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Are U.S.-China relations on the mend?

Tensions remain, despite efforts to boost bilateral talks.

- October 19, 2023

Editors’ note: On Oct. 17, the Biden administration announced plans to further tighten restrictions on semiconductors heading to China. The goal, according to Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, is to curtail China’s “access to advanced semiconductors that could fuel breakthroughs in artificial intelligence and sophisticated computers,” as well as supply China’s military. This was unwelcome news for the Chinese government – and some U.S. chipmakers. 

In this piece, based on his TMC newsletter in June 2023, Good Authority editor Jeremy Wallace takes a closer look at U.S.-China relations in light of U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s visit to Beijing this summer – and China’s incentives for a diplomatic thaw. While high-level meetings have continued in recent months and the relationship now appears to be in something of a holding pattern, tensions remain.

U.S. Secretary of State Tony Blinken visited Beijing in mid-June 2023, months after a Chinese spy balloon drifted over American skies, blowing a planned February trip off course. The balloon incident left many in the United States indignant and further chilled the already frosty relations between the two countries.

However, after much back and forth and discussions about the discussions, Blinken became the first cabinet secretary in the Biden administration to visit Beijing. He met with Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang and State Councilor Wang Yi, the country’s top diplomat – and spoke briefly with President Xi Jinping. The meetings did not produce major breakthroughs on trade disputes, military communications, and other issues, but raise expectations for further talks between U.S. and Chinese officials. But low expectations are part of the diplomatic process, as political scientist Dali Yang notes.

So what does this trip portend?

First, is the U.S. bipartisan hard line on China beginning to crack? That’s what Rachel Myrick predicted back in 2021. Her research on perceived threats suggested that U.S. concerns about a rising China would fail to unite Republicans and Democrats.

Second, the Blinken visit suggests a diplomatic thaw between the two countries – at the national level. As Kyle Jaros and Sara Newland recently detailed, some U.S. states remain reluctant to work with Chinese firms, even in the rapidly expanding electric vehicle (EV) sector. For instance, earlier this year, Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) rejected a potential factory connected to Chinese battery giant CATL. And plans for a $3.5 billion Ford EV battery plant in Michigan with CATL technology came under criticism by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.). [Update: In September, in the second week of the United Auto Workers strike, Ford announced it was “pausing work” on the new EV battery plant.]

Biden’s “de-risking” tactic

The Biden administration uses the term “de-risking,” rather than “decoupling,” when it comes to China. De-risking suggests reducing U.S. dependence on Chinese supply chains by diversifying production infrastructure elsewhere, instead of openly curtailing trade and investment. Whether the administration’s actions make this distinction is a matter of debate: See Dan Drezner’s “The Risks of De-Risking” or Adam Tooze’s analysis in Foreign Policy.

For China, it’s the economy

Before meeting with Blinken, Xi met with another prominent American, legendary Microsoft founder Bill Gates. This meeting was just one of China’s recent efforts to show that it is open for business, with Chinese officials hosting foreign CEOs and traveling abroad to court business leaders. The open arms strategy is likely a response to China’s slowing economic growth in 2023 and disappointing post-covid reopening.

The lagging economy, in fact, may deflect attention from Xi’s 2021 “common prosperity” drive within the country, which many scholars interpreted as a move against capitalistic models and markets. But economic growth targets, not redistributive policies, remain Beijing’s clear priority, as I explained recently. Mary Gallagher discussed the weaknesses of the common prosperity vision for the China Leadership Monitor and ChinaFile.

China’s efforts to reboot the economy now seem to be guiding Beijing’s policy moves, both at home and abroad. The follow-up bilateral diplomacy will reveal whether Blinken’s visit is the beginning of real changes in the U.S.-China relationship. More and higher-level diplomatic engagements could be one path forward, but the continued tensions, sanctions, and heated rhetoric make it unlikely that things will proceed smoothly.