U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken began two days of meetings Sunday in Beijing with Chinese officials, which he says he hopes will help to establish “open and empowered” communications.
Blinken began the talks Sunday by meeting with Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang. A working dinner is scheduled for later Sunday.
On Monday, Blinken meets with Beijing’s top diplomat, Wang Yi, and possibly President Xi Jinping.
Shortly before departing for China on Friday evening, Blinken told a news conference in Washington that U.S. officials would speak candidly with their Chinese counterparts about “very real concerns” on a range of issues.
Speaking alongside visiting Singapore Foreign Affairs Minister Vivian Balakrishnan, Blinken said the U.S. wants to make sure “that the competition we have with China doesn’t veer into confrontation or conflict.”
Expectations are low that the trip will reset the two countries’ fraught relationship.
Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Wang Wenbin said Friday that “the United States views China as its ‘primary rival’ and ‘the most consequential geopolitical challenge.’ This is a major strategic misjudgment.”
He said the competition the United States has with China is “not responsible competition, but irresponsible bullying. It will only push the two countries towards confrontation and create a divided world.”
Blinken is the first secretary of state to visit Beijing since 2018.
“While in Beijing, Secretary Blinken will meet with senior [People’s Republic of China] officials where he will discuss the importance of maintaining open lines of communication to responsibly manage the U.S.-PRC relationship. He will also raise bilateral issues of concern, global and regional matters, and potential cooperation on shared transnational challenges,” the State Department said Wednesday.
Tuesday night, Blinken spoke by phone with Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang.
In a tweet, Blinken said he and Qin “discussed ongoing efforts to maintain open channels of communication as well as bilateral and global issues.”
In Beijing, Chinese officials Wednesday asked the United States to stop what they said was Washington’s undermining of China’s security and development interests, but added the two countries can manage differences and promote cooperation.
Wang said during a Wednesday briefing that the Beijing government hopes the U.S. will “take concrete actions” to “work with China to effectively manage differences, promote exchanges and cooperation, [and] stabilize the relationship from further deterioration.”
Senior U.S. officials said topics high on the agenda during Blinken’s meetings include regional security, counternarcotics, climate change, global macroeconomic stability, Americans wrongfully detained in China, and exchanges between American and Chinese people.
Officials said they would not anticipate “a long list of deliverables” after Blinken’s meetings in Beijing.
In Brussels on Friday, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin expressed optimism that he would eventually hold talks with his Chinese counterpart after China refused a meeting at an event in Singapore earlier this month.
“I’m confident that, over time, that’s going to happen. We’re going to meet at some point in time. But we’re not there yet,” Austin told a news conference at NATO headquarters in Brussels.
On Wednesday, Daniel Kritenbrink, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, told reporters during a phone briefing that stopping illicit fentanyl “will feature prominently” in Blinken’s meetings in Beijing. Kritenbrink is accompanying Blinken on the trip.
Officials also said China’s military escalation in the Taiwan Strait was “a global concern.”
Kurt Campbell, coordinator for Indo-Pacific affairs on the White House National Security Council, said the maintenance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait is “a clear bipartisan, strong determination” of the United States.
U.S. officials have said it is in the interest of both countries to maintain open lines of communication. The Pentagon also wants Beijing to answer a military hotline so generals can talk during incidents like a recent close encounter involving U.S. and Chinese ships in the Taiwan Strait.
Observers say despite the tensions, the two governments are trying to set up a summit later this year.
“Both countries are working toward a possible meeting between [U.S. President Joe] Biden and [Chinese President] Xi Jinping at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting, which will take place in San Francisco in November,” said Bonnie Glaser, managing director of the Indo-Pacific program at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. “And in order to have a successful summit, if that is indeed on the agenda, there needs to be a lot of preparation,” Glaser added.
While Washington is seeking to reengage Beijing on the issues of counternarcotics and climate change, experts and congressional critics are skeptical that the two countries can have a substantial change in the status of their relationship.
“I do not think that we should be looking towards a reset of the U.S.-China relationship,” Glaser told VOA.
“It is an opportunity for both sides to continue to express their concerns and maybe find ways to address differences. This is particularly true in the military realm, where they’ve actually been frozen,” Glaser added.
After Beijing, Blinken heads to London to attend a Ukraine Recovery Conference to “mobilize international support from the public and private sector” and “help Ukraine recover from Russia’s brutal and ongoing attacks.”