US Secretary of State Antony Blinken gives a press briefing at the end of a NATO Foreign Ministers’ meeting at the Alliance’s headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, 24 March 2021.
The latest mixed messages from US Secretary of State Antony Blinken concerning certain core issues such as Taiwan, Xinjiang and the coronavirus show that the Biden administration has been facing challenges in clearly defining its China policy, struggling to keep a hard-line stance to respond to domestic anti-China consensus, but still hoping for possible cooperation in more sectors with the world’s second-largest economy.
Some Chinese experts on China-US relations see such perplexity reflecting the US government being intertwined in unclear definition of and a lack of understanding on a rising China, with its outdated China policy needing a thorough revamp. At the same time, a palpable hesitation to adopt more aggressive steps in provoking China on its core questions like Taiwan also indicated that Washington clearly knows where “the off-limits and dangerous areas” are in the China-US relationship, and how dangerous it could become if the US government actively seeks to change the Taiwan-Straits status quo by force.
In an interview with NBC on Sunday, Blinken spent much time talking about how to confront China, laying out his views on the origins of the coronavirus, the Taiwan question, the US’ stance on the 2022 Winter Olympics, and also the situation in Northwest China’s Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. When NBC host Chuck Todd asked him whether the US is “prepared to defend the island of Taiwan militarily,” Blinken dodged a direct response, instead, reiterating that there is “a bipartisan commitment” to Taiwan island under the Taiwan Relations Act.
Regarding the origins of the coronavirus and the early handling of the pandemic, Blinken adopted rhetoric similar to his predecessor Mike Pompeo by replaying an outdated blame game, which was ridiculed by netizens not only in China but also overseas.
While once again smearing China’s policy on Xinjiang with the term “genocide,” Blinken admitted in the Sunday interview that the US cannot avoid cooperation with China, as “we also have to make sure that we are dealing with all of our interests.”
Blinken’s messages added up to a number of possible steps in restructuring the bilateral relationship, which was severely damaged under former US president Donald Trump. With American media hinting that cooperation on climate change might be the first window of opportunity for China and the US to restore high-level interactions, some Chinese experts believe that the Biden administration is still exploring possible ways of dealing with China before it has a comprehensive strategic structure, although policymakers and advisors may have some ideas on certain specific issues.
Careful tight-rope walking
Blinken’s words show that the Biden administration has yet to detach from the Trump administration in most areas, and there is no essential difference between the two administrations in terms of policy objectives and the definition of China’s role, some experts said.
Yuan Zheng, deputy director and senior fellow of the Institute of American Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, told the Global Times on Monday that the Biden administration’s China policy is still in the process of being readjusted, as many procedures in the Departments of Defense, Treasury and State Department are still being evaluated and reviewed.
The Biden administration is also confined by Trump’s “legacy” on China policy, with some measures remaining irremovable while Biden administration is not willing to remove some others, said Yuan, citing the example of the Biden administration in keeping Trump-era tariffs in place, which are viewed as Washington’s leverage to contain China.
Meanwhile, a bipartisan “anti-China” consensus is becoming increasingly solid, according to some observers. A Gallup poll released in March shows that Americans’ favorable ratings of China have plummeted to a record low 20 percent, the lowest since 1979.
The far-right and Trumpism still have a strong influence. The Biden administration’s tough talk is also motivated by domestic political interests, experts said.
The Biden administration has used China as a leverage in US domestic politics to suppress rivals at home and promote its own policy, such as the very recent statement on bolstering infrastructure, said Yuan, explaining the US logic “if we don’t pass the bill for project, then China will, and surpass us.”
When Todd asked Blinken again that under the commitment to the island, if the Chinese government tries “something” on the island, will the US government militarily respond, the US official said he is “not going to” get into hypotheticals.
The way of avoiding a decisive answer on this question also shows that the Biden team is familiar with China-related affairs, and compared to Trump, they know where the bottom lines are, Xin Qiang, a deputy director of the Center for US Studies at Fudan University, told the Global Times on Monday.
“From the new guidelines of US government interactions with counterparts on the island, we can say that the Biden administration retains the status-quo by taking a long-lasting ‘salami-slicing’ strategy with the island, and it takes aggressive steps in some areas it can, but without touching upon some that are off-limits. It’s like carefully walking on a tight-rope.” Xin said.
Blinken’s vague response to the question of “whether they will defend Taiwan militarily” after secessionists cross the red line, shows that the Biden administration does not want to specify its commitments to Taiwan, but only make decisions based on its own interests, according to Chinese experts.
‘Cooperating where we can’
The world is waiting anxiously for cooperation between two largest economies, as sustainable cooperation in many areas including climate change, the economy and trade as well as vaccine inoculations can inject momentum to the global recovery post-COVID-19. Compared to the scenario of the China-US relationship plummeting to a freezing point under Trump, Chinese experts considered positive momentum would occur if the two countries could “find areas where they can work together” while keeping a geopolitical and strategic rivalry in many others.
According to the Washington Post, US climate envoy John Kerry is expected to travel to China this week in an attempt to carve out climate change as an area of closer collaboration. However, there’s no official confirmation from the Chinese side, but some observers see the potential trip still carrying a positive signal of a cooperative facet in the most consequential relationship in the world despite the fact that it may not be ice-breaking.
Meanwhile, the White House is scheduled to hold a virtual summit on Monday in addressing the global chip shortage, which excludes virtually all key players from the Chinese mainland, seen as another Washington-led push to decouple with China in high-tech sector.
No matter how different they are from Trump, the Biden administration shows willingness in finding some common ground for cooperation, which could be a good starting point, Xin noted. “How to define this strategic competition-cooperation ties by the US remains a major question, or in other words, how to let competition override cooperation while keeping potential conflicts under control?” Xin said.