Chinese President Xi Jinping meets with Bill Gates, co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, in Beijing, capital of China, June 16, 2023. (Xinhua/Pang Xinglei)

OPINION – Xi’s meeting with Bill Gates: Implications for Blinken’s Visit and US-China Relations

The Chinese President Xi Jinping’s meeting with Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates has already sent important messages to the US government prior to the upcoming visit by Secretary of State Antony Blinken, especially on the relations between the US and the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

On June 16, when President Xi met Bill Gates, several messages were highlighted by the Chinese media.

First, Xi hoped that the friendship between the Chinese and American people can and will continue. The Chinese leader added that peoples after the Covid-19 era should move more actively than before, interact with each other and that the Sino-US relations have their foundation on the civilian side.

Obviously, Xi implied that the Sino-US relations on the official and governmental level remain contentious and problematic, but that the hope of improving bilateral official relations are based on the good foundation of people-to-people interactions at the civilian level – a remark pointing to the Chinese expectation on whether the upcoming Antony Blinken’s visit would perhaps improve the US relation with the PRC.

Second, Xi praised the philanthropic activities of Bill Gates, including the promotion of poverty alleviation work, public health development and education. The Chinese President elaborated on China’s global development initiative and global civilization advocacy, saying that the PRC is keen to solve its own problems first due to its huge population. Moreover, China must maintain long-term stability and sustainability, thereby contributing to the world’s peace, stability and prosperity. China, according to Xi, needs to consolidate the fruits of poverty alleviation and the revival of villages and rural health standards.

Objectively, Xi grasped the excellent opportunity of his meeting with Bill Gates to stress that China is by no means a threat to the world peace. Instead, the PRC is contributing to world peace, stability and prosperity through its advocacy work. From the perspective of sustainable development, the philanthropic work and activities of Bill Gates are in harmony and conformity with the PRC’s emphasis on the achievement of global sustainable development.

Third, Xi stressed that China points to the need for the Chinese-style modernization and Chine renaissance. As such, the PRC does not step into the old path of great powers which sought “hegemony.” Rather, China wants to develop with other countries to realize the “common destiny of humankind.” China, according to Xi, is keen to develop innovation and technological cooperation with other countries to tackle Covid-19 and other public health crises. Therefore, China is willing to collaborate with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Analytically speaking, Xi attempted to persuade Gates that China is by no means seeking “hegemony,” unlike the previous great powers in the world. As an emerging power, the PRC adopts a more socialist vision of achieving the so-called “common destiny of the humankind.” Indeed, such socialist vision appears to clash with the superpower mentality of US leaders, who are now perceiving China as a threat militarily, economically and politically. 

Most interestingly, Bill Gates responded to Xi’s remarks diplomatically, saying that “it is my honor to have this opportunity to meet you.” In the past four years, according to Gates, he could not visit China and he felt regretful of this situation. Gates expressed his emotional feeling toward his visit to China this time. Exercising his diplomatic finesse, Gates added that China has made great achievements in poverty alleviation work and the control over Covid-19 and its variants. Therefore, his foundation is keen to collaborate with China, thereby contributing to not only the PRC but also other developing countries in the areas of anti-poverty work, public health protection, medicinal exploration, rural development and the transfer of technology.

The replies from Bill Gates not only demonstrated his diplomatic finesse but also his awareness that face is important for the Chinese side and leadership.

The element of face, however, has not been adequately addressed by some diplomats on the US side in their past interactions and communications with their PRC counterparts. While some Chinese diplomats remain perhaps “hawkish” in their wolf-warrior diplomacy and bluntly expose the problems of the US side, the same can also be said of some US diplomats. As a result, US-China relations have not really achieved any breakthrough during the Joe Biden administration, unlike the previous predictions made by some experts in US-China relations that their encounters would be better than the Donald Trump administration.

The crux of the problem is the neglect of face in Chinese foreign policy. Some US diplomats have appeared to adopt an openly frank attitude, adopting a kind of megaphone diplomacy while their Chinese counterparts have also been maintaining a firm and argumentative style of responses from time to time.

The upcoming Antony Blinken’s visit to China is important in several aspects.

He will be the highest-ranking US official who will visit the PRC since Joe Biden became the President in January 2021. Symbolically, it will be a friendly gesture from the US side that, amid the competition between the two countries, Washington is keen to prevent such competition from going toward the path of confrontation, as Blinken openly admits.

Just before Blinken’s visit to China, he interacted with Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang, who said the US should stop intervening in China’s domestic affairs. 

Such warning from Qin Gang points to the limitation in US-China relations. In March 2023, the US Ambassador to China, Nicholas Burns, held meetings with three American citizens who were detained in the PRC on charges of spying. Blinken’s visit would likely touch on their fate – a complicated issue indeed.

It was reported that the PRC Foreign Ministry told the US side not to deal with China “from a position of strength.” Such remark implied that Blinken’s remarks would be carefully read by the Chinese side to see whether Washington would negotiate any issue by utilizing a “higher ground” of showing political strength or “hegemonic” tendency.

The spokesperson of the Chinese Foreign Ministry, Wang Wenbin, stressed that “extremely irresponsible hegemonic behavior … will only push China and the US towards confrontation.” 

Wang’s remark could be interpretated as a warning before Blinken’s visit to China.

During the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, the US side led by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin failed to achieve any military dialogue with his Chinese counterpart Li Shangfu. What was interesting in Austin’s remarks was his warning that a war over Taiwan would be “devastating” in affecting the global economy.

Although it is widely understandable that any war over Taiwan would have detrimental impacts on the global economy, Austin’s comment was received by the Chinese side negatively, especially as the PRC appears to be keen to settle the Taiwan issue peacefully as a policy priority.

On June 16, the same day when Bill Gates met Xi Jinping, the PRC side held a cross-strait forum for the youths from both the mainland and Taiwan sides. About 450 guests participated and there were 303 people from Taiwan. Obviously, the PRC side remains keen to settle the Taiwan matter through peaceful engagement with the people of Taiwan. During the current transition to the holding of the Taiwan presidential election in January 2024, active engagement with the Taiwan people is a policy priority that can and will hopefully shape the way in which the Taiwan voters will cast their ballots for a moderate candidate, whether he would be Hou You-yi from the opposition Kuomintang or Ko Wen-je from the Taiwan People’s Party.

The Taiwan issue will be a difficult one in Blinken’s talks with the Chinese side during his Beijing visit. Although the US side has claimed that its policy toward Taiwan remains unchanged, the Nancy Pelosi visit to Taiwan in August 2022 and the rapid trends of developing closer interactions between the US officials and the Taiwan government have generated an image that Washington has already changed its strategic ambiguity to strategic clarity.

The increase in the US troops to train the Taiwan military for the sake of enhancing Taiwan deterrence to the PRC’s military threat has also heightened the sensitivity from the mainland side.

Another idea of expanding the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to the Asia-Pacific region has raised the alarm of the PRC side, which feels that the US “hegemony” is targeting Beijing. The Indo-Pacific Strategy of the US, which was revealed in February 2022, showed that the US is keen to return to Asia-Pacific with a more forceful leadership role than the Trump era. The US allies such as Japan, Australia, New Zealand and South Korea are now encircling the PRC geopolitically. A NATO liaison office may be considered in Japan in 2024 – a report that surely alarms the PRC.

Compounding the Taiwan issue and the Asian NATO are the ongoing technological and trade wars between the US and China. Technology transfer has been increasingly seen as a national security issue to both Washington and Beijing.

Finally, the ideological difference between Beijing and Washington remains a thorny issue. The US is domestically “democratic” in its political system and China is politically led by a dominant party with “authoritarian” traits, while Washington’s foreign policy is driven by its universal values of “democracy promotion and human rights protection” and Beijing’s foreign policy vision is more of a socialist type of achieving “common destiny of the humankind.” So long as ideological differences persist, we cannot have high hopes of the Blinken visit to China.

The Cold War mentality has loomed especially with the persistent Ukrainian war in which the US sees the PRC as “siding” more with Russia than Ukraine, although Beijing perceives itself as a more “neutral” actor. Compounding the mutual deep distrust is the role of North Korea, whom the US sees as an unstable and a potentially “dangerous” state upsetting the political stability and military balance in Northeast Asia.

In conclusion, Blinken’s visit to China is now surrounded by a whole range of very complex and difficult issues that demonstrate not only the profound mutual distrust between Washington and Beijing, but also the deep ideological differences between the two countries in a world that has entered a new era in which the US-led allies are encountering a military and “antagonistic” bloc including the PRC, Russia and North Korea. The Ukrainian war has exacerbated the deep mutual distrust between the US and China amid their intense technological, economic, military and political rivalries. Exacerbating the US-China relations are the hardline position of diplomats who have mostly developed a tendency of using megaphone diplomacy rather than relying on face or low-key remarks to deal with their counterparts from the other side. The Taiwan issue is also deeply entangled in the ongoing Sino-US tensions, while the emerging Asian NATO is by no means good news to the relations between Washington and Beijing. If so, Blinken’s visit is destined to encounter difficult exchanges. Still, mutual and regular dialogue is a sliver lining amid the dark cloud of complex US-China relations.