Blinken’s Visit to China: What to Know

Equipo
By Equipo
10 Min Read

Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken is meeting officials in China this week as disputes over wars, trade, technology and security are testing the two countries’ efforts to stabilize the relationship.

The United States is heading into an election year in which President Biden will face intense pressure to confront China’s authoritarian government and offer new protections for American businesses and workers from low-priced Chinese imports.

China is courting foreign investment to help its sluggish economy. At the same time, its leader, Xi Jinping, has been bolstering national security and expanding China’s military footprint around Taiwan and the South China Sea in ways that have alarmed its neighbors.

Mr. Biden and Mr. Xi have held talks to prevent their countries’ disputes from spiraling into conflict, after relations sank to their lowest point in decades last year. But an array of challenges could make steadying the relationship difficult.

Showdowns Over China’s Territory Claims

The United States has been pushing back against China’s increasingly assertive claims over swaths of the South China Sea and the self-governed island of Taiwan by building security alliances in Asia.

That effort has prompted more concerns in Beijing that the United States is leading a campaign to encircle China and contain its rise.

In meetings earlier this month, Mr. Biden met with the leaders of Japan and the Philippines. They discussed territorial conflicts in the South China Sea, including China’s “repeated harassment of lawful Philippine operations,” the U.S. government said.

Encounters between Chinese and American military ships and planes in the Taiwan Strait and the South China and East China Seas have continued, raising concerns that an accident could trigger a confrontation between the two powers. That is why U.S. officials have insisted on maintaining close military communication. High-level contacts between the two armies were restored earlier this year after China froze communication in response to former House speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan in August 2022.

China says the United States and its allies are stoking confrontation and should not interfere in the region’s affairs. It has already bristled about the United States and the Philippines launching annual joint military exercises this week. The U.S. Army also deployed for the first time, as part of an exercise, a midrange missile system in the Philippines that could reach targets in China.

To counter Washington’s efforts, China has been trying to shore up ties with nonaligned countries in the region. The country’s top diplomat, Wang Yi, visited Indonesia, Cambodia and Papua New Guinea last week, around the same time that Mr. Blinken met with foreign ministers from the Group of 7 nations, a grouping Beijing considers a rival for global influence.

Curbing the Flow of Fentanyl

U.S. officials say China has played a concerning role in providing the chemicals and precursors that are used to make the powerful drug of fentanyl.

In a meeting in San Francisco in November, President Biden and Mr. Xi resolved to cooperate on tracking and cutting down on those flows. U.S. officials say China has started making some progress on that account, but they’re likely to urge further action.

In a report released last week, a House Congressional committee focused on China alleged that China had actively promoted the supply of fentanyl precursors to the United States, including by subsidizing exporters. A State Department official said that Chinese authorities had started taking action against Chinese synthetic drug and chemical precursor suppliers, but that the U.S. wanted to see progress.

China has long denied playing a major role in the fentanyl crisis in the United States and has deflected blame by saying it was a victim of Western powers during the Opium War.

Trade and Technology Restrictions

The United States and China still have one of the world’s most extensive trading relationships, but it has grown even more contentious in recent months.

U.S. officials have urged China to scale back its exports of inexpensive electric vehicles and other green energy goods, saying they are a threat to American jobs. They are weighing whether to raise tariffs on Chinese-made cars and solar panels, in order to block more Chinese imports from the United States.

Last week, the Biden administration announced it would triple some tariffs on steel and aluminum products from China and begin an investigation into unfair practices by the Chinese shipbuilding, maritime and logistics sectors.

The Biden administration also continues to add more restrictions on selling advanced chips and the machinery used to make them to China, out of concern that AI could aid the Chinese military.

And on Tuesday, the U.S. Senate passed a bill that could force TikTok’s Chinese owner to either sell the app or face being banned in the United States. The ban is likely to be challenged in court.

Beijing has opposed the restrictions, which Mr. Xi has said are an attempt to deny China’s “legitimate right to development.” In response, he has called for China to promote “new productive forces” — a government mantra aimed at bolstering the country’s economy through technology and innovation in the hopes of becoming more self-reliant.

Cybersecurity and Election Interference

U.S. officials have expressed concerns that China may seek to influence the outcome of the upcoming U.S. presidential election, including by orchestrating social media campaigns to influence American public opinion.

The National Security Agency said last week that there were also more signs that China was trying to gain access to critical American infrastructure in order to threaten those systems in the event of a conflict. Last year, Microsoft said it discovered malicious code spread by Chinese government hackers embedded in telecommunications systems in Guam and elsewhere in the United States.

While Beijing has denied engaging in cyberattacks and election interference, recently leaked documents show China has developed a sophisticated network of state-sponsored hackers for hire that have targeted databases around the world.

Russia’s War on Ukraine

American officials have made clear that they see China’s sale to Russia of chips, machine tools, drones and other materials that are used in the war in Ukraine as one of the biggest obstacles in the relationship between Beijing and Washington.

And they believe that getting China to withdraw that support could determine the outcome of the war.

China has tried to walk a careful line of not providing Russia with “lethal support,” like weapons, while still supporting Moscow. In early April, Chinese leader Xi Jinping met with Russia’s foreign minister and reaffirmed China’s partnership with Russia.

Even as tensions between China and the United States have eased, Mr. Xi and President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia have remain closely aligned. The two leaders have sought to weaken Washington’s global dominance, blaming “U.S. hegemony” for constraining their national ambitions.

Exerting Influence on Iran

U.S. officials, including Mr. Blinken, hoping to avoid a wider war in the Middle East, have asked China to use its sway over Iran to persuade it not to escalate its confrontation with Israel.

As like-minded critics of the West, China and Iran have had close diplomatic ties for more than 50 years. That relationship has grown economically as China has pledged to invest billions in Iran in exchange for oil and fuel.

Beijing had described Iran’s missile and drone attacks directed at Israel earlier this month as an “act of self-defense,” after what was widely believed to be an Israeli strike killed seven Iranian officials.

Since Israel’s war in Gaza began, China has courted solidarity with the Muslim world by blaming the United States for decades of instability in the Middle East. Beijing has also not condemned Hamas for its terror attacks on Israel on Oct. 7.

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