Secretary of State Antony Blinken just gave China its highest-level visit from a US official in about five years. This long hiatus in face-to-face meetings is curious given that China is widely seen as America’s principal geopolitical challenger. Blinken’s meetings with President Xi Jinping and China’s top foreign policy officials appear to have contributed to the “thaw,” predicted by President Biden last month, in the icy US-China relationship. Such a thaw — or as Xi called it after meeting Blinken on Monday, a “stabilizing” of the US-China relationship — would serve both countries’ economic and security interests. But there’s a less acknowledged benefit: It would alleviate the anxieties of Asians living in countries whose security is tightly wound up with America’s.
Blinken arrived in Beijing at a moment when relations between the United States and China are degrading. Without routine communication between the two sides’ militaries — suspended following then-House speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan last year — competition could mutate into confrontation. Near collisions, such as those between US and Chinese naval vessels in the Taiwan Strait in early June and between aircraft over the South China Sea in late May, have become disturbingly common.
It’s easy to imagine how an accidental military confrontation could spiral out of control, so Blinken was wise to emphasize the need to reduce the potential for “misperception and miscalculation.” Revelations of a Chinese espionage operation in Cuba or a surveillance balloon drifting across US airspace can provoke the kind of panic and recrimination that disables diplomacy.
Many in Washington seem to have decided confrontation between the United States and China is all but inevitable. Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida warned that China is trying to “encircle” the United States. Then-US Representative Elaine Luria, a Democrat from Virginia, proclaimed in a speech in 2022 that the United States must stand up to China to “determine whose values rule the remainder of the 21st century.” In their loose talk of war, America’s political leaders make a prophecy that they themselves might fulfill.
President Biden’s responsibility to carefully manage US-China relations is much graver than, say, that of the newfangled Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party in Congress. Legislators who call for aggressively confronting the “China threat” are incentivized by a political culture that tends to see denunciation as a sign of toughness and enabled by a defense industry that stands to profit handsomely from the military buildups that accompany escalating fears of conflict.
But the peacemaking imperatives of statecraft are trickier than the stone-throwing impulses of oppositional politics. Geopolitics has become the art of the possible as domestic politics has, to a large extent, descended into the art of the postural.
The grand talk of confrontation ignores the realities of those caught between the United States and China. Unlike the Cold War’s insulated Western and Eastern blocs, the economies of Asian countries are intertwined, and security and economic relationships are forged with both the United States and China. The rhetoric of China hawks fails to scare these countries into alignment. Instead, it inflames anxieties that the region will be destabilized.
To be sure, China’s regional dominance is a cause of trepidation in countries such as South Korea, the Philippines, and Singapore. The United States is still a welcome source of security for many countries in Asia. In recent months, the Philippines welcomed additional US military bases; South Korea gained a more active role in US nuclear planning; and Singapore deepened its security partnership with Washington.
However, Asian acquiescence to US strategic aims shouldn’t be taken for granted. Even America’s treaty allies don’t share all of Washington’s objectives for the Pacific and they will continue to partner with both China and the United States depending on how their interests align with each power. After all, China remains a major trade partner for most Pacific nations, and US allies maintain healthy diplomatic ties with China. South Korea is hesitant to provide direct support to Taiwan in the case of a Chinese invasion. The Philippines insists its ties to the United States don’t threaten its good relationship with Beijing.
Ultimately, many in Asia will pursue a middle course that benefits their interests — a stable Pacific. In the words of Singapore’s Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat on the eve of Blinken’s visit to China, “unbridled and unchecked competition with no guardrails will generate great costs and hardship across the world.”
Many in Asia agree with the spirit of Heng’s comments. A new survey of South Koreans, Filipinos, and Singaporeans by our organization, the Eurasia Group Foundation, identifies US-China tensions among these three countries’ most pressing concerns — ranked below economic challenges and climate change but above global pandemics and political instability at home. South Koreans worry that their country’s politics will intensify as political parties pick sides in the US-China rivalry. Filipinos worry that geopolitical tensions will put their national security at risk.
Blinken has not ushered in a dramatic reset in US-China relations or reconciled each side’s divergent geopolitical interests. But by extending an invitation for a Chinese delegation to visit Washington, he appears to have resumed the kind of regular, high-level dialogue with China that will help avoid the kind of escalation feared by many in Asia. Ninety percent of our respondents are worried or very worried about the United States and China entering a new geopolitical confrontation.
Blinken’s meeting with Xi is an auspicious start. America would be wise to cool its rhetoric and find a way to live with China in Asia. Otherwise, America’s allies and partners will continue to look out on the Pacific with alarm.
Mark Hannah is a senior fellow at the Eurasia Group Foundation and host of its “None Of The Above” podcast. Lucas Robinson is a researcher at the Eurasia Group Foundation.