Media  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2023.08.01

Blinken’s visit to China was neither a success nor a failure

The Japanese media are divided in their assessment over the the U.S. secretary of state's trip to Beijing

the Japan Times on Jun 24th, 2023

International Politics/Diplomacy The U.S.A. China

As expected, the Japanese media are divided in their assessment over U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s recent visit to China.

They generally fall into three camps: the seemingly reasonable who believe “China is to blame” for the current state of affairs, the more opportunistic who see the U.S. and China as “two sides of the same coin” and the irresponsible, who argue that Blinken is “weak headed.”

Some readers may wonder why there are so many different views on the outcome of the meeting even though the facts are the same. Before I offer my conclusion, let us first look at the recent editorials of leading Japanese daily newspapers.

“Finding both in the wrong” argument

The most common argument in Japan, in my view, is very opportunistic: “China’s words and actions are problematic, but the U.S. attitude is just as bad, so both the U.S. and China should make serious efforts. The following three editorials are typical examples.

The Asahi’s wrote: “While we welcome the direct dialogue between key figures, both the U.S. and China should take steps toward calming the conflict as major powers responsible for order and stability, rather than pursuing inward-looking interests of their own.”

The Mainichi wote: “The fact that Xi agreed to meet Blinken is widely seen as a signal that tensions are easing. The U.S. and China should work to create an environment for managing competition through a series of constructive dialogues.”

The Nikkei wrote: “The international community wants the U.S. and China to build a stable relationship. There are areas where the two countries can cooperate, such as climate change and public health. We hope that the two nations will not neglect efforts to seek points of contact on these issues.”

All of these are easy to say, but as long as both the U.S. and China consider the other as being wrong, it is difficult for both sides to compromise and constructive dialogue is impossible unless both sides make concessions. The problem common to all of these editorials is that they assign the same level of responsibility to both sides in order to strike a balance between Washington and Beijing, thus blurring the essence of the issue of changing the status quo by force, the cause of the current tension.

In contrast to the above editorials is the claim that “China is primarily responsible” for the tension. In Japan, this is common in conservative daily newspapers.

The Sankei wrote: “The Xi administration has refused to engage in military-to-military dialogue. This will not win the trust of the international community, including the United States. The ball is in Mr. Xi’s court, who has not ruled out the option of using force against Taiwan to prevent unforeseen circumstances.”

The Yomiuri wrote: “Against the backdrop of its growing national power, the Xi administration has frequently publicized the possibility of armed unification of Taiwan, rather than a peaceful solution. In order to expect results, China must first change its coercive stance.”

For those who consider China suspicious, this will at least reduce their reservations. However, since the Chinese Communist Party is now seriously challenging the U.S. for its survival, even if one argues that “the ball is in China’s court” and that “China must first change its attitude,” the CCP leadership will not easily make concessions to begin with and cannot really do so.

“Too-Soft-on-China” argument

This kind of argument seems to be more popular in the U.S. than in Japan. The New York Times, for example, wrote, “Republican politicians have tried to portray the Biden administration as soft on China,” and “Some Republican lawmakers criticized Mr. Blinken for even traveling to China, saying it amounted to a concession to Beijing.” The conservative oriented Fox News featured a Republican congressman in an interview who thoroughly criticized Blinken’s diplomacy with China.

In Japan, there is no such harsh criticism of the Biden administration, although there were a few articles reporting on U.S. domestic politics, especially about the Republican movement’s take on the situation.

What is even more interesting is that not a few articles amusingly report on Blinken’s courtesy call to Xi. One commentary, under the headline “Like a Foreign Envoy Bowing Down to the Emperor, Blinken Shatters as He Meets with Xi,” noted that, “At the first photo shoot, when they shook hands, Xi had a pouty look on his face and did not smile. After the photo shoot, a male attendant rushed and reverently pulled out the ‘emperor’s seat,’ the chair in the center where Xi sits. Xi pompously sat down with a blank expression on his face. Blinken, however, sat down in the ‘vassal’s seat,’ which was to the left of President Xi.”

Indeed, I found this formality not only arrogant but even childish. This seating arrangement is called the “Hong Kong style” in China and is said to be the protocol used when the president of the People’s Republic of China receives a courtesy call from the chief executive of the Hong Kong government. Normally a head of government would sit side by side or across the table from a guest foreign minister of a sovereign nation, with his or her own foreign minister seated in the adjacent seat. I don’t think China can gain the world’s trust by doing things like this.

So, ultimately, was Blinken’s visit to China a failure? Mr. Masaru Murano, a research fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington, said it all: “The current conflict between the U.S. and China is driven by China’s core willingness to change the status quo. These are differences of opinion over fundamentally different perceptions and they will not be resolved through discussions. If this is the case, then we must assume that this conflict will not be resolved by diplomatic techniques, but will continue for decades until either side is no longer able to continue the competition.”

I fully concur and my conclusion is that Blinken’s visit was neither a success nor a failure.