“Telephone diplomacy is good, but it’s time to set up a meeting”

This year is the 50th anniversary of ping-pong diplomacy, which is credited with thawing the frozen U.S.-China relationship in 1971. At that time, relations were so tense that both sides had to rely on secret methods of communication shielded from public view until 1972, when a meeting was eventually arranged between President Nixon and Chairman Mao. Today, relations between the U.S. and China are increasingly tense, but not so tense that Chinese and American leaders need to rely on telephone diplomacy than in-person meetings.

President Xi Jinping and President Biden spoke by phone on the eve of the Chinese New Year, but there appears to be little momentum towards organizing an in-person meeting— there is a possibility that they meet at the G20 summit in Italy, but this remains far from certain. Additionally, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken had to call his Chinese counterparts at least three times until now to discuss issues of common concern. When so much is at stake, it is necessary for decision-makers from both countries to spend days together to sort things out, not to talk over the phone or spend a few hours together criticizing each other (such as what happened at Anchorage).

Antony Blinken goes to Beijing

Despite difficulties at the Anchorage summit, Blinken has track record of successful in-person visits with Chinese diplomats. Shortly after being confirmed as Deputy Secretary of State in December 2014, Antony Blinken flew to Beijing the following February. During this visit, which was to organize the first state visit to the U.S. by Xi Jinping, he met with Wang Yi, China’s Foreign Minister, for the first time. Wang explained to Blinken that U.S.-China relations had made significant progress in 2014 in terms of strategic consultation, pragmatic management of differences, and joint establishment of a bilateral agenda.

Ten days after President Xi Jinping’s visit to the U.S. in September that year, Blinken was invited to visit China the following month. At the time, the Chinese government believed Xi’s visit to the U.S. was a huge success and had laid a firm foundation for the development of a new model of great power relations between the two countries. It is likely that Blinken was asked by the China side to echo Beijing’s assessment and to follow up on what the two sides had agreed to during the visit.

Three months later, in late January 2016, Blinken was back in China again, this time as a co-chair of the China-U.S. Interim Strategic Security Dialogue. This dialogue was launched in 2010 and both governments believed it could play an important role in enhancing mutual trust, managing differences, and advancing cooperation. Nine months later, Blinken co-chaired the same dialogue in Beijing. He and his counterpart, Vice Foreign Minister Zhang Yesui, agreed to “to ensure the continuity of this mechanism so that both sides could maintain communication on relevant issues and push forward the construction of a positive and healthy strategic security relationship between the two countries.”

The cooperation agenda collapses

Unfortunately, a few days after this meeting, it was evident that what Blinken and Zhang agreed to would not continue because the newly elected Trump administration disagreed with its mission. Instead, it would eventually declare that engagement policy, which had been the anchor of this consequential relationship for over 40 years, was dead, causing the biggest rupture between Beijing and Washington since the opening of bilateral relations in 1979.

Four years later, when Blinken became Secretary of State under the Biden administration, he echoed the Trump administration’s tone towards China at a State Department press conference. He referred to China as “the only country with the economic, diplomatic, military, and technological power to seriously challenge the stable and open international system” and described U.S. policy towards China as the following: “Our relationship with China will be competitive when it should be, collaborative when it can be, and adversarial when it must be.  The common denominator is the need to engage China from a position of strength.”

On March 18, at the end of his first tour in Asia since becoming Secretary of State, Blinken and Jake Sullivan, National Security Advisor, met with China’s top diplomats, Yang Jiechi, Communist Party Politburo Member and Director of the Office of the Foreign Affairs Commission, and Wang Yi, in Anchorage. China’s anger toward Blinken was palpable. In his long soliloquy at the open session of the meeting, Yang Jiechi publicly derided Blinken, saying, “The United States does not have the qualification to say that it wants to speak to China from a position of strength.  The U.S. side was not even qualified to say such things even 20 years or 30 years back, because this is not the way to deal with the Chinese people.”

Despite the fiery exchange, both sides felt the meeting was useful in managing the volatile relationship. Upon returning to Beijing, Yang Jiechi told Chinese reporters, “The two sides had candid and constructive exchanges on their domestic and foreign policies and bilateral relations. The dialogue is helpful and conducive to enhancing mutual understanding though there are still some important differences between the two sides.”

Afghanistan is a game changer

Since then, there was no communication between Blinken and his China counterparts until June 11 when he placed a call to Yang Jiechi. According to the readout of the State Department, the call covered all major issues in the bilateral relationship. The US press release said the two first discussed “the need for the United States and the PRC to work together for the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” and then they continued the discussion “on shared global challenges, including Iran, Burma, and the climate crisis.” The Chinese statement about the meeting, however, was sharply different from the U.S. one. First, the Foreign Ministry stated that Blinken made the request to call. Second, it stated that Yang had vehemently condemned the erroneous approach of U.S. policy toward China. Third, Yang reiterated China’s core interests. Fourth, Yang told Blinken that China would soon celebrate CCP’s centenary.

Interestingly, Afghanistan was not mentioned by either side in the Blinken-Yang call. However, Afghanistan was mentioned by both sides when Blinken’s top deputy, Wendy Sherman, met with Wang Yi on July 26 in Tianjin. This meeting clearly allowed both sides to exchange views on the deteriorating situation in Kabul. Three days later, Wang Yi met with nine Taliban representatives in the same room where he met with Sherman. When asked about China stepping into the void after the American withdrawal, Blinken said, China’s possible involvement in Afghanistan could be “a positive thing” if Beijing was looking towards a “peaceful resolution of the conflict” and a “truly representative and inclusive” government.

The Tianjin meeting was also significant in that Wang Yi “underlined three basic demands as bottom lines on how to effectively manage differences and prevent China-U.S. relations from getting out of control.” The three bottom lines are 1) U.S. cannot challenge or attempt to subvert China’s political system; 2) U.S. must not obstruct China’s economic development; and 3) U.S. should stop infringing upon China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.

On August 16, Blinken placed another call to Wang Yi. The U.S. press release was short with less than 40 words: “Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken spoke today with PRC State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi about developments in Afghanistan, including the security situation and our respective efforts to bring U.S. and PRC citizens to safety.” By contrast, the Chinese Foreign Ministry issued a press release with over 750 words. It says Blinken expressed appreciation for China’s participation in the Doha meeting on the Afghan issue. He recognized that the future of Afghanistan should be decided by the Afghan people and hoped China would play an important role to this end. Wang Yi then went on to “lecture” Blinken, saying, what happened in Afghanistan “once again proved that it is difficult to gain a foothold in a country with a completely different history, culture and national conditions by mechanically copying foreign models.” Contrary to previous such statements, the MFA report quoted Blinken:

I agree that it is a common goal for the United States and China to realize peaceful coexistence, hoping that both sides will seek and carry out cooperation. Of course there are also obvious differences between the two sides, Blinken said, adding that those can be gradually resolved in a constructive way in the days to come. The U.S. side reiterates its opposition to all forms of terrorism and does not seek unrest in China’s western border areas. The evolution of the situation in Afghanistan once again shows that it is very important for the United States and China to cooperate on regional security issues in a constructive and pragmatic manner.

Two weeks later, on August 29, a day before U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, Blinken placed yet another call to Wang Yi. The State Department’s readout was once again very brief: “Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken spoke today with PRC State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi about the importance of the international community holding the Taliban accountable for the public commitments they have made regarding the safe passage and freedom to travel for Afghans and foreign nationals.” The Chinese press release is again much longer, almost 650 words in length. From the Chinese readout, it appears Blinken wants China to work with the U.S. at the United Nations so that the Security Council can “speak in a clear and unified voice to show that the international community expects the Taliban to ensure the safe evacuation of foreign citizens and the Afghan people’s access to humanitarian assistance, and guarantee that Afghan territory cannot become a hotbed of terrorist attacks or a safe haven for terrorism.” 

According to the readout, Wang Yi also told Blinken that for China to cooperate with the U.S. on Afghanistan or any other issue, Washington needed to respond positively to China’s three basic demands outlined by him in late July and to stop “politicizing the COVID-19 origins tracing.” The Chinese press release did not say how Blinken reacted to Wang’s demand that the U.S. reverse its current policy toward China, but did quote him as saying,

The United States has no intention of blaming any country for the origins tracing of COVID-19. As major countries, both the United States and China have responsibilities to provide all necessary information, thoroughly investigate the origins of the virus and avoid the recurrence of a pandemic.

What’s beyond Afghanistan?

What can we learn from Blinken’s diplomatic interactions with his Chinese counterparts since he became Deputy Secretary during the Obama Administration? There are quite a few takeaways.

First, although President Obama began to initiate the pivot in 2011, the period between 2014 and 2016 was a highpoint in U.S.-China relations, symbolized by Obama’s trip to China for the APEC in November 2014, Xi’s state visit to the U.S. in September 2015, and Obama’s attendance of G20 in Hangzhou in September 2016. Blinken was one of the chief architects of these high-level visits. He himself traveled four times to Beijing, twice as co-chairs of China-US Strategic Security Dialogue. This period also saw USAID and China’s Ministry of Commerce signing a MOU to coordinate their development assistance in Africa in the wake of its coordinated effort to contain Ebola in West Africa in 2014.   

Second, Blinken was out of government between 2017 to 2021 when the bilateral relationship was damaged beyond recognition by both China and the United States. Blinken was expected to correct many of the failures of the Trump administration’s foreign policy— among Chinese leaders, they likely had high expectations for him since he had positive interactions with Chinese top diplomats prior to the Trump administration. To their surprise, Blinken has adopted Trump’s China policy wholesale and made it even tougher by convincing American allies to join the endeavor to counter China. This has upset his Chinese counterparts and led to the very public confrontation at Anchorage.

Third, there nonetheless seems to be an effort at changing the current trajectory of U.S. policy towards China in the State Department. This is best exemplified by how Blinken’s spokesperson and his top deputy began to talk about setting up “guardrails” for the bilateral relationship and installing measures so that the two powers could prevent possible conflict. If the Chinese readout of recent meetings can be trusted as accurate, all three phone calls between Blinken and China’s top diplomats took place by U.S. request. This is yet another indication that it might have dawned to the U.S. leadership that Beijing will refuse to cooperate in any shape or form as long as U.S. is so publicly confronting China on issues it staunchly believes to be its domestic affairs. If Blinken indeed said what was quoted in the Chinese press releases about the last two phone calls, that would be the best sign of a thaw in the icy bilateral relationship to date.

Fourth, while climate change, the nuclear crisis on the Korean Peninsula, and the Myanmar coup would benefit from bilateral coordination, the mishandled withdrawal by the U.S. from Afghanistan have made U.S.-China coordination more urgent. In the last two phone calls between Blinken and Wang Yi, China appears on the offensive and began to attach strings to desired Chinese support. It remains to be seen if this is going to lead to significant shift in the U.S. approach to China or vice versa. One positive sign is that China did not veto a U.S. sponsored UN resolution to pressure the Taliban to allow all Afghan people who choose to leave the country depart, to allow humanitarian assistance to enter the nation, and to prevent international terrorists to set up shop in Afghanistan. 

It is certainly premature for many in China to celebrate the American loss in Afghanistan and to believe that an era of Chinese supremacy is around the corner. It is more important for Chinese leaders to be clear-eyed about enduring American strength and refrain from comparing the U.S. failure in Afghanistan to its efforts to get China to change its domestic and international behavior. They are not the same. For Beijing to believe this traumatic episode for the U.S. is going to knock Washington into a more accommodating attitude toward Beijing is naïve and wishful thinking.

On the contrary, Beijing should take this rare opportunity to demonstrate its sincerity by shouldering more international responsibility and by joining the U.S. in its effort to see a peaceful, people-oriented and inclusive government emerge in Kabul. It is not in China’s interest to see the country under the Taliban become a safe haven for terrorism. Building a community of shared value for mankind has to be action-oriented, and no action is better than Washington and Beijing joining hands in restoring peace and enabling development in war-torn Afghanistan.

In this context, one personal meeting is worth a hundred phone calls. Blinken should visit his old acquaintances in China or, alternatively, invite Yang Jiechi or Wang Yi to visit Washington. Better still, work to confirm a summit between President Biden and President Xi in Rome now.