US Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with China’s foreign minister Qin Gang in Beijing on Sunday, as he arrived in the country for a brief, but landmark, visit aimed at stabilising spiralling relations.
Blinken is the first top American diplomat to visit China in five years, but prospects for any breakthrough between the world’s two largest economies remain dim.
Qin greeted Blinken and his group at the door to a villa in the grounds of Beijing’s Diaoyutai State Guest House, rather than inside the building as is customary.
The two made small talk as they walked in, Qin asking Blinken in English about his long trip from Washington. They then shook hands in front of a Chinese and an American flag.
After heading into a meeting room, neither Blinken nor Qin made comments in front of reporters who were briefly allowed in.
Chinese assistant foreign minister Hua Chunying, who is attending the meeting, tweeted a picture of Qin and Blinken shaking hands, saying she hoped it will “steer” China-US relations.
Hope this meeting can help steer China-U.S. relations back to what the two Presidents agreed upon in Bali. pic.twitter.com/C9zPwjSDen
— Hua Chunying 华春莹 (@SpokespersonCHN) June 18, 2023
During his stay through Monday, Blinken is also expected to meet with China’s top diplomat Wang Yi and possibly President Xi Jinping.
US-China ties are at their lowest point in decades, raising concern that they might one day clash militarily over the self-governed island of Taiwan, which China claims as its own.
Beijing ‘didn’t know about spy balloon’
US military eventually shot down the balloon — a move Beijing slammed as “unbelievable, almost hysterical.”
Speaking with reporters on Sunday about the balloon incident, US President Joe Biden said he did not think the Chinese leadership knew much about where the balloon was or what it did while adding that he hoped to meet Xi soon.
“I’m hoping that, over the next several months, I’ll be meeting with Xi again and talking about legitimate differences we have but also how there’s areas we can get along,” Biden said.
Biden and Xi held their long-awaited first face-to-face talks on the sidelines of a G20 summit on the Indonesian island of Bali in November. They engaged in blunt talks over Taiwan and North Korea but also pledged more frequent communication.
While that meeting briefly eased fear of a new Cold War, the flight of the Chinese balloon over the United States a few months later escalated tension, and high-level communication since then has been rare.
Communication, not breakthrough, on agenda
Blinken is the highest-ranking US government official to visit China since President Joe Biden took office in January 2021. But US officials have played down the prospect of a major breakthrough in China-US ties during his trip.
“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,” Daniel Kritenbrink, the State Department’s top diplomat for East Asia, told reporters last week.
“We’re coming to Beijing with a realistic, confident approach and a sincere desire to manage our competition in the most responsible way possible,” Kritenbrink said.
Blinken’s primary goal, officials say, is to establish open and durable communication channels with Beijing to ensure strategic rivalry between the two countries does not spiral into conflict.
“Both sides are well aware of the current state of the bilateral relationship. We’re coming here in an effort to make sure that we can manage it responsibly,” one US official said.
#Breaking: US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has arrived in Beijing, embarking on a two-day visit to China where he will meet with senior Chinese officials to discuss the US-China relations. pic.twitter.com/k4HoO8MrmD
— Global Times (@globaltimesnews) June 18, 2023
Speaking at a press conference on Friday, Blinken said his trip had three main objectives: Setting up mechanisms for crisis management, advancing US and allies’ interests and speaking directly about related concerns, and exploring areas of potential cooperation.
He said he will also raise the issue of China detaining US citizens on ‘politically motivated’ charges.
Blinken and his delegation will also likely discuss increasing commercial flights between the two countries and stemming the flow of fentanyl precursors from China, US officials have said.
Officials and analysts expect Blinken’s visit to also pave the way for more bilateral meetings between Washington and Beijing in coming months, including possible trips by Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen and Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo.
It could also set the stage for meetings between Xi and Biden at multilateral summits later in the year.
Blinken’s China visit will be closely followed by the rest of the world as any escalation between the super powers could have worldwide repercussions on anything from financial markets to trade routes and practices and global supply chains.
“There’s a recognition on both sides that we do need to have senior-level channels of communication,” a senior State Department official told reporters during a refuelling stop in Tokyo en route to Beijing.
“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.
Worries of ‘potential miscalculation’ heightened earlier this month, after a Chinese ship cut in front of a US destroyer in the sensitive Taiwan Strait. US termed the incident an “unsafe interaction”.
US Indo-Pacific coordinator Kurt Campbell said the incident showed the need for keeping lines of communication open “to prevent circumstances where unintended consequences can have terrible consequences.”
- Reuters, with additional editing by Vishakha Saxena