Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s visit to Beijing this weekend offers the best chance for the United States and China to restore stable diplomatic relations since the dustup over a Chinese spy balloon upended his first scheduled visit in February. But it will require more than just diplomatic niceties to overcome the fundamental dysfunction in the relationship between the world’s leading powers.
The U.S. stubbornly believes its own actions toward China are benign and justified, and that China is a belligerent threat; China believes the same thing about the U.S. If the two countries can’t correct these misperceptions and reorient toward shared interests, the Blinken visit will mark only a short lull in an overall trajectory toward serious conflict.
Biden administration officials have repeatedly insisted that they do not want a “cold war,” or to divide the world into hostile geopolitical blocs and force other countries to choose sides. Yet the administration has undertaken a series of policies that are perceived by Beijing—and many other countries fearful of being caught in the middle—as doing exactly that. This includes initiatives aimed at countering China militarily—notably the AUKUS pact with Australia and the U.K., the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue with Australia, India, and Japan, and attempts to expand NATO’s role in Asia.
The administration has also gestured toward a change in policy on Taiwan, including Biden’s repeated comments pledging to defend the island and a senior official’s statement that the U.S. views Taiwan as a “strategic asset” for its national security. Despite the administration’s insistence that U.S. policy has not changed, these developments undermine America’s “One China” policy, a careful balancing act that has helped safeguard Taiwanese autonomy while allaying Chinese concerns that the U.S. might embrace the island’s formal independence.
On the economic front, Biden has followed in the Trump administration’s footsteps by working against China’s various trade and development initiatives, and warning other countries to either exclude Chinese companies like Huawei or risk their ties to the U.S. These moves have been especially unwelcome in the global south, much of which relies on Chinese investment and affordable technological infrastructure. And last year, the U.S. prohibited American manufacturers from selling advanced semiconductors or equipment to produce them to any Chinese company, banned Americans from working for any Chinese company seeking to produce these products, and threatened to severely punish foreign companies trying to skirt the ban.
The Biden administration sees these measures as reasonable steps to protect U.S. national security and claims they are perfectly compatible with the stable, peacefully competitive relationship with China that the administration says it wants. Yet China’s leadership perceives these moves as profoundly threatening to the security and prosperity of the Chinese nation.
Between AUKUS, the Quad, NATO, and the United States’ preexisting East Asian alliance structure, China sees a growing architecture aimed at its military containment. And measures targeting China’s economy may be perceived as even more threatening, as they strike at the Chinese government’s domestic legitimacy.
China’s need for advanced semiconductors is not just military, but a central plank of the country’s development strategy. As China’s leadership seeks to deflate the real estate bubble that has uneasily sustained its economy in recent years, the government has placed its hopes in the high-tech sector as an alternative source of economic growth and good jobs for its growing number of well-educated but underemployed youth. Not only do U.S. chip restrictions appear aimed at relegating China to a permanently inferior economic status—an explosive possibility given China’s historical memory of victimization at the hands of imperialist powers—they also raise the risk of a devastating financial crisis should its real estate bubble finally collapse.
Chinese leaders are hardly faultless in this dynamic, though. The rapid advance of Chinese military power—spending has remained steady as a percentage of GDP but the Chinese economy has grown with incredible speed—and a more assertive posture in the Pacific and on the border with India threaten to destabilize the Asian security architecture that has kept the peace for decades. China argues it is merely defending its interests against challenges from other countries in the region and, above all, the U.S. aim of military containment. Chinese diplomats have largely abandoned the solicitous regard they once extended to others in the region and instead lash out with heated rhetoric at critics.
Just as the Biden administration dismisses China’s keenly felt fears about growth, so Xi Jinping shrugs off U.S. economic grievances. U.S. leaders allege that China is competing unfairly in the global economy—using state power and wealth to give an advantage to Chinese businesses—and that has led to damaging global overcapacity in some industries and an unwise concentration of productive capacity within China. Such a situation undermines the prosperity of other economies and gives China leverage to coerce other countries.
Rather than taking seriously the economic and political problems that Chinese economic success poses to the U.S. and others, China points out the hypocrisy of the U.S. government for its much larger and more potent use of economic coercion and its increasingly ambitious use of state power to favor the American economy. The U.S. is seeking to unilaterally reshape the global economy to exclude China; rather than proposing a different course that might address American concerns, China is denouncing U.S. “hegemony” and doubling down on its goal of dominating advanced manufacturing industries.
With this mistrust on both sides, each country takes actions that it considers perfectly reasonable but that are seen as insulting and threatening by the other, accelerating a vicious cycle of action and reaction. Washington and Beijing each interpret moves on the other side as evidence of irrationality and malice, justifying evermore aggressive measures. This process could ultimately lead to open conflict—even war—which would utterly devastate both countries and the entire world.
Blinken’s upcoming visit to Beijing offers an off-ramp, should U.S. and Chinese leaders choose to take it.
Each country must take seriously how the other defines its interests and aims and begin exploring visions for a global order that accommodates both. Such an outcome is possible. China differs from a power like Russia in that it is not seeking to overthrow the global order, but to reform it. Beijing, in fact, retains as strong an interest as Washington in preserving many aspects of the present system.
Some of the changes China seeks, such as supporting global development and a greater weight for the global south in international organizations, would make the “rules-based international order” more inclusive and more legitimate. Other Chinese priorities, such as weakening the normative power of procedural democracy and minority rights, are unwelcome and should be resisted. For Washington to confront these challenges through cold war and containment—drawing the U.S. into collaboration with abusive and authoritarian regimes in the process—would only do further damage to democratic norms.
That the U.S. and China were able to agree to Blinken’s visit shows that both sides remain interested in open dialogue. Blinken should take care to understand how U.S. policies are perceived in Beijing, and should demonstrate that Washington will reciprocate genuine Chinese efforts to dial down tensions. Because if the two parties continue in a confrontational vein, then no amount of dialogue will be enough to halt the slide toward devastating conflict.