Dueling visits reveal China’s competing visions and balancing acts

Learn more about Igor Khrestin .
Igor Khrestin
Bradford M. Freeman Managing Director, Global Policy
George W. Bush Institute

China’s competing national security and economic priorities have come into full view with three high-profile visits from the U.S., Russia, and Taiwan in the past two weeks. Last week, the Chinese hosted an American delegation led by U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen. This week,  Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and former President of Taiwan Ma Ying-jeou both met with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing.  

During Yellen’s visit, Beijing was looking to calm down the stormy economic waters in which it has found itself recently and win back U.S. investment. Yellen agreed to renew economic dialogue with China, which has withered on the vine in recent years of heightened tensions. Yellen also raised concerns with China’s industrial overcapacity that is harming U.S. domestic producers, while her counterpart Vice-Premier He Lifeng complained about tightening U.S. export controls against Beijing.  

The major economic contentions between the U.S. and China will likely remain unaddressed in the near future, in part because their economic policies are centerpieces of each country’s respective national security strategies. Thus, Yellen’s visit demonstrated the current ceiling of the U.S.-China relationship, which is likely to grow only more antagonistic in the future.   

Lavrov’s visit tells a markedly different story. Unlike Yellen, the Russian Foreign Minister had the rare honor to meet with President Xi himself, demonstrating China’s continued adherence to the “no limits partnership,” declared in the wake of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.  Beijing’s support for Moscow has been instrumental in sustaining Russia’s war efforts — and this support is likely to only grow in the near future. The timing of Lavrov’s visit just days after Yellen’s was likely not a coincidence, but was also planned in part to prepare for President Vladimir Putin’s upcoming visit in May.  Putin and Xi’s “unholy alliance” will only grow, and the West does not currently have a good strategy to contain it.  

The visit of former Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou, who also met with President Xi, demonstrates the limits of China’s power.  Beijing considers Taiwan a renegade part of the People’s Republic of China, and President Xi has reiterated that “reunification is inevitable,” whether it is “peaceful” or otherwise.  Ma Ying-jeou, who served as President of Taiwan between 2008-2016, was the last leader of Taiwan who openly supported and worked toward that goal.  Since then, Taiwan has elected leaders – Tsai Ing-Wen, and earlier this year, Lai Ching-te – who are much more firmly autonomy-minded. This private visit will not change that calculus, and U.S. policy must also adapt accordingly