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Blinken Returns From Beijing Empty-Handed
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Blinken Returns From Beijing Empty-Handed

The high-stakes trip failed to reestablish military-to-military communications.

Happy Tuesday! Short-lived British Prime Minister Liz Truss says the viral bet on whether her premiership or a head of lettuce would last longer—the lettuce won—was not funny.

Sorry, ma’am, but that’s not for you to decide.

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories 

  • Multiple tornadoes killed at least 1 person and injured nearly two dozen in Mississippi Sunday night. The tornadoes, which cut off power for close to 50,000 Mississippians, were the latest in a string of extreme weather events across the South over the weekend that left six people dead and more than 100 injured.
  • Former President Donald Trump claimed Monday that he didn’t comply with requests from the National Archives to return classified material he’d kept after his presidency because “I was very busy.” Trump also denied that he’d shown a secret document on Iran war plans with visitors to his Bedminster, New Jersey, golf course and once again made the false claim that he won the 2020 presidential election. Trump made the comments in the first half of an hour-long interview with Fox News anchor Bret Baier, the second half of which airs tonight.
  • U.S. Magistrate Judge Bruce Reinhart ordered Trump and his aide Walt Nauta not to release evidence in the federal case related to Trump’s alleged mishandling of classified documents. The order—requested by special counsel Jack Smith and intended to prevent leaks of highly classified material—also prohibits Trump from retaining evidence and requires a lawyer to be present when he views it.
  • Republican lawmakers on the House Appropriations Committee proposed a new bill that would restrict the public’s access to military records. The Pentagon has for decades released general information about service members upon request, including their name, photo, rank, and awards. But if the new bill—which follows several unauthorized releases of information about GOP lawmakers who previously served in the armed forces—is passed, members of the public and journalists would have to file Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to obtain records. 
  • Russian cybercriminals breached several federal agencies last week in an ongoing global cyberattack that exploits a vulnerability in MOVEit, a widely used data transfer software. Jen Easterly, director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, said Thursday that the ransomware group, known as Clop, is “taking data and looking to extort it.” The attack follows a similar hack by Clop using the same software two weeks ago that impacted British Airways, a British pharmacy, and the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC).
  • The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops voted Friday to update its Catholic health care directives, beginning the process of blocking sex-change procedures—including surgeries and hormone treatments—at Catholic hospitals in the U.S. These treatments “are not morally justified either as attempts to repair a defect in the body or as attempts to sacrifice a part of the body for the sake of the whole,” the conference concluded in a doctrinal note. Catholic hospitals operate about 1 in 7 hospital beds in America and already tend not to offer cosmetic surgeries or birth control procedures.
  • At least five Palestinians were killed Monday in a nearly 10-hour clash between Palestinian militants and Israeli troops who were trying to make arrests at a Jenin refugee camp. The Palestinian fighters detonated roadside bombs, leaving five Israeli military vehicles stranded and forcing the deployment of helicopter gunships to help Israeli troops evacuate—reportedly the first such deployment of armed helicopters since the second Palestinian Intifada two decades ago. 
  • Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Maliar said Monday the Ukrainian counteroffensive had recaptured an eighth village—Piatykhatky, in Zaporizhzhia—and freed about 70 miles of territory in southern Ukraine. Ukrainian troops have also been striking Russian ammunition depots behind the front lines, including what Ukrainian officials claimed was the successful destruction this weekend of a depot about 100 miles behind front lines in the Kherson region. Both Russian and Ukrainian forces are taking heavy losses in the fighting.
  • The New York Times reported yesterday that Russian officials surveilled a Russian defector in Florida in 2020, likely as part of a botched plan to assassinate the man. The target—former Russian intelligence officer Aleksandr Poteyev—had reportedly become a CIA informant and in 2010 helped the FBI catch 11 undercover Russian spies living in the United States. The Biden administration imposed sanctions and expelled 10 Russian diplomats when the plot was uncovered in 2021.

Blinken’s Whirlwind Beijing Tour

Secretary of State Antony Blinken shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on June 19, 2023. (Photo by LEAH MILLIS/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)
Secretary of State Antony Blinken shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on June 19, 2023. (Photo by LEAH MILLIS/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

When the bar is set low, it’s easy to impress. At least, that’s what senior State Department officials seemed to be hoping as they previewed Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s trip to China over the weekend—the first by a secretary of state in five years.

“We’re not going to Beijing with the intent of having some sort of breakthrough or transformation in the way that we deal with one another,” Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Daniel Kritenbrink told reporters last Wednesday. Instead, Kritenbrink said, the general goals of the visit were threefold: to keep senior-level communication open, to signal the United States’ “values and interests,” and to “explore areas of potential cooperation where it’s in our interest to do so.”

Sure enough, Blinken concluded his two-day trip without a major breakthrough, despite more than 10 collective hours of meetings with his Chinese counterparts—the head of the Chinese Communist Party’s foreign policy Wang Yi and Foreign Minister Qin Gang—and a roughly half-hour-long meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping. Both parties did rhetorically commit to “stabilizing” U.S.-China ties—neither a full-fledged “thaw” nor a second ice age—but Blinken didn’t deliver on the top Biden administration priority of resuming military-to-military talks with Beijing.

As we wrote last week, the trip’s future looked uncertain after news broke of a Chinese listening post in Cuba—harkening back to February, when Blinken’s last planned visit to China was canceled after a Chinese spy balloon traversed the United States. This trip did go ahead, but not without a few more bumps before Blinken had even landed in Beijing. 

A call between Blinken and Qin Wednesday ahead of the visit produced two seriously divergent readouts from each side. While the short U.S. accounting of the call highlighted the American and Chinese obligation to “responsibly manage” the bilateral relationship through open communication, the Chinese summary was … less collegial. “China-U.S. relations have encountered new difficulties and challenges, and it is very clear who is to blame,” the Chinese foreign ministry statement said. “[Qin] stressed that the United States should respect China’s concerns, stop interfering in China’s internal affairs, and stop undermining China’s sovereignty, security, and development interests in the name of competition.”

You have to hope Blinken was able to sleep on the plane, since his first obligation after touching down in Beijing Sunday—a tête-à-tête with Qin combined with a working dinner—lasted seven-and-a-half hours. During the marathon meeting with China’s foreign minister, U.S. and Chinese officials reportedly agreed to arrange for Qin’s visit to Washington and hold “working-level” meetings on several of the key challenges to the bilateral relationship. “Despite harsh rhetoric from Beijing criticizing the United States leading up to the visit, it seems Chinese leaders were just as keen to meet with their American counterparts,” says Patricia Kim, fellow at the Brookings Institution Center for East Asia Policy Studies.

However, as Blinken told reporters Monday at the conclusion of his trip, “China has not agreed to move forward” with reestablishing military-to-military communications, which Beijing cut off following then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan in August. With several dangerous Chinese military maneuvers encroaching upon U.S. planes in the air over the South China Sea and nearing American vessels in the waters of the Taiwan Strait in recent weeks, the Biden administration had hoped to get the guys with guns speaking again. Instead, the specter of a potentially deadly accident leading to serious escalation still looms over the relationship. 

David Sacks, a research fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, expects those dangerous encounters to continue. The Chinese “believe that there is a fundamental asymmetry in terms of risk tolerance,” he tells TMD. If the Chinese “raise the risk enough,” Sacks adds, the United States could theoretically conclude that the “chances of an incident” are too high and dial back some activity in sensitive areas like the Taiwan Strait or South China Sea. Military-to-military communication—a de-escalatory failsafe—could, in the Chinese view, allow the U.S. leeway to operate with even more impunity in those tense regions. 

Cross-strait relations are a hot-button issue at the heart of the U.S.-China dynamic. Since China and the U.S. normalized relations in 1979, the U.S. has formally subscribed to the “One China” policy: recognizing China as holding the sole legitimate government, but only “acknowledging” Chinese claims on Taiwan. Blinken reiterated that policy in no uncertain terms Monday, telling reporters, “We do not support Taiwan independence. We remain opposed to any unilateral changes to the status quo by either side. We continue to expect the peaceful resolution of cross-strait differences.” 

He also condemned China’s “provocative” actions in the Taiwan Strait and South and East China Seas, underscoring the U.S. commitment to “making sure that Taiwan has the ability to defend itself.” While the U.S. officially employs “strategic ambiguity” on whether and how it would defend Taiwan militarily if China invaded the island, President Joe Biden has in the past been more explicit than ambiguous about what Taipei should expect from the U.S. In a “60 Minutes” interview aired in September, for example, Biden said the U.S. would send troops to defend the island in the event of an invasion—though the White House later walked back the statement.

In addition to the obvious military concerns, American leaders have also grown increasingly uneasy about China’s unfair commercial practices and human rights violations, including its exploitation of forced labor by Uyghurs and other religious and ethnic minorities. Blinken said he raised these concerns during his trip, though he declined to get into specifics. He did, however, emphasize the U.S.’s growing commitment to “de-risking” economic relations—as opposed to “de-coupling.” The second-largest economy in the world, China has a tight grip on global supply chains, which worries Western leaders as the threat of conflict rises and the reality of China’s unfair commercial practices becomes ever more apparent. 

That distinction won’t matter much to Chinese officials, many of whom see the U.S. as trying to undermine the country’s already faltering economy. “Any move to limit technology flows to China, or to scrutinize investment in China, or to diversify trade is obviously deeply opposed by the government there,” Sacks says. “It doesn’t matter if you call it de-coupling or de-risking.” 

Despite Blinken’s best efforts, Chinese officials don’t seem inclined to adopt the Biden administration’s “strategic competition” framing of the U.S.-China relationship, calling the line an outdated model of geopolitics. “The Biden administration has put a lot of emphasis on the way to, as they say, ‘compete responsibly’ with China by establishing guardrails or rules of the road that both sides operate within,” Sacks says. “But Beijing still refuses to accept that framing of the relationship.”

Worth Your Time

  • Nebraska-based ammunition manufacturing company Hornady touts its rounds as “Accurate. Deadly. Dependable.” and capable of firing “ten bullets through one hole.” Russian troops are putting that promise to the test on the battlefield. Though Hornady says it cut sales to Russia after the country invaded Ukraine, a new Politico investigation shows Western-made armaments are slipping through sanctions loopholes and reaching Russian hands, freely advertised online. “Take the ‘Sniper Shop’ on Telegram, an encrypted messaging app that is popular in Russia,” the reporters write. “It features a current offer for a full range of Hornady products, with the seller inviting buyers to visit a showroom in Sokolniki, a Moscow district, and offering delivery throughout Russia by courier or post. Contacted by Politico, the poster confirmed the Hornady ammo was in stock but declined to comment further on how it was sourced.”
  • Ian Barth’s vivid recounting of the life and death of Gimpy the pet duck blends with his exploration of our changing relationship with animals and meat, and the value of raising animals yourself and involving kids in the process. “Two years ago, just days after Christmas, I knelt next to the incubator with my eight-year-old son, peering through the glass to witness our duck eggs hatching,” he writes for Plough. “I’ve talked with a number of people who became vegetarian or vegan in recent years; in general, they are motivated by a genuine desire to make the world a better place, ensure the future of the planet, and not be complicit in the cruelty that happens in factory farms. My own unsophisticated counterpoint is simply that if you love animals, start raising some for food yourself. Chickens are easy. Goats and rabbits are pretty cheap. Pigs can be fed on acorns. You’ll find you love creation more deeply when you actually start to take a hand in caring for it.”

Presented Without Comment

Bloomberg: Trump Says He Kept Documents Because He Was ‘Very Busy’

Also Presented Without Comment

The Hill: Maryland Governor Says Book Bans Are ‘Castrating’ Kids

Also Also Presented Without Comment

Politico: Russian Warlord Prigozhin to Politico: Get Me F-35 Fighter Jets

Toeing the Company Line

  • In the newsletters: The Dispatch Politics team provides the latest on Vivek Ramaswamy’s “Trump-plus” campaign, Nick asks whether (🔒) Republican voters even want to win, and Kevin ponders the (🔒) role of the Supreme Court.
  • On the podcasts: On the latest episode of the Dispatch Podcast, Audrey talks to Georgia GOP Chair Josh McKoon about his plan for unifying the state’s fractious Republicans.
  • On the site today: Oliver examines the Biden administration’s claim that its immigration plan is working, and Audrey B. explains the tricky politics surrounding efforts to rename military posts across the country.

Let Us Know

Do you think Blinken’s trip to China was worthwhile? Why or why not?

Declan Garvey is the executive editor at the Dispatch and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2019, he worked in public affairs at Hamilton Place Strategies and market research at Echelon Insights. When Declan is not assigning and editing pieces, he is probably watching a Cubs game, listening to podcasts on 3x speed, or trying a new recipe with his wife.

Esther Eaton is a former deputy editor of The Morning Dispatch.

Mary Trimble is the editor of The Morning Dispatch and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2023, she interned at The Dispatch, in the political archives at the Paris Institute of Political Studies (Sciences Po), and at Voice of America, where she produced content for their French-language service to Africa. When not helping write The Morning Dispatch, she is probably watching classic movies, going on weekend road trips, or enjoying live music with friends.

Grayson Logue is the deputy editor of The Morning Dispatch and is based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Prior to joining the company in 2023, he worked in political risk consulting, helping advise Fortune 50 companies. He was also an assistant editor at Providence Magazine and is a graduate student at the University of Edinburgh, pursuing a Master’s degree in history. When Grayson is not helping write The Morning Dispatch, he is probably working hard to reduce the number of balls he loses on the golf course.