China and the US 'reset' their relations in search of a “new approach” | International

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The carousel of visits by senior American officials to Beijing since June has not produced a feast of big deals; There have been no bombastic receptions, no military marches, no lilting walks to the sound of ancient instruments—as happened with the visit of the French president, Emmanuel Macron. It wasn't what was expected either. The tangible results are rather scarce. But the four emissaries from the White House, who have landed in the Asian giant at a rate of almost two first swords per month, do seem to have achieved a change of mood in the geopolitical arena and the reset of links in a dangerous downward spiral.

If the first of these trips to China, that of the US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, managed to lay a foundation in June for what he himself called “one of the relations [bilaterales] most important in the world”, the last high-level figure to have passed through the People's Republic, the Secretary of Commerce, Gina Raimondo, assured on Wednesday that she was leaving the country with “a certain optimism.”

“This is the beginning of a new dialogue, this is the beginning of a new approach,” Raimondo said in an appearance in Shanghai after four days in two cities and half a dozen high-profile meetings. They were not mere exchanges of points of view, according to his reading.

During their stay, both superpowers have committed to launching various dialogue mechanisms to reduce risks and increase mutual understanding: a working group on trade issues, an information exchange mechanism on the implementation of export controls, the celebration of the 14th China-United States Tourism Leadership Summit, and it was also agreed that technical experts from both countries would meet to strengthen the protection of trade secrets. “An excellent beginning,” Raimondo reiterated after listing them before the press in a hangar at the joint venture of the aeronautical giant Boeing in the People's Republic.

The Secretary of Commerce had just visited the Disney park located in the financial megalopolis and referred to the smiles of the children she saw there; He also spoke of the more than a thousand Starbucks coffee shops open in the city and of the young Chinese and Americans he had seen studying side by side at the New York University branch in the city, “challenging each other and having a dialogue and an open debate,” he said. “That's all the business we should be doing,” she added. “We must encourage exchange between people and businesses.”

National security

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As head of the Department of Commerce, her visit was one of the most anticipated: China considers that the United States has undertaken a growing strategy of “encirclement and suppression” of its development by imposing tariffs and restrictions on the export of critical technologies. Among the latest measures, just two weeks before Raimondo's trip, US President Joe Biden announced new restrictions to limit his country's investments in strategic technological areas in the Asian country. During his stay in China, several communist commanders demanded that he reduce these controls. “Of course, I said no,” Raimondo responded, according to what he said in an appearance. She assured them that Washington is not seeking a “decoupling” but rather looking after its own interests, and she underlined the red lines: “We do not negotiate on matters of national security.”

For this reason, some analysts question whether there has been real progress and remain skeptical. “Preventing access to semiconductors and other advanced technologies that China needs so much is, by far, the most damaging measure that Washington has taken against its economic interests,” the consulting firm Trivium China assessed in a recent note. “The US refusal to relax such measures means there is little room for bilateral relations to improve” so “geopolitical risks will remain high for multinationals.”

Despite the fact that contact between senior military commanders of the two superpowers in Fiji has also been resumed this week, which reduces the risk of a clash due to lack of communication, the newspaper Global Timesa forceful voice of Beijing's propaganda, assured on Friday in the wake of Raimondo's return home: "The United States is not taking substantial steps to improve ties with China despite the climate of détente."

Few had anticipated the “aggressiveness” of the Biden administration in the Asian superpower, says Mark Leonard, director of the European Institute of International Relations, in a recent article in Foreign Affairs. Some Chinese analysts today compare his actions to those of former President Donald Trump against Iran, Leonard adds. “A consensus has formed in Beijing that Washington's objective is not for China to comply with the rules of the game; but to prevent China from growing.” The analysis concludes that it is “incorrect”: what Washington and the European Union seek is to ensure that their businesses do not share sensitive technologies with Beijing and reduce dependence on imports in strategic sectors. This is what Brussels has called derisking (risk reduction).

Shortly after Blinken's visit, a Chinese businessman and member of the communist party who sees how business has not taken off in China after the post-pandemic reopening, demanded on condition of anonymity less "derisking” and more “depoliticizing” (depoliticization) in relations between Beijing and the West. That's what he said while toasting with a French wine from a hotel overlooking Tiananmen Square in Beijing. “We need communication,” a government official from one of the main Chinese cities also asserted this summer.


Prime Minister Li Qiang spoke along the same lines last Tuesday during the interview with Raimondo: “Politicize economic and commercial issues and exaggerate the concept of security.” […] “It will undermine the interests of companies and the population of the two countries,” Li told him, according to the official reading provided by Xinhua. But Beijing, he indicated, was willing to “strengthen dialogue and cooperation” on trade and the economy.

After a summer of bad news for China in these fields (negative prices, low consumption, drop in exports, youth unemployment), the Government has begun to take shock measures to try to reactivate the engine. Among them is the constant call for foreign investment. The People's Republic urgently seeks to reduce mistrust among multinationals. But the atmosphere is not positive, quite the opposite.

Many Western companies consider that the Asian giant has become a “not to invest” destination, as several American businessmen told Raimondo before his visit. To the old problems of access to the Chinese market, intellectual property, industrial secrets and an uneven playing field, there is now added growing concern about an unpredictable regulatory environment, a strengthened anti-espionage law, in addition to the raids and fines they have suffered some American companies in a surprising way in recent months.

The mechanisms agreed upon during Raimondo's stay also seek to reassure worried businessmen in his country. The senior official was satisfied with having launched these active communication channels to avoid risks due to misunderstandings. “I don't want to go back to the times of dialogue for dialogue's sake,” she concluded during the appearance at Boeing's headquarters in Shanghai.

After the frenzy of visits, now it's time to wait for the leaders of both countries to meet again and propose new objectives. In their last meeting, last November during the G-20 summit in Bali (Indonesia), Presidents Xi Jinping and Joe Biden achieved a timid thaw whose results have been permeating during the visits of senior US officials in recent months. Then, they decided not to enter into a new cold war.

The next G-20 summit, which starts in India this Saturday, will not, however, be the scene of a new face to face between the heads of the two largest planetary powers. Xi “probably” will not attend the meeting held in a country with which China has serious disputes, according to exclusive information from the Reuters agency, not yet confirmed by Beijing. Various analysts point out in any case that the next meeting between Biden and Xi could take place in November during the annual meeting of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Forum held in San Francisco.

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