The United States has made no secret it considers China to be its main global strategic rival.
The US national security strategy, published last October, describes China as the only competitor with both the intent to reshape the international order and, increasingly, the economic, diplomatic, military, and technological power to do it. It says: “Beijing has ambitions to create an enhanced sphere of influence in the Indo-Pacific and to become the world’s leading power.”
And it is not just on Earth. The US suspects China has a strategic goal of displacing it as the dominant power in space within the next 20 years.
Political relations have also deteriorated in recent times, although US president Joe Biden said he wanted to keep lines of communication open following a meeting with Chinese leader Xi Jinping in Indonesia in November.
[ Denis Staunton: Biden and Xi use Bali to turn down the heat ]
Tensions had worsened last year with China suspending high level bilateral contacts following a controversial visit of former speaker of the US House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan, which was strongly opposed by Beijing.
There were reports in recent days the new House speaker Kevin McCarthy may visit Taiwan in the months ahead, a development China has also urged should not happen.
Last week a senior US general, Michael Minihan, warned his staff of the potential for war with China in the near future. “I hope I am wrong. My gut tells me we will fight in 2025.”
The Republican chair of the House foreign fffairs fommittee, Michael McCaul, later agreed with Minihan’s sentiments. “I hope he’s wrong as well. I think he’s right, though, unfortunately.”
On Thursday, the US secured expanded access to key bases in the Philippines, which will be strategically valuable if it has to conduct military operations in the South China Sea or wants to support Taiwan.
It is against this backdrop that the United States’s top diplomat, secretary of state Antony Blinken, will visit Beijing this weekend.
However China experts are not forecasting any significant breakthroughs.
At a press briefing at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington this week its Freeman chair in China studies Jude Blanchette maintained that in light of recent tensions, the talks are “really about re-establishing the undergirding of the relationship and putting in place some procedures and mechanisms to be able to manage through some of the tensions in the relationship right now”.
Blanchette did not think conflict between the US and China was only a couple of years away but said the fact the comments were being made at all “does speak to the extraordinarily fraught state of the relationship, recent improvements aside.”
He estimated that the White House would consider Blinken’s trip to Beijing “as just another step in building on the trajectory ” since Biden met Xi in Bali last November.
“And they don’t say this, but I think the goal is to basically fast-forward this cold war to its detente phase, thereby skipping a Cuban missile crisis.”
Blanchette maintained there was “a perception in the White House that now is an advantageous time for the United States to try to reset relations”.
“I think, also, in conversations with folks in the administration, it is clear that they also see Beijing as being in something of a weaker spot right now. Analysts can debate that point, but I think the perception is there that, in its own way, China is facing a poly-crisis, if we could put a word on it, in terms of Covid, in terms of its economy; we’re seeing, you know, continuing problems in the resumption of consumption; we’re seeing continuing problems in the real estate market.
“Xi Jinping is fighting fires on a number of different fronts right now and that might put him in a slightly more pragmatic position when it comes to the bilateral relationship. And indeed, Beijing has been sending some interesting and, to me, some somewhat unpredictable signals over the past couple months that do indicate something of a marginal course correction to pragmatism.
“I think there’s important questions about how long that tack stays. Is this slightly more ... pragmatic tack simply a function of the current headwinds China faces and if they can rebuild some momentum in the economy, if Xi Jinping can put out a few of these fires, we’re going to see a return to the status quo ante of ... more wolf-warrior assertive diplomacy and foreign policy? I think that’s a question that remains to be seen. But the signals are, I think, striking as to what has happened over the last few months.”
Scott Kennedy, Trustee chair in Chinese business and economics, told the briefing that coming into the Blinken meeting this weekend the Chinese economy was not doing well. He said on a six-week visit to the country last autumn he found it “hard to identify real signs of progress outside of the electric vehicle industry”.
“You had big shutdowns of the economy in different points during the year. Sentiment was very low among consumers and investors.
“Looking at this year there’s some potential bright spots for the Chinese economy. Zero-Covid was abandoned in six minutes. And they are opening up. The have upped their stimulus of the economy, cut some taxes, allowed the housing market to regrow again, ended the crackdown on internet firms and focused on suggesting they want dialogue with the US.
“And that includes Secretary Blinken’s trip, [treasury] secretary [Janet] Yellen’s, I expect others in both directions. But on the downside, there’s still a pretty significant list of things pushing to keep the Chinese economy from growing and being an engine of global growth.”
He said China’s debt picture has continued to worsen, with a debt-to-GDP ratio of more than 300 per cent. In terms of demography, China’s population shrunk slightly for the first time last year.