Antony Blinken has arrived in Beijing on the highest-level trip by a US official since 2018, with his aides signalling he was seeking to build lines of communication rather than secure any practical breakthrough agreements.
The expectations, set deliberately low for the two-day talks, allow room for the world’s two largest economies to air their differences over the Taiwan strait, technology, human rights and the war in Ukraine.
Washington believes the talks will be worthwhile if they simply reduce the risk of misunderstanding, and start to reopen atrophied channels of communication.
On arrival, the US secretary of state went into a round of heavily prepared meetings, including with the Chinese foreign minister, Qin Gang.
A state department spokesperson said the talks were “candid, substantive, and constructive”, with Blinken emphasising to Qin “the importance of diplomacy and maintaining open channels of communication … to reduce the risk of misperception and miscalculation”. Chinese state media said the talks were “stable, predictable, and constructive”.
Previous efforts to open talks at this level foundered in February when Blinken postponed a planned visit, accusing China of sending a surveillance air balloon over Alaska. China accused the US of hysteria.
The US, despite adopting a hardline bipartisan stance on China domestically, believes it needs to draw its European allies towards a consensus position built around the proposition that the west must de-risk its relations with China rather than seek to decouple the Chinese and western economies.
Many European countries are joining the US in seeking to screen Chinese investments in sensitive areas, while insisting it is acceptable to cooperate with China on issues such as health, climate change, global macro-economic stability and trade – issues that are not regarded as essential to national security.
The US also speculates that difficulties in the Chinese post-Covid economic recovery might make Beijing more cooperative.
On Sunday, Qin greeted Blinken and his group at the door to a villa on the grounds of Beijing’s Diaoyutai State Guesthouse, as the two made small talk in English before shaking hands in front of Chinese and American flags.
Blinken is also expected to meet with China’s top diplomat, Wang Yi, and possibly the president, Xi Jinping. The Microsoft cofounder Bill Gates last week met with Xi so it would seem a diplomatic rebuff if he did not find time for Blinken.
There is an expectation Blinken’s visit will pave the way for further bilateral meetings in coming months, including possible trips by the US Treasury secretary, Janet Yellen, and the commerce secretary, Gina Raimondo. It could also open a path for meetings between Xi and Joe Biden at multilateral summits later in the year.
The US president said on Saturday he hoped to meet with Xi in the next several months. The Shanghai-based news site the Paper quoted Wu Xinbo, the head of US studies at Fudan University in Shanghai, as saying Blinken was expected “to establish a road map and timetable with the Chinese side on senior bilateral exchanges during the trip”.
Biden has made light of the balloon incident, saying: “I think it was more embarrassing than it was intentional. I don’t think that the leadership knew where it was or knew what was in it and knew what was going on.”
Before departing for Beijing, 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.
“If we want to make sure, as we do, that the competition that we have with China doesn’t veer into conflict, the place you start is with communicating.”
Particularly alarming for China’s neighbours has been its reluctance to engage in regular military-to-military talks with Washington, despite repeated US attempts. The US remains concerned that China will provide overt military support to Russia in the war against Ukraine.
Ahead of the visit, the deputy assistant to the president and coordinator for Indo-Pacific affairs, Kurt Campbell, said: “We can’t let the disagreements that might divide us stand in the way of moving forward on the global priorities that require us all to work together.”
Chinese counterparts have called for a stop to what they say is a “downward spiral in the relationship”.
Asked what might motivate China to hold productive talks, Campbell said it could be that they too saw some of the risks associated with accidents and inadvertence.
He added: “Intense competition requires intense diplomacy if we’re going to manage tensions. That is the only way to clear up misperceptions, to signal, to communicate, and to work together where and when our interests align.”
Blinken spoke to his South Korean and Japanese counterparts before the trip to reassure them of his intentions and the parameters of the discussions.
In May, the US national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, and Wang Yi held what both sides described as “candid, substantive and constructive discussions” on Taiwan and Russia’s war in Ukraine, over two days in Vienna.
And earlier in June, two senior US officials – Daniel Kritenbrink, the assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, and Sarah Beran, the senior director for China and Taiwan affairs at the National Security Council – visited Beijing for “candid, constructive, fruitful discussions”.