Blinken warns China to address its support for Russia or ‘we will’

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BEIJING — Chinese and U.S. leaders sought Friday to stabilize their contentious relationship, but Secretary of State Antony Blinken said as he left that there had been no promises on the top U.S. priority of cutting support for Russia’s defense industry.

Officials on both sides were frank about their differences as they sat for a marathon of meetings that amounted to nearly six hours between Blinken and China’s top diplomat, Wang Yi. But they also expressed optimism that their conversations were slowly building trust that was leading to improvements in a few areas, such as communications between their militaries and cracking down on chemicals that are used to make fentanyl.

Blinken, who also met with Chinese leader Xi Jinping, said the two countries had agreed to hold a formal dialogue for the first time about artificial intelligence, to exchange views about a fast-developing technology that each side worries could give the other a formidable military advantage in any confrontation.

“Even as we seek to deepen cooperation where our interests align, the United States is very clear-eyed about the challenges posed by [China], and about our competing visions for the future,” Blinken told reporters after the meetings.

Asked whether Chinese leaders had agreed to restrict their support for Russia’s defense industry, which includes machine tools, drone parts, semiconductors and other items that are key to fueling the Kremlin’s war in Ukraine, the top U.S. diplomat gave no indication that there had been progress.

Russia would struggle to sustain its assault on Ukraine without China’s support, Blinken said. “If China does not address this problem, we will,” he added, in a possible reference to sanctions against Chinese businesses involved in the trade with Russia.

Visiting Beijing on April 26, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said China’s support for Russia’s military is a challenge for U.S.–China relations. (Video: The Washington Post)

Relations have improved significantly since Blinken last visited 10 months ago, after a Chinese spy balloon’s transit across the United States set off an unusually broad national blowback to China’s espionage activity. Since then, conversations have become far more routine, enabling the world’s two biggest economies and superpower rivals to return to managing their tense but interdependent relationship.

“We hope the U.S. can look at China’s development in a positive light,” Xi said as he met Blinken. “This is a fundamental issue that must be addressed, just like the first button of a shirt that must be put right, in order for the China-U.S. relationship to truly stabilize, improve and move forward.”

Blinken’s meetings with Wang gave the two sides ample time to air their differences about a host of issues that include reviving military-to-military discussions and China’s frosty relationship with Taiwan.

But both sides said that holding conversations was a useful step in itself. Welcoming Blinken to the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing, Wang offered a cautious assessment of the discussions.

“Overall the China-U.S. relationship is beginning to stabilize,” he told Blinken. “This is welcomed by our two people.”

But, Wang said, “the negative factors in the relationship are still increasing and building, and the relationship is facing all kinds of disruptions. China’s reasonable development rights have been unreasonably suppressed and our core interests are facing challenges.”

He warned against “engaging in rivalry and confrontation and even sliding toward conflict.”

Beijing has also complained about U.S. efforts to cut off Chinese access to advanced semiconductors that would enable it to make progress on artificial intelligence that could have military applications.

The conversation with Xi was much shorter than that with his foreign minister, but it was a sign of the high degree of importance the two sides give their fraught dialogue. Xi and President Biden spoke earlier this month by phone and clashed on the subject of export controls, which the Biden administration says are necessary to keep U.S. technology from being used to undermine U.S. security, and Beijing which complains are simply an effort to restrict its economic rise.

Just how successful the U.S. strategy with China will be remains in question. With the United States seeking cooperation in some areas but pushing hard in others, Chinese leaders appear to have little appetite for making concessions elsewhere in the relationship. They complained Friday about a range of U.S. efforts to push back against what the Biden administration says are unfair trade practices such as subsidies for Chinese industries.

The Biden administration says that it is defending U.S. jobs and global rules of open trade. Chinese officials counter that Washington is simply trying to push back on its economic growth with measures such as potential hikes on tariffs on steel and aluminum.

For the relationship to move forward, the two sides “first need to answer a fundamental question of whether China and the United States are going to be partners or rivals,” Wang told Blinken, according to an official Chinese readout released after their meeting.

China and the United States have tangled in the South China Sea, where Beijing has made claims that go beyond its internationally recognized waters and pushed against Philippine and other fishing vessels.

Biden hosted the leaders of the Philippines and Japan in Washington earlier this month, a dialogue that Chinese leaders have complained is encircling them.

Blinken said Friday that Chinese actions in the South China Sea are “dangerous.”

Beijing may also be waiting out the election to make significant shifts in its policies, analysts said, mindful that both Biden and former president Donald Trump have campaigned on tough-on-China slogans but have somewhat different demands.

“There’s a U.S. election backdrop” in which both Democrats and Republicans gain from tough rhetoric on China, said Wang Huiyao, the president of the Beijing-based Center for China and Globalization.

“They want China to confront Russia, yeah, China can,” he said. “But the U.S. still wants to put China as strategic rival number one. China is not really incentivized.”

Although Europe appears to have endorsed the broad strokes of Washington’s vision, some European nations, notably Germany, still have a more conciliatory approach. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz was in Beijing last week to meet top Chinese leaders, part of an effort that included bolstering trade ties.

China is concerned that the United States will continuously “raise the bar” on what it considers support for Russia’s war effort beyond lethal aid to areas Beijing considers “normal” trade, said Wu Xinbo, dean of the Institute of International Studies at Fudan University in Shanghai.

“If this time we bow to Blinken’s request to stop financial transactions, but the war continues and Ukraine keeps losing ground, then the U.S. will say ‘China, you should stop doing something else,’” Wu said. “It will be an endless process.”

The relationship with Russia was just one on a long list of issues the two sides sparred over.

The Biden administration, worried that fentanyl is the leading cause of death for Americans aged 18 to 45, has been pushing China to crack down on manufacturers of precursor chemicals. U.S. officials feel the issue is one where Beijing could offer some concessions at relatively little cost to itself, and might be a basis to build trust for greater cooperation in other areas of the relationship.

Blinken brought the State Department’s top official focused on narcotics, Todd Robinson, on the trip as a way to show how focused the administration is on the issue. But progress, though meaningful, has been slow, officials say.

Chinese officials have also been frustrated with the bill that just passed Congress that requires Chinese-controlled company ByteDance to sell TikTok, although Blinken said Friday that had not been a focus of conversations.

And the Biden administration has been pushing Beijing to get more involved in efforts to dial back the conflict in the Middle East, especially in recent weeks as tensions between Israel and Iran threatened to explode into a regional war. Biden administration officials have asked Beijing to use its influence with Iran to get that country to hold back from escalation.

“This is an area where China has relationships, it has the influence … to prevent the conflict from escalating,” Blinken told reporters.

But Blinken’s trip was not exclusively tense meetings with Chinese officials. On his way to the Beijing airport on Friday, he asked his motorcade to make a stop at the LiPi record store, where he bought two vinyl albums: one by the classic Chinese rock musician Dou Wei, and the other a copy of Taylor Swift’s “Midnights,” which he described as a successful American export.

Music is “the best connector, regardless of geography,” said Blinken, who has been known to pick up his guitar at State Department soirees.

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