US Secretary of State Antony Blinken's two-day visit to China comes at a critical time, when the world cannot afford more geopolitical ruptures, and de-escalating tensions between the two global superpowers is the only pragmatic way forward. Even as frosty relations between the US and China are no secret, Mr Blinken's visit to Beijing – five years after his predecessor Mike Pompeo's trip in 2018 – is an encouraging step.
Expectations on both sides are modest amid the high-level meetings planned between Mr Blinken and Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang. But open communication is necessary for both sides to bring their significant disagreements to the discussion table – among them and not least of all: the war in Ukraine, the issue of Taiwan, the South China Sea, technological competition and trade disputes.
But even as the competing powers have never been allies, US-China relations in the past few months have arguably been at their lowest ebb since just before 1972, when Richard Nixon became the first sitting US president to visit China. The incident in February of the US shooting down a suspected Chinese spy balloon only worsened ties and delayed Mr Blinken's originally scheduled visit.
To begin repairing relations when there is mutual distrust is not easy nor straightforward but the willingness on both sides to talk is a hopeful sign. At the heart of their tensions is a lack of communication, which is always to the detriment of any two nations at odds. Even at the height of the Cold War, the US and the erstwhile Soviet Union were communicating with each other, a fact that famously kept the peace. With China's rise in recent decades, US dominance has unquestionably been challenged, prompting a shift in the power balance. This has come in sharper focus of late. The American bank Goldman Sachs has even projected that China’s economy will overtake America’s by 2035.
In 2022, however, the US was still the world's largest economy, with a gross domestic product of just under $25.5 trillion. China was the second largest economy, with a GDP of around $18.1 trillion. The two powers make up the biggest economies in the world and two of the mightiest militaries – which is all the more reason for them to have a healthy working relationship amid a multipolar world. China's military expenditure is only second to the US, which has an enormous defence budget by any standard. While last year America spent $877 billion on its military, China came next, at $292 billion, ahead of Russia and India.
As one country rises to rival an existing superpower, the frictions that result are not surprising. But how the rest of the 21st century pans out will depend in large part on the trajectory of the relationship between two countries' whose economies are deeply linked to one another. Their ability to co-operate and communicate – in at least as much as is necessary to maintain peace, and avoid conflict – is imperative for global security. Crucially, too, as the world's biggest carbon emitters, the US and China need to co-operate on climate action. Repercussions of not doing so are grave and consequential for the entire global population.
Despite their issues, tentative efforts from both sides to move ahead have not gone unnoticed. US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan met China's top diplomat, Wang Yi, in Vienna last month. Prior to that, in November last year, when Chinese President Xi Jinping met US President Joe Biden at the G20 summit in Bali, he said the world was "big enough" for both nations to prosper. That is the de-escalating attitude both nations need to persist with.
The outcome of Mr Blinken's meetings will be known shortly. What is already clear, however, is that efforts to co-operate and pave the way for a stable, multipolar global order will reward not just the two superpowers but the wider world, which cannot sustain the outcomes of a struggle over international dominance.