Blinken in Beijing


It is not Munich 1938 but US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s first visit to China on Sunday does have a whiff of “peace in our time”.

It is perhaps sobering to realize that despite US-China ties being hailed as the world’s key bilateral relationship, 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.

There is much to discuss.

Warships and, less commented on but even more dangerous, submarines from both the US and China have been playing a game of bluff in the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea. China claims the area while the US insists it is international waters. Technically the US is right but ownership of these waters has been part of China’s diplomacy and narrative since before the communists seized power in 1949.

The meeting itself is a huge step forward as it provides a setting to ease tensions and strike trade agreements. But this meeting is about appearance not substance.

There is, though, a domestic agenda that Xi is determined to follow through on and, unlike other Chinese leaders since Mao, tense relations with the US won’t do him any harm.

The days of the black and white cat are gone. That famous phrase credited to Deng Xiaoping as he launched his reforms,  “it doesn’t matter if the cat is black or white so long as it catches mice’’, has been binned. Today the cat’s color matters a great deal. “The get rich is glorious’’ social contract of the post-Tiananmen Square era of 1989 has been ditched as Xi tries to secure his place in history directly behind Mao and above Deng. Now it is about the strength of the party, not the economy, stupid.

And through this realignment, Xi demands a place in history above that of Deng because, according to the accepted doctrine, the party is in its third great development phase. Mao brought the communists to power. Deng made the country richer. Xi, according to this theory, seeks to make China strong.

And this is the conundrum. What does this mean? China, with a weakening economy, can only appear strong by having tense relations with the US. If it acts like an ally it runs the risk of being seen as subservient.

Xi will not be the first ruler to divert attention from their mishandling of the economy by standing up to a “foreign threat”. Nationalism knows no boundaries.

Xi is not under threat at home but he is not popular and there is a feeling that under his watch an opportunity has been missed.

Structural problems that should have been addressed have been allowed to fester. The declining population is hampering growth. Single child mothers have no incentives to have another child. Hardly surprising, when kindergarten fees in the major and generally wealthier east coast cities cost as much as college fees in the US or Britain.

Xi  has adopted a “look over there approach”. Hong Kong has been forced to abandon its “one China, two systems policy”. Border clashes with India are becoming more common. The South China Sea has been militarized. An invasion of Taiwan seems a distinct possibility. China has the world’s largest army and navy. Xi has turned his attention to the Middle East to undermine America’s influence with his involvement in ensuring Saudi-Iranian rapprochement. This was apparent at a meeting in Beijing of the countries’ foreign ministers in April.

China has peaked economically and its ambition of surpassing the US as the world’s biggest power, under its own steam, seems less inevitable. What cannot be discounted is that the US commits what would be welcomed in Beijing as an act of gross self harm by electing Trump again. Beijing feels confident that should the US stumble under another  spell in office by the “hair apparent” China could, by default, easily pick up the pieces and claim economic supremacy.

But with or without Trump, Beijing, reacting to a mixture of feeling embarrassed at is declining economic clout and a sense that the time is right for action to achieve its destiny, might opt for bolder and more reckless behavior on the global stage.

It may not be Munich but these few days in Beijing may, like that event in 1938, yet be seen a prelude to a more belligerent period.

Tom Clifford, now in China, worked in Qatar with Gulf Times from 1989-1992 and covered the Gulf War for Irish and Canadian newspapers as well as for other media organizations.