U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken goes to Beijing this weekend with expectations low that he will make headway on the long list of disputes between the United States and China. But he and his Chinese counterparts can achieve at least one thing, say analysts – show that the world’s most important bilateral relationship is not about to fall off the rails.
Blinken will hold meetings in China on June 18-19 and may meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping, sources said. He will be the highest-ranking U.S. government official to visit China since President Joe Biden took office in January 2021, and the first secretary of state in five years.
In a pre-trip briefing on Wednesday, U.S. officials said they have no expectation the trip will yield a breakthrough in how the U.S. and China deal with each other. That followed a tense Tuesday evening phone call in which Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang told Blinken the U.S. should stop meddling in China’s affairs.
Blinken told a news conference on Friday the U.S. side would speak candidly in China about “very real concerns” on a range of issues and said the trip was aimed at establishing “open and empowered” communications.
He said he would be looking for areas for cooperation with Beijing, while also raising the issue of U.S. citizens detained in China on charges Washington sees as politically motivated.
“Intense competition requires sustained diplomacy to ensure that competition does not veer into confrontation or conflict,” he said, adding that his visit followed an agreement to step up communications reached between Biden and Xi at a November meeting in Bali.
Blinken said his trip was “an important, but in a sense insufficient step, because there’s a lot of work to be done.”
On Friday, China’s foreign ministry followed up its readout of the tense phone call this week, warning that “vicious competition … cannot be engaged in” and that Washington “should not fantasize that it is dealing with China from a position of strength.”
“This is not so-called responsible competition, but extremely irresponsible hegemonic behavior which will only push China and the U.S. towards confrontation,” its spokesperson Wang Wenbin said.
U.S. officials expect Blinken’s visit will pave the way for more bilateral meetings in coming months, including possible trips by U.S. 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.
“Both sides want to show the rest of the world that they are managing the relationship responsibly,” said Andrew Small, a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund’s Asia program.
“For China, the most important audience is the global south. For the U.S., it’s partners and allies. So even going through the motions has some utility for both Washington and Beijing.”
Speaking at the same news conference after a meeting with Blinken, Singapore’s Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan called the latter’s China trip “a very important and critical moment.”
“Not just the United States and China, but indeed the rest of the world will be watching. So we hope and believe that you will be able to manage the differences, but more important, establish open channels of communication, build mutual trust, and understanding.”
U.S.-China ties have deteriorated across the board, raising concerns that their rivalry could veer into conflict over Taiwan, which China claims as its own. China has been staging regular military drills near the island, including on Sunday.
The United States and China are also at odds over issues ranging from trade and microchips to human rights.
Particularly worrisome for China’s neighbors has been its reluctance to engage in regular military-to-military talks with Washington, despite repeated U.S. attempts. The U.S. officials said on Wednesday that setting up crisis communication channels to reduce risk was a top priority.
In Brussels on Friday, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin expressed optimism that he would eventually hold talks with his Chinese counterpart after being snubbed by Beijing during an event in Singapore earlier this month.
On Wednesday, U.N. spokesperson Stephane Dujarric stressed the importance of easing tensions.
“Anything that would lead to greater cooperation, greater dialogue and a lessening of tensions between Beijing and Washington is to be welcomed,” he told reporters.
While Blinken’s main goal will be “candid, direct and constructive” discussions, the U.S. officials said, breakthroughs are not likely on any major issues, including the flow of fentanyl precursors and Americans detained in China.
EYEING BIDEN-XI MEETING
Biden and Xi’s Bali meeting briefly eased fears of a new Cold War, but following the flight of an alleged Chinese spy balloon over the United States in February that led Blinken to postpone a Beijing visit planned for that month, high-level communication has been rare.
Beijing, frustrated by what it sees as the Biden administration’s weaponization of economic policies, has sought to expand ties with countries in Europe, the Middle East and Africa. Xi has recently received several European leaders including French President Emanuel Macron and made a diplomatic push to court others, including U.S. ally Saudi Arabia.
“Beijing agreed to the (Blinken) visit because it seems to be the one thing that is blocking many other things, such as working-level dialogues and the visits by other cabinet members,” said Yun Sun, director of the China Program at the Stimson Center think tank in Washington.
Those meetings could lead to Biden-Xi meetings at a September G20 meeting in India and the November Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in San Francisco.
“Xi does want to come to San Francisco,” said Sun. “(Aside from) APEC, he also wants a bilateral with Biden. That means the groundwork must be paved starting from now.”