© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken boards his plane for his travel to China and the UK from Joint Base Andrews, Maryland, U.S., June 16, 2023. REUTERS/Leah Millis/Pool
By Humeyra Pamuk
BEIJING (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken began meetings in Beijing on Sunday, the first top American diplomat to visit China in five years, amid frosty bilateral ties and dim prospects for any breakthrough on the long list of disputes between the world’s two largest economies.
Having postponed a February trip after a suspected Chinese spy balloon flew over U.S. airspace, Blinken is the highest-ranking U.S. government official to visit China since President Joe Biden took office in January 2021.
Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang 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 above a picture of Qin and Blinken shaking hands: “Hope this meeting can help steer China-U.S. relations back to what the two Presidents agreed upon in Bali”.
During his stay through Monday, Blinken is also expected to meet with China’s top diplomat Wang Yi and possibly President Xi Jinping.
U.S. officials have since last week played down the prospect of a major breakthrough during the trip, but said Blinken’s primary goal was to establish open and durable communication channels to ensure strategic rivalry between the two countries does not spiral into conflict.
U.S. officials and analysts expect Blinken’s visit will 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.
Speaking with reporters on Sunday about the balloon incident in February, 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 summit of the Group of 20 big economies in November on the Indonesian island of Bali, engaging in blunt talks over Taiwan and North Korea but also pledging 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.
RISK OF MISCALCULATION
Ties between the countries have deteriorated across the board, raising concern that they might one day clash militarily over the self-governed island of Taiwan, which China claims as its own. They are also at odds over issues as varied as trade, U.S. efforts to hold back China’s semiconductor industry and Beijing’s human rights record.
Blinken’s visit will also be closely followed by the rest of the world as any escalation between super powers could have worldwide repercussion 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.
Particularly alarming for China’s neighbours has been its reluctance to engage in regular military-to-military talks with Washington.
Speaking at a press conference on Friday before departing for Beijing, Blinken said his trip had three main objectives: Setting up mechanisms for crisis management, advancing U.S. and allies’ interests and speaking directly about related concerns, and exploring areas of potential cooperation.
He said he would also be raising the issue of U.S. citizens detained in China on charges Washington says are politically motivated.
Blinken and his delegation will also likely discuss increasing commercial flights between the two countries and stemming the flow of fentanyl precursors from China, U.S. officials have said, but cautioned against high expectations of success.
“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 U.S. official said.