The Platform


China holds significant leverage in its long-running conflict with the United States.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s attempts to engage with Beijing are a double-edged sword. While high-level diplomatic visits are important, Blinken’s decision to visit Beijing is a strategic win for China and it ultimately weakens Washington’s position.

An initial high-level meeting in Alaska in 2021 played right into Beijing’s goals of humiliating the U.S. on its own turf. The Chinese delegation lectured their American counterparts extensively, achieving their objective.

Chinese President Xi Jinping’s third term has created an urgent need for him to consolidate his power internally and break free from America’s containment efforts. He aims to achieve this through a two-pronged approach. Firstly, he wants to solidify his legacy and strengthen nationalistic sentiments at home by promoting the “Chinese Dream” and pushing for the “peaceful” unification of Taiwan with the mainland. This involves diverting attention away from domestic socio-economic problems and blaming the West instead.

Secondly, China seeks to enhance its economic independence by pursuing decoupling. The pandemic prompted Beijing to reshape the global economic framework, positioning itself as the central economic hub for supply chains and critical resources. This gives China considerable leverage, allowing them to weaponize economic tools as blackmail in conflicts with the West. By doing so, China hopes to minimize the impact of current and future Western sanctions and increase its influence over Washington’s decisions.

China’s growing economic grip over numerous countries and regions grants them the confidence to take bolder actions. Recent military snubs highlight Beijing’s newfound confidence. Through events like the Shangri-La Dialogue, China aims to corner the U.S. and portray it as weak, pushing Washington to make mistakes that justify Beijing’s own responses and actions in regional hotspots. By rejecting U.S. overtures, including risk reduction mechanisms, Beijing can exert more pressure on Washington and extract concessions to its advantage.

For the U.S. to engage with China without projecting strength and a clear position is a strategic mistake. It would allow Beijing to achieve its immediate goal of trapping the U.S. and bolstering Xi’s credentials domestically. Blinken’s visit could also serve to reinforce Beijing’s narrative and blame game against the U.S. It would send a message to China’s satellite states and peripheral countries that the U.S. is no longer invincible and is willing to go to desperate lengths to appease China.

With its economic leverage, China can now justify its intimidation and coercion of Taiwan, citing provocations and Western disrespect for China’s internal affairs. China’s assertive actions in the South China Sea and its expanding friend-shoring efforts from the Middle East to Latin America will only intensify, capitalizing on the current opening.

China’s peace brokering in the Middle East, consolidation of ties with both Riyadh and Tehran and escalation of espionage activities are all meant to send a message to the West and the rest of the world. Beijing’s efforts to build a narrative through soft and hard power, from BRICS to its growing influence in the Global South, have yielded considerable successes that undermine America’s fragmented and slow counter-response.

French President Emmanuel Macron’s approach of cozying up to Xi and the ongoing divisions in Europe over the right approach to China, such as the Huawei disagreement and trade policies in China’s satellite states in Eastern Europe, contribute to Beijing’s growing confidence in its global coalition-building efforts.

China’s ability to play the victim card, reshape the narrative on U.S. sanctions and embargoes, and utilize economic tools and espionage to win friends both overtly and covertly has strengthened its soft power. However, this growing confidence is not expected to last long. Xi recognizes the pressure of time and knows that China will eventually lose momentum to the U.S. in the long run. The possibility of a Donald Trump comeback in 2024 adds further uncertainty, as he would actively seek to regain power and change the balance of power in favor of Washington.

The upcoming U.S. presidential election will likely see both parties adopting a tough stance on China, providing Beijing with an opportunity to cement its narrative and win over the global audience. While China currently enjoys peak power status, some argue that this will lead to more dangerous maneuvers by Xi, driven by the urgency to secure his rejuvenation drive and cement his legacy. In the event of miscalculations, Washington will be blamed, leaving Beijing as the winner in a lose-lose situation for the U.S.

China is now challenging the U.S. not only in the Indo-Pacific but also in its own backyard. China’s confidence has grown, and it appears more willing than ever to push Washington further, even willing to absorb the first punch to create a pretext for a stronger counterstrike. Beijing anticipates winning the moral high ground by triumphing over what they view as “U.S. imperialism.” The saber-rattling and waiting game for the first move are both crafted to favor Beijing.

Collins Chong Yew Keat has been serving in University of Malaya for more than 9 years. His areas of focus include strategic and security studies, America’s foreign policy and power projection, regional conflicts and power parity analysis and has published various publications on numerous platforms including books and chapter articles. He is also a regular contributor in providing op-eds and analytical articles for both the local and international media on various contemporary global issues and regional affairs since 2007.