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What is on the Agenda at Crucial US-China Talks?


US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s first visit to China comes nearly five months after a major rupture in relations over a Chinese spy balloon.

His original trip was abruptly cancelled because the balloon, which China says was monitoring weather, drifted across the continental US before being destroyed by American military aircraft.

Mr Blinken’s visit includes meetings with China’s top foreign policy officials but there is no word yet on whether he will also meet Chinese President Xi Jinping, who appeared with Microsoft founder Bill Gates in Beijing on Friday.

The two global superpowers have a long list of issues that concern them, including high-profile disagreements as well as potential areas of co-operation. 

Here are three key areas that could be at the top of the agenda.

Mending relations

First and foremost, Mr Blinken’s visit is about re-establishing diplomatic interactions of any kind. 

Last month there was an initial breaking of the ice when senior US officials met in Vienna, Austria.

But Mr Blinken is the most senior Biden administration official to travel to China, and it marks the first visit by a US secretary of state to Beijing since October 2018.

Now is a good time to be talking again because that in itself reduces the risk of conflict, said Deputy Assistant to the President and Coordinator for Indo-Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell, in a pre-trip briefing.

“We can’t let the disagreements that might divide us stand in the way of moving forward on the global priorities that require us all to work together.”

A balloon flies in the sky over Billings, Montana, U.S. February 1, 2023 in this picture obtained from social media.
Image caption, The Chinese balloon spotted in Montana

The Chinese response to the Blinken visit has been somewhat frosty, however. 

In the official Chinese account of a call with Mr Blinken on Wednesday night, Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang is reported to have told him that “it is very clear who is to blame” for the recent deterioration in relations.

“The United States should respect China’s concerns, stop interfering in China’s internal affairs, and stop undermining China’s sovereignty, security and development interests in the name of competition,” Mr Qin reportedly said.

The US has downplayed any significant announcements coming out of this visit. It seems the only “deliverable” from the meetings, in diplomatic parlance, will be that the meetings have happened at all.

Don’t expect some sort of breakthrough or transformation in the way that the two deal with one another, said Daniel J Kritenbrink, the State Department’s senior East Asia diplomat.

If the meeting leads to further interaction between US and Chinese officials, that would be something both sides could build on.

Easing trade conflicts

President Biden’s relations with China started off on a rocky note, in part because he has been unwilling to cancel trade measures enacted by his predecessor, Donald Trump. 

That includes billions of dollars in import tariffs on Chinese-made products. 

In some areas, Mr Biden has squeezed even harder, with restrictions on US computer-chip exports to China in an effort to maintain US superiority in the most advanced electronics technologies.

China responded by enacting its own ban on computer memory chips sold by Micron, the largest US manufacturer. 

Mr Campbell acknowledged China’s concerns but said the US would defend and explain what it’s done so far and what could lie ahead.

If computer technology is an area destined for fierce competition between the two superpowers, the illicit drug trade may provide more room for co-operation. 

The US wants to limit the export of Chinese-produced chemical components used to make fentanyl, a synthetic opioid many times more powerful than heroin.

The rate of US drug overdose deaths involving fentanyl has more than tripled in the last seven years.

“This is an absolutely critical and urgent issue for the United States,” said Mr Kritenbrink – but it is one that presents its own challenges.

Averting war

After the balloon incident, there were reports that China was considering sending weapons to Russia, where they would be immediately used in the war against Ukraine.

US government officials have backed away from those accusations of late, removing what could have been a particularly contentious issue for the two nations that risked turning the Ukraine-Russia conflict into a proxy war between the US and China.

A view of a beach on Basco island
Image caption, Remote Philippine islands are on the frontlines of US-China tensions

But expect Mr Blinken to echo warnings given to the Chinese in Vienna that there would be serious consequences if China gives military and financial assistance to Russia.

US and Chinese warships have been facing off in a high-stakes game of chicken over the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea. China claims the area as their own, while the US insists they are international waters.

Mr Blinken and his diplomatic team have said that his goal in this trip is to “de-risk” the tensions, and renewed communication is the place to start.

Achieving more may be a tall task for now – and more extensive co-operation could become more difficult for Mr Biden as anti-China rhetoric in Washington is sure to heat up when the 2024 presidential elections approach. 

A satisfactory outcome from this trip for both sides might be simply the opening of communication channels that prevent an incident leading to military conflict. 

Source: BBC

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