides have fundamentally different views that aren’t easily bridged,” the former deputy national security adviser at the White House National Security Council, said, adding:
Both the United States and China are pessimistic about the likelihood of making progress bilaterally but feel that it is necessary to show third parties that they are trying.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy of China Factor.