roach154_LEAH MILLISPOOLAFP via Getty Images_blinkenxi Leah Millis/Pool/AFP via Getty Images

The Wrong Way to Manage US-China Relations

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s trip to Beijing demonstrated the shortcomings of a personalized approach to diplomacy. Shifting to a more institutionalized model of engagement would take conflict resolution out of the hands of highly sensitive and politically constrained leaders.

NEW HAVEN – US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s long-delayed trip to Beijing has come and gone. Despite the predictable optimistic spin on the visit – both sides agreed to strengthen people-to-people exchanges and promised to continue talks – it did little to defuse the increasingly fraught conflict between the United States and China.

The failure to reestablish military-to-military communications is especially worrisome, given the recent spate of near-misses between the two superpowers’ warships in the Taiwan Strait and aircraft over the South China Sea. And this is to say nothing of reported Chinese surveillance and military activity in Cuba, which bears an eerie resemblance to the events that precipitated the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 – one of the most frightening moments of the Cold War. The risks of accidental conflict, as underscored in my recent book, remain high.

The underlying problem is overreliance on personalized diplomacy. Yes, that played a crucial role in the early days of the US-China relationship. More than just stagecraft, US President Richard Nixon’s historic trip to China in 1972 was a decisive strategic gambit aimed at the triangulation of the former Soviet Union. Multiple layers of personal connections helped to tip the balance of power in the first Cold War: Nixon and Mao Zedong at the top, underpinned by Henry Kissinger and Zhou Enlai working out the details of US-China engagement.

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