Mr Blinken goes to China

Feb 4, 2023
Antony Blinken

There is in the American psyche, the Hollywood psyche, the false notion that any other major power will be just like America. The view can be terrible but wrong.

Dostoevsky (if I may be excused for mentioning a Russian) wrote of how people only see a mirror when they converse.

Sir Harold Nicholson, spouse of Vita Sackville-West and once doyen of the British foreign service, also MP and writer, wrote that in all the archives of all the foreign ministries he had explored he had never come upon a Record of Conversation in which the person writing the record had not won. This week, reading about the forthcoming visit of US Secretary of State Blinken to Beijing, the prestigious American sources say what he’s going there to get. That is, he’s going to tell China this or that about how they should manage their relations with Russia. The Chinese side say he should just improve the bilateral dialogue.

It’s a minor awkwardness that the new Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang was treated coldly while ambassador to the United States 2021-23.

It’s also unfortunate that the current parlous state of US-China relations was kicked off in a rough house way by Blinken and National Security Advisor Sullivan in Alaska in March 2021, in a meeting with the Director of the Chinese Office of the Central Commission for Foreign Affairs Yang Jiechi and Foreign Minister Wang Yi. (Yang has now retired, Wang Yi has moved to his position and thus is foreign minister Qin Gang’s boss.) The transcript, here, does not convey the rudeness. One short movie at the time caught one Chinese leader say to the other, as they were rushed to the meeting “did you get anything to eat’; reply “I had some instant noodles with me.”

At that time Blinken said: “Our administration is committed to leading with diplomacy to advance the interests of the United States and to strengthen the rules-based international order.” He may well say that again, it’s a constant refrain.

Yang said in Anchorage: “Our values are the same as the common values of humanity. Those are: peace, development, fairness, justice, freedom and democracy…What China and the international community follow or uphold is the United Nations-centered international system and the international order underpinned by international law, not what is advocated by a small number of countries of the so-called rules-based international order.”

China is not going to be party to the so-called “rules-based international order” because that is a fancy label for persistence of dominance of the US over the world, with its breaking of trade rules and disruption of trade, imposition of sanctions and military interventions which cause devastation and widening disorder. There is in the American psyche, the Hollywood psyche, and indeed much of the Australian psyche, the false notion that any other major power will be just like America. Dostoevsky’s point about the mirror. The view can be terrible but wrong.

I wrote last year:

“No long historical view, no understanding of current affairs, justifies a notion of contestation between the US and China for global hegemony. That is not what is observable, outside narrow conservative American (and Australian) thinking and their war-thirst.

I don’t know what power Blinken has these days in the US. In the world, he arrives in Beijing after a humiliating visit to Israel where the new government had just shown its increased violence towards Palestinians and had attacked Iran with a bomb carried by a drone.

Blinken may tell Chinese officials whatever about how they should approach the Ukraine war, but he has no command over the US approach to the Ukraine war, and certainly is not holding keys to an off-ramp to avoid nuclear war. Biden may want to talk about security in the Western Pacific but he has no control over the US admirals and generals telling their troops they must be ready to “fight tonight”. That ‘fight tonight’ isn’t a maybe, or a sometime soon, it’s now, and one effect of the increase in US (and Australian) aircraft buzzing the China coast is a shift in China with newly trained pilots rushed into action. It’s important to review the way in 1964 that the Tonkin Gulf Incidents led to rapid increase in direct US involvement in war in Vietnam. Or the Marco Polo Bridge incident in China that began the Second World War.

Wars are triggered by incidents. Like diplomatic Records of Conversation, the author wins. The home warrior is right. The enemy is wrong, wrong in actions, wrong in news reporting.

The Australian government will shortly be presented with a report on a Defence Strategic Review. One of the characteristics of defence strategic thinking is that it is very different from the strategic thinking of the wider community. Out here in the fresh air we may see elements of the strategic situation based on facts about this country and that, this situation and that. And we think of the array of ways to work in that environment to Australia’s advantage, or our region’s advantage.

Or, even better, in the words of the Chinese leader speaking in Anchorage quoted above: to work towards advancing “…the common values of humanity. Those are: peace, development, fairness, justice, freedom and democracy.”

By contrast, defence forces with their conflict-success obligation, begin with shaping the strategic environment, confecting something at which to launch weapons. The previous Australian government unwisely adopted the previous defence strategic update as national strategy. That has brought us to this tragic situation of seeing war as inevitable, war with China as inevitable. In the stampede of IndoPacific forces towards China there isn’t an enemy wanting to be the United States. But there is a large country armed with nuclear weapons. China has said it will not be the first to use nuclear weapons. The United States has not made such a statement.

Against this backdrop, four points can be made of Blinken’s Beijing visit:

  • US Secretary of State Blinken has no real command over US strategic policy
  • Blinken will be treated with courtesy in China
  • Blinken will not move China off its steadfast positions, however he briefs his press entourage
  • World War 3 will be the last one, if statesmen can’t avoid it.

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