While Sullivan and Wang build ‘guardrails’: where is Mr Blinken?

May 24, 2023
U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken arrives at Senate Foreign Relations Committee Hearing on the Fiscal Year 2023 Budget at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, DC, USA, on Tuesday, April 26, 2022. Alamy / Photo by Bonnie Cash/Pool/ABACAPRESS.COM

When US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan met face-to-face with Mr Antony Blinken’s China counterpart Mr Wang Yi for eight hours in Vienna on May 10-11, a meeting both sides described as “constructive”, where was America’s top diplomat, Mr Blinken?

The Sullivan-Wang meeting not only makes US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen’s long-awaited China visit a distinct possibility but also paves the way for a meeting between President Biden and President Xi Jinping at APEC in San Francisco this November.

China’s official statement on Foreign Affairs Commission Director Wang Yi’s meeting with Sullivan was brief, only 106 words after discounting the usual “who when where”. The fewer the words, the greater the significance, a Chinese saying goes. Among these 106 words was the line: “Both sides agreed to continue to make good use of this strategic line of communication” between Wang and Sullivan.

Mr Sullivan’s media statement doubled down on that, repeating the same line twice: “Both sides agreed to maintain this channel between Director Wang and the National Security Advisor”, and “Both sides see that a channel between Director Wang and National Security Advisor is one means of managing that competition (between the US and China).”

So where is Mr Blinken?

Not only does Blinken’s portfolio require him to be the top line of communication with China, but President Biden also specifically named him his China man after meeting with Xi Jinping on November 14 last year. “The two leaders agreed to empower key senior officials to maintain communication and deepen constructive efforts”, and “The two leaders agreed that Secretary of State Blinken will visit China to follow up on their discussions,” President Biden announced.

Mr Blinken failed to deliver on both fronts. He makes no secret that he is keen to visit China. But China gently shuts the door on him and looks the other way when he tries to talk.

As the US President’s chief foreign affairs advisor and fourth in line of succession to presidency, the Secretary of State wields enormous sway in US foreign policy. Played constructively, Mr Blinken can be the guardrails that keep Sino-US relations on track. But he chose destructiveness.

Actually China had been all set to roll out the red carpet for Mr Blinken. On January 17 this year, two months after the Xi-Biden meeting, a Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) spokesman said that: “We welcome Secretary Blinken to visit China and are in communication with the US on the specifics of the visit.”

But Mr Blinken hasn’t learned from the March 2021 Alaska talks, at which he got a lecture from his then China counterpart and Wang Yi’s predecessor Yang Jiechi, that the US is “unqualified to speak to China in a condescending way from a position of strength”.

After China’s “welcome” gesture, instead of creating favourable conditions for what could be a historic visit, Mr Blinken again resorted to his “position of strength” tactic during the lead up to his visit, reviving old issues and creating new ones to suppress China, including issues around the origin of covid, Taiwan, military base in the Philippines, NATO links with Korea and Japan, new export controls, new bans on Huawei – the list goes on.

On January 30, two weeks after China’s initial “welcome”, an MFA spokesman when asked about Blinken’s visit said: “[The] US must not on one hand talk about communication and cooperation while at the same time [it] blatantly interferes with China’s internal affairs and harms China’s interest”. On 1 February, again when asked about the visit, the spokesman said: “We have no information to provide”.

By then, Blinken must have realised that his long-awaited invitation from China for a visit had been put on hold.

Then came the balloon. China said it was a civilian airship used for research, mainly meteorological, purposes. Affected by the Westerlies and with limited self-steering capability it deviated far from its planned course. “China regrets the unintended entry of the airship into US airspace due to force majeure and will continue communicating with the US side and properly handle this isolate[d] and unexpected incident caused by force majeure”.

“Never let a crisis go to waste,” Winston Churchill said. With a good crisis on hand, Mr Blinken had the option to show diplomatic refinement, or to show crude force.

Despite a US Defence Department spokesman going on record to say the balloon posed no threat to the US, the US dispatched an F-22 stealth fighter jet plus two support military aircraft to fire a missile at the balloon on February 4 in a spectacular show of firepower. But Mr Blinken’s non-stop escalation of the balloon incident even after the shoot-down was all the more spectacular.

On February 3, the day before the shoot-down, Mr Blinken announced: “I am postponing my planned travel this weekend (February 4) to China.”

The fact is: No official announcement had been made that the planned travel would go ahead by either side.

An MFA spokesman announced in response to Mr Blinken’s statement that: “Neither China nor the US has ever announced that there would be a visit. It is up to the US to release whatever information they want to release”.

The weeks that followed saw a protracted international hype over Chinese spy balloons and drones. Japan, UK, Canada, and NATO all joined in an uproar accusing China of sending spy balloons and drones into their airspace. Almost three weeks after the shoot-down, Mr Blinken still stuck to his “don’t let a crisis go to waste” mindset, escalating it further to denounce China for “Violating US sovereignty and international law,” while repeating the China threat narrative.

“The US Secretary of State is uttering crazy words, pointing at white saying it’s black,” an MFA spokesman said in response, using strong expressions which rarely appear in MFA parlance. By then, China has totally given up on Mr Blinken.

In stark contrast, Mr Sullivan’s spokesman Mr John Kirby said at a press briefing on February 16 at the height of the balloon hype: “We assessed whether they posed any kinetic threat to people on the ground. They did not. We assessed whether they were sending any communications signals. We detected none. We looked to see whether they were manoeuvring or had any propulsion capabilities. We saw no sign of that. And we made sure to determine whether they were manned. They were not. “

Back to Mr Sullivan. His statement after the meeting with Wang was all positive. The word “communication” was used 11 times, “productive” four times, “constructive” three times. The only adjective used to characterise US-China relations is “competition”, appearing eight times. All the usual suspects attached to China like “threats” “aggressive” “coercion” “confrontation” were used zero times.

When referring to Sino-US relations, Chinese people love to sing a song dating back to year 1956 that remains today as one of China’s most popular songs and is heard across China everyday: “When friends come, we serve fine wine. When wolves come, we have shotguns”.

But “friends of China” do not exist in today’s US politics. Mr Sullivan is pro-China? You must be kidding. Same in Australia. People like Mr Paul Keating and Mr John Menadue have been painted red from head to toe by “white men’s media” for their China-friendly comments. But it is a joke to say Mr Keating or Mr Menadue are pro-China. They are true Australian patriots, 100 per cent pro-Australia. They treat China with fairness and reasonableness for no other reason than doing that is in Australia’s best interest. Lowering oneself to become a US spear for attacking China is in US interest and against Australia’s.

Mr Blinken will still have a chance to set foot in China before he steps down, as China would stand ready to honour the agreement with President Biden for such a visit to happen. But the top diplomat of any country who doesn’t have an open line of communication with Beijing cannot possibly be an effective diplomat.

Mr Blinken’s days as America’s top diplomat are numbered if President Biden is serious about having effective guardrails to keep the US-China relations on track.

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