China-US relations: Blinken says Beijing is bringing more aggression to competitive and cooperative ties

·5 min read

The US-China relationship is becoming increasingly adversarial, according to US Secretary of State Antony Blinken who on Monday criticised the Chinese government for being "more assertive and aggressive" than in previous decades.

During a virtual discussion hosted by the Ahavath Achim Synagogue in Atlanta, Blinken reiterated that there were both competitive and cooperative components to the China policy that United States President Joe Biden's administration had adopted in its first year.

"But we see increasingly, as well, adversarial aspects to this," Blinken said. "And that is in large part because ... this is in many ways a different China on the world stage over the last few years than we've seen in the last few decades: much more assertive, much more aggressive, whether it's in the region or beyond."

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Blinken's laundry list of criticisms of the Chinese government included its economic practices, human rights record, treatment of intellectual property and funding of overseas infrastructure projects that lacked adequate environmental protections and failed to use local labour.

Yet, even as he assailed China on those fronts, Blinken attributed Beijing's increasing prominence on the world stage in part to Washington's own rejection of multilateralism in recent years - alluding to the go-it-alone approach of former US president Donald Trump.

"As we stepped back, they stepped in," Blinken said, referring to Beijing. "And that is not in our interest."

Blinken's remarks came as Washington and Beijing struggle to agree on the timing and agenda of a potential face-to-face meeting between top Chinese diplomat Yang Jiechi and US national security adviser Jake Sullivan amid ongoing efforts by both sides to prevent tensions from veering into conflict.

The South China Morning Post previously reported that a proposal by the US for the meeting to take place earlier this month was rebuffed by the Chinese side in the wake of the Biden administration's announcement of a diplomatic boycott of the upcoming Beijing Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games.

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The administration's announcement of a boycott in December was followed by a flurry of similar announcements by US allies, indicative of the Biden administration's efforts to rally other countries to confront China on matters such as human rights and economic practices.

"When it's the United States taking this on alone, we're 20 or 25 per cent of world GDP [gross domestic product]," Blinken said. "When we're doing it in concert with partners and allies in Europe or in Asia, it's 40, 45 per cent, 50 per cent of world GDP. That's a lot harder for China to ignore."

Stormy relations with Beijing are just one of numerous foreign policy challenges that have entangled the Biden administration in its first year. Others include the chaotic withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan, Russia's military build-up on the Ukrainian border and the nuclear ambitions of Iran and North Korea.

Biden has maintained many of the hawkish China policies put in place by his predecessor, including tariffs on billions of dollars' worth of Chinese imports, sanctions on Chinese officials over alleged human rights abuses and an official determination that Beijing's treatment of ethnic minority groups in the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region constitutes "genocide".

And while the administration has sought to ramp up engagement with China on issues such as combating the climate crisis and arms controls, there remains little appetite in Washington for any softening of China policy with lawmakers of both parties pushing legislation to counter Beijing in areas including defence, human rights and technology.

The Biden administration has endorsed a number of those efforts, including a bill to boost federal funding for the semiconductor sector that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said on Friday would soon be introduced in the House of Representatives, following the Senate's passage of similar legislation last year.

Blinken said on Monday that if enacted, the semiconductor legislation would mark a "major step forward" in the administration's efforts to bolster the US' own competitive edge to counter China.

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But even as he took issue with the Chinese government over its actions at home and abroad, Blinken rejected the idea of a full decoupling between the world's two largest economies, describing the notion as "faulty" and "misguided".

"Done the right way, trade, investment - including with and from China - can be a good thing," he said, qualifying that those commercial and economic ties must take place on a level playing field.

And he welcomed the idea of Chinese investment in overseas infrastructure projects, provided they were carried out to sufficiently high standards.

"The world desperately needs investment in infrastructure, and if China's providing some of that investment, a lot of that investment, that's not inherently a bad thing," Blinken said. "It could be a good thing, provided it's actually done to the highest standards, not the lowest standards, that it's a race to the top, not a race to the bottom."

This article originally appeared in the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the most authoritative voice reporting on China and Asia for more than a century. For more SCMP stories, please explore the SCMP app or visit the SCMP's Facebook and Twitter pages. Copyright © 2022 South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

Copyright (c) 2022. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.