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U.S. And China — In Search Of That Sort-Of Sweet Spot Called Détente

The U.S. Secretary of State is visiting Beijing — but even if it's a sign of de-escalation, tensions remain high between the two sides, and it's clear the détente has yet to arrive.

Chinese President Xi Jinping, also general secretary of the Communist Party of China Central Committee and chairman of the Central Military Commission.

The Americans and the Chinese must learn to disagree without the danger of starting World War III at any moment.

Pierre Haski


PARIS — Antony Blinken, the U.S. Secretary of State, is in Beijing this weekend to meet with Chinese leaders.

Originally scheduled for February, the visit was canceled in the wake of the Chinese spy balloon affair over the United States — so the visit is significant in of itself.

But one visit does not a détente make. The gulf between Beijing and Washington has become too large to be bridged in a few hours of talks. Still, it had become unhealthy and even worrying that these two modern superpowers had hardly spoken to each other for seven months. The last time they communicated was the Bali summit meeting between U.S and Chinese leaders Joe Biden and Xi Jinping in November.

Meanwhile, rhetoric on both sides has continued to escalate. Military tensions are becoming increasingly frequent in the South China Sea and Taiwan Strait. The U.S. military has released videos of high-risk aerial and naval encounters that put both armies at risk of an accidental clash that could easily spiral out of control.

Last month, Washington suggested a meeting between the two defense ministers during a conference in Singapore, but Beijing refused, as its minister was subject to U.S. sanctions. In other words, the mood is not one of détente.

Setting low expectations

Kurt Campbell, the U.S. administration's Indo-Pacific policy coordinator, sums it up nicely: "Intense competition requires intense diplomacy if we are to manage tensions," he said on the eve of the visit. To translate: the Americans and the Chinese must learn to disagree without the danger of starting World War III at any moment.

That's how low expectations are. But if the two countries initiate a dialogue that will enable them to "manage tensions," to use Campbell's phrase, the world will have made great progress. After all, that's what happened during the Cold War with the USSR, when major arms control agreements were signed.

It was a milder repeat of the 1962 missile crisis.

As history sometimes errs, a new Cuban crisis almost erupted a few days ago: a Chinese listening station was revealed on the Caribbean island, very close to the American coast. It was a milder repeat of the 1962 missile crisis that brought Americans and Soviets to the brink of nuclear confrontation. Washington was quick to downplay the situation: after all, Americans are doing the same thing near China.

Photo  of U.S. Vice President Joe Biden raises his glass to toast Chinese President Xi Jinping at a State Luncheon.

In 2015, then U.S. Vice President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping.

© Glen Johnson via ZUMA Press

Blame game

Could this be a new Cold War? The comparison is fair, except on the economic front: trade is vast, while it was non-existent with the USSR. Hence the fashionable concept of "de-risking," — that is, no longer depending on China for sensitive products, and not supplying such products to the country. In the other direction, Chinese authorities talk about "self-sufficiency" — that is, not depending on the West.

But that's not enough to avert the risk of escalation, particularly over Taiwan. Hence the importance of these talks, which began this weekend in Beijing. "The United States knows what needs to be done to de-escalate the situation," Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang said this week, putting the onus solely on the U.S.

If we need a gauge of the visit's impact, we'll have to see whether Xi meets Blinken. China's leader is scheduled to meet Bill Gates this weekend. If he receives the businessman but not the minister, the visit is not going well. It's something to keep an eye on.

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