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U.S. faces blunt — but useful — reception in Beijing. Is there a lesson for Canada?

The mood was tense and there were few smiles as Chinese President Xi Jinping and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken met in Beijing on Monday. Still, the meeting itself is seen as a sign chilly relations are pushing forward, prompting some to ask why Canada can't set aside its differences.

Following Antony Blinken's trip, Canada remains the only major country to avoid negotiations with China

Two men in navy suits shake hands while posing for a photo.

The meeting started with a handshake, but the mood was tense and there were few smiles as Chinese President Xi Jinping and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken met in Beijing's Great Hall of the People on Monday.

Still, just this — the fact that Washington's top diplomat and China's top leaders could meet and spend hours in "candid, substantive, and constructive discussions," according to Blinken — was seen as an accomplishment.

Such is the chill in relations between the two world powers, who have accused each other of spying from balloons over each other's territories, and instigating dangerously close calls between naval ships and warplanes in international territory near China. Beijing's support for Russia amid its invasion of Ukraine and Washington's sanctions against Chinese firms and officials — including Defence Minister Li Shangfu — continue to rankle.

Blinken said talks at senior levels are important to "ensure that competition does not veer into conflict." He conceded, though, "progress is hard. It takes time."

Pointing to agreement on minor issues, Xi simply said: "This is good."

But he also warned the United States not to "hurt China's legitimate rights and interests" — a signal of potential flashpoints over Taiwan, the democratically run and U.S.-armed island that China claims as its own and threatens to invade.

Two men in suits converse as the sit opposite each other at a conference table adorned with signs and microphones. Pink flowers are shown in the middle of the table, while a lush forest and river scene is displayed on the wall behind.

It's a sign that these two-day talks were likely quite blunt.

"China is very frank in its belief that every single problem in the relationship is the fault of the United States," said Robert Daly, a former U.S. diplomat in Beijing and the director of the Kissinger Institute on China and the U.S. "That's pretty insulting and pretty candid."

Despite all this, the visit went ahead.

That's prompted some to ask why Canada can't set aside its differences — the view of China as a "threat" or "enemy" held by many Canadians — and negotiate with, or even confront, Beijing directly. Even on sensitive topics like recent allegations of Chinese meddling in Canada's elections.

"For us to sit in perfect isolation, dealing with political interference, but doing absolutely nothing else, is not a winning strategy," said Gordon Houlden, director emeritus of the China Institute at the University of Alberta and a former Canadian diplomat to China.

Two people stand as other clap for them.

He admits any politician who suggests negotiating with China now would risk being "ridiculed" at home.

But no other major country has taken this approach. None in the G7, not even Australia, which struggled with Chinese election interference and then faced punitive trade measures as Canberra called Beijing out.

Australia has also seen several of its citizens detained in China, paralleling Canada's experience with the two Michaels, who were arrested and held by China for almost three years after Canada detained Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou.

Like Canada, Australia's journalists have found it virtually impossible to report in China due to restrictions and visa denials. Both countries have seen all media outlets leave mainland China.

Still, last month Australia's trade minister arrived in Beijing for talks aimed at "resolving outstanding issues." In contrast, there hasn't been a ministerial visit between Canada and China since 2018, leaving official contact to ambassadors or meetings on the sidelines of international conferences.

"We stand alone with a really troubled relationship," said Houlden.

A man wearing a grey suit and red tie walks through a red metal arch, as a group of people follow behind. In the background are a small cluster of ornately decorated buildings with terracotta roofs.

On the other hand, it's not clear Canada would have much success trying to pressure China into doing anything.

Beijing sees Washington as a near-equal. Ottawa? Not so much, said Lynette Ong, a professor at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at the University of Toronto and a senior fellow at the Asia Society Policy Institute.

"I don't think China takes Canada seriously at all," she said.

The United States is a major power which Chinese leaders have to take seriously, she said, especially as the Chinese economy stalls, struggling with unusually high unemployment and slowing foreign investment.

"But they can go and bully Canada. And Canada is relatively defenseless in that sense," said Ong.

A grey warship is seen sailing off the coast.

If relations between the U.S. and China do improve — if Blinken's meeting does reduce tensions in the long run — she sees benefits for Canada as well.

Increased trade would help both countries, and less tension in East Asia would reduce the risk that Canada could be drawn into conflict over Taiwan, for instance. Canadian warships have already become targets for the Chinese military as they joined the U.S. for exercises in the region.

But Ong doesn't expect "any uptick" in Canada's relationship with Beijing soon, partly because Washington's own diplomatic course is uncertain.

Other U.S. officials may follow in Blinken's footsteps for talks in China, and Xi may come to meet U.S. President Joe Biden in San Francisco in November at the annual Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit.

Still, that depends on reduced tensions — military, economic and political. And Blinken's trip doesn't guarantee any of it.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Saša Petricic

Senior Correspondent

Saša Petricic is a Senior Correspondent for CBC News, specializing in international coverage. He has spent the past decade reporting from abroad, most recently in Beijing as CBC's Asia Correspondent, focusing on China, Hong Kong, and North and South Korea. Before that, he covered the Middle East from Jerusalem through the Arab Spring and wars in Syria, Gaza and Libya. Over more than 30 years, he has filed stories from every continent.

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