High stakes, low expectations as top US diplomat opens China visit


The question whether Antony Blinken meets Xi Jinping during two-day visit is a barometer of ties.

High stakes, low expectations as top US diplomat opens China visit

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken (L) and China’s Foreign Minister Qin Gang shake hands ahead of a meeting at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing, June 18, 2023.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken started a high-stakes visit to China on Sunday, meeting top Chinese officials for talks Washington hopes can reopen regular communications with Beijing after years of rising tensions.

Blinken is the first secretary of state to visit China in five years, amid China’s strict coronavirus pandemic lockdowns and strains over the self-governing island of Taiwan, Russia’s war in Ukraine, Beijing’s human rights record, assertive Chinese military moves in the South China Sea and technology trade.

The top U.S. diplomat began two days of meetings with extended talks with Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang and other officials and a working dinner at Diaoyutai State Guesthouse. Neither Blinken nor Qin made any substantive comments as they began their talks.

Blinken is slated to have further talks with Qin, as well as China’s top diplomat Wang Yi, director of the Central Foreign Affairs Office, on Monday. Observers see a possible meeting with President Xi Jinping as a barometer of Beijing’s willingness to re-engage with Washington after years of frosty ties.

The visit comes after almost a year of strained relations between the Biden administration and Beijing, which began with then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan in August.

Other irritants include China’s diplomatic and propaganda support for Russia for its war against Ukraine, and U.S. allegations that Beijing is attempting to boost its worldwide surveillance capabilities.

Blinken postponed a planned February trip to China after a suspected Chinese spy balloon flew over U.S. airspace and was shot down. This visit went ahead despite the revelations early this month of a multibillion-dollar Chinese spy base in Cuba.

‘Legitimate differences’

Blinken told reporters before leaving Friday that Washington wants to improve communications “precisely so that we can make sure we are communicating as clearly as possible to avoid possible misunderstandings and miscommunications.”

President Joe Biden told White House reporters Saturday he was “hoping that over the next several months, I’ll be meeting with Xi again and talking about legitimate differences we have, but also how … to get along.”

U.S. defense officials say Chinese officials have refused phone calls since Blinken canceled a planned trip to Beijing in February due to the Chinese spy balloon. Beijing asserts it was a weather balloon.

Chinese Defense Minister Li Shangfu also declined to meet with U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore earlier at the start of the month, with Li instead using the forum to accuse the United States of “double standards.”

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken (2nd R) and China's Foreign Minister Qin Gang (2nd L) meet at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing on June 18, 2023. Credit: Leah Millis / POOL / AFP
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken (2nd R) and China’s Foreign Minister Qin Gang (2nd L) meet at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing on June 18, 2023. Credit: Leah Millis / POOL / AFP

There have been recent high-level contacts, including a trip to China by CIA chief William Burns in May, a visit to the U.S. by China’s commerce minister, and a meeting in Vienna Austria between Wang and Biden’s national security adviser Jake Sullivan.

In a pre-meeting phone call between Blinken and the Chinese foreign minister on Wednesday, however, Qin indicated China would not budge on its “core interests,” including that the self-governing island of Taiwan will be reunited with the mainland, according to a readout issued by China’s foreign ministry.

Qin said Washington should “show respect, stop interfering in China’s internal affairs and stop undermining China’s sovereignty, security and development interests,” the readout said.

Autumn summit opportunities

Reuters news agency quoted a senior State Department official as telling reporters during a refueling stop in Tokyo that Washington and Beijing understand they need to communicate more.

“There’s a recognition on both sides that we do need to have senior-level channels of communication,” the official said.

“That we are at an important point in the relationship where I think reducing the risk of miscalculation, or as our Chinese friends often say, stopping the downward spiral in the relationship, is something that’s important,” the official said.

“Hope this meeting can help steer China-U.S. relations back to what the two Presidents agreed upon in Bali,” tweeted Chinese assistant foreign minister Hua Chunying.

Biden and Xi met face-to-face on the sidelines of a summit of the Group of 20 big economies in November and agreed to try to restore dialogue despite sharp differences.

The two leaders have opportunities to meet later this year, including at the Group of 20 leaders’ gathering in September in New Delhi and at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in November in San Francisco.

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