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Antony Blinken in China: Stern Words as Taiwan Tension Continues

America's top diplomat Antony Blinken was mindful of Japan's concerns about China's threat to security in the Indo-Pacific as he met with top Chinese leaders.



Chinese President Xi Jinping meets with US Secretary of State Blinken at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on April 26. (©Xinhua/Kyodo)

A crucial issue was raised at meetings between the United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken and the leaders of Japan and China. Both meetings took place during April.

The Japanese government described the problem as "the People's Republic of China's dangerous and aggressive behavior in the South China Sea."

Mr Blinken said he warned about these "dangerous actions" during his meetings with Xi Jinping and other Chinese leaders. Those took place in Shanghai and Beijing on April 25th and 26th. Tension in the Taiwan Strait was highlighted as a pressing concern.

China has been increasing the number of fighter jets and warships it deploys to the area. Taiwan's defense ministry put out a Tweet on the social media platform X in which it said it detected 21 Chinese military aircraft and seven Chinese naval vessels operating around Taiwan on April 20th and 21st. The ministry says at least 17 Chinese military aircraft crossed the median line of the Taiwan Strait.

There is less than a month until the inauguration of Taiwan's new government, led by president-elect, Lai Ching-te. China views him as an obstacle to its strategy of uniting Taiwan with the mainland. It has not ruled out the use of force to take control of the island.

Stern Reaction

Mr Blinken said the aim of his spring visit to China was to take stock of progress. 

At an official level, the response from the Chinese side was stern. Foreign Minister Wang Yi claimed that "negative factors in the relationship" with the United States are still building. He warned Mr Blinken to steer clear of China's red lines. 

US Secretary of State Antony and China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse. April 26, 2024, in Beijing. (©Mark Schiefelbein/Pool via Reuters)

This implies that China sees the status of Taiwan as an "internal issue" for China. The US, Japan, and their partners see the matter differently. They regard the protection of Taiwan's sovereignty as essential to the security of the Indo-Pacific. 

Mr Blinken's meeting with Xi Jinping wasn't announced until the last moment. Chinese state media reported that Mr Xi told his visitor that he hoped the United States could look at China's development in a positive light.

"This is a fundamental issue that must be addressed, just like the first button of a shirt that must be put right, in order for the China-US relationship to truly stabilize, improve and move forward," Mr Xi was quoted as saying.

Limited Progress

For those with an optimistic view of China, that slightly odd metaphor from the realm of men's tailoring sounded fairly cooperative. The American side also seemed to accept that there had been progress. Both countries have agreed to continue exchanges between their military commanders. They have also said they will cooperate on drug control and climate change. And they promised to try to prevent artificial intelligence from wreaking havoc on society. 

Yet there was nothing to indicate that China intends to downgrade its "ironclad" relationship with Vladimir Putin. Mr Blinken said that he confronted China's leaders about allegations that they are providing support to Russia's defense industries.

This issue concerns Japan, as the Russian Navy has been conducting patrols near Japan's home islands in joint exercises with the Chinese People's Liberation Army Navy.

Critical Exchange

In China's view, of course, Japan is a player in Washington's geopolitical strategy to contain China. The Chinese Communist Party has been critical of Japanese politicians who have made supportive remarks about Taiwan's democracy, or who have visited the island.

Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen meets with LDP Consultative Council Chairman Keiji Furuya and a Japanese delegation on January 14, 2024. (Courtesy of the President's Office. August 8, 2023 (Courtesy of the Office of the President of Taiwan)

"The Japanese government should be clear where to toe the line when it comes to the core interests of China, particularly on the Taiwan question," claimed an editorial column in the state mouthpiece, China Daily. 

A much more reliable source of information about the official position of the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs is provided in an annual report called the Diplomatic Bluebook.

The April 2024 edition notes serious concerns over China's attempts to "unilaterally alter the status quo" through "a series of dangerous acts" in the South China Sea. It emphasizes the importance of deepening Japan's collaboration with the United States and other partners.


However, the Bluebook also suggests that Japan should promote a "mutually beneficial relationship with China, based on common strategic interests."

Mixed Messages 

This could be seen as sending a set of mixed messages. If so, there are two potential explanations. First, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has no wish to undermine the diplomatic objectives of the United States towards China. Second, the value of dialogue was mentioned many times by Secretary of State Blinken during his visits to Shanghai and Beijing. 

"There is no substitute for face-to-face engagement," he also told Wang Yi.

Japan's Prime Minister Fumio Kishida held face-to-face talks with Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the APEC Economic Leaders' Meeting in San Francisco last November. Both sides also affirmed the value of a strategic relationship between the two countries.

There followed a trip to Beijing by the leader of Japan's Komeito party, Natsuo Yamaguchi. Komeito has its roots in a Buddhist sect and regards itself as peace-oriented. It is a coalition partner of the much larger LDP, led by Mr Kishida.

Komeito representative Natsuo Yamaguchi in the Diet on April 23. (© Sankei by Ataru Haruna)

As leader of a minor party, Mr Yamaguchi is not a particularly significant figure in Japan. However, because he was willing to praise China and keep quiet about Taiwan, his hosts elevated his status and ushered him into talks with Foreign Minister Wang Yi and other senior officials.

Antony Blinken is of a far higher status internationally than Mr Yamaguchi. This also explains why Xi Jinping was willing to meet him. However, as BBC reporter Tom Bateman notes, the US visit was stripped of fanfare and both sides played it tough.

He wrote: "This has not been about red carpets nor warm welcomes. I have watched Blinken largely trying to keep a polite but tough look on his face at the start of the meetings with his Chinese counterparts. More stern than smiles." 


Author: Duncan Bartlett, Diplomatic Correspondent
Mr Bartlett is the Diplomatic Correspondent for JAPAN Forward and a Research Associate at the SOAS China Institute. Read his other articles and essays.