21st April 2024 – (Beijing) As U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken prepares for his forthcoming visit to China, scheduled for April 24-26, 2024, expectations for substantive breakthroughs remain low. This scepticism stems from the persistent tensions that have characterized U.S.-China relations in recent years, particularly concerning issues such as Taiwan, trade practices, and China’s support for Russia amidst its conflict with Ukraine.

Blinken’s trip to China, which includes stops in both Shanghai and Beijing, is positioned as a continuation of the diplomatic engagements that have typified U.S.-China interactions over the past year. These meetings are crucial not only for discussing contentious bilateral, regional, and global issues but also for maintaining the necessary diplomatic channels that prevent these tensions from escalating into more severe conflicts.

The visit comes on the heels of a series of high-level exchanges between the two nations, including a notable summit between President Joe Biden and President Xi Jinping in San Francisco last year. While these meetings have helped stabilize relations to some degree, they have not resolved the underlying frictions that continue to strain ties between Washington and Beijing.

During his visit, Blinken is expected to address several sensitive issues. High on the agenda are China’s alleged support for Russia’s defence sector, human rights concerns, and activities in the South China Sea. Moreover, Blinken’s discussions are likely to cover the economic and security dynamics in the Taiwan Straits, reflecting the ongoing concerns over China’s assertive policies in the region.

These discussions occur against the backdrop of significant domestic and international pressures, including the upcoming U.S. presidential election, which further complicates the diplomatic landscape. The Biden administration, while seeking to project strength, must also navigate the domestic imperatives that demand a tough stance on China while avoiding the pitfalls of an overly confrontational approach that could derail the stabilizing relations.

Experts remain pessimistic about the potential for significant progress during Blinken’s visit. The entrenched positions on key issues like trade, military activities in the South China Sea, and Taiwan are unlikely to see any substantial shifts. Historical patterns suggest that while high-level visits provide a platform for dialogue and can help manage tensions, they rarely result in immediate policy changes or resolutions to deep-seated disputes.

Moreover, the timing of the visit, amidst an intensifying presidential election campaign in the U.S., suggests that domestic political considerations could overshadow the prospects for meaningful diplomatic advancements. The rhetoric used on the campaign trail often hardens positions as candidates seek to appeal to voters through tough-on-China policies.

The strategic communication surrounding Blinken’s visit also indicates a calibrated approach by the U.S. State Department. While the U.S. continues to express its concerns over China’s actions, there is also an acknowledgment of the need for ongoing engagement. By managing the competitive aspects of the relationship responsibly, both nations can avoid the miscalculations that could lead to conflict.

Antony Blinken’s upcoming trip to China, while crucial for maintaining dialogue, is unlikely to produce breakthroughs on key contentious issues. Instead, the visit should be viewed as part of a broader strategy of engagement that seeks to manage competition and prevent conflict, rather than resolve the underlying tensions that define current U.S.-China relations. As such, both countries—and the international community—should temper expectations and focus on the incremental steps that can stabilize relations in a complex geopolitical environment.