US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken is in Beijing on a much-anticipated mission to restart US-China relations that have soured this year after a Chinese spy balloon allegedly flew over North America.
Blinken will be the first secretary of state to visit China since 2018, a reflection of Beijing’s severe coronavirus pandemic lockdowns but also of how U.S.-China relations have sunk to their lowest point in decades.
His trip follows a meeting between President Joe Biden and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping in Bali in November, when the leaders agreed on the need to build a “platform” under the relationship. But the plan was derailed in February when Blinken canceled a trip to China because of the balloon.
Relations have been on a downward trajectory in recent years. The US is concerned about China’s refusal to condemn Russia over its military action around Taiwan and its aggression in Ukraine, while Beijing accuses Washington of trying to curb its ambitions by imposing export restrictions on advanced technology and expanding defense arrangements with regional allies.
The relationship reached a fever pitch after a Chinese spy balloon flew over key military bases before the US shot it down in February.
Over the past month, there have been signs of improvement. The Financial Times reported that CIA Director Bill Burns made a secret visit to China in May. That same month, US National Security Adviser Jack Sullivan met with Wang Yi, China’s top foreign policy official, in Vienna. Biden later said at the G7 in Hiroshima, Japan, that he expected an immediate “threshing” in relations.
A senior US official said relations were now “at a point where we can move forward with the Bali agenda”.
“That’s what this trip is all about,” said the official, who warned that it would be “difficult” for Blinken to make progress with “a very clear vision.”
“This trip is a reconnection, not a deterrent. It must prevent a deterioration in relations and find a basis for stability,” said Ivan Medeiros, an expert at Georgetown University in China. “Both countries want the meeting not to go badly, but it is too early to talk about success.”
Daniel Grittenbrink, the top State Department official for East Asia, said Blinken had three goals, including the need for communication channels to ensure the competition was “de-conflicted”.
Dennis Wilder, a former CIA top China expert, said the visit would end a period of “deep anger” but would do little to address “fundamental mistrust”.
“The Chinese are confused by Secretary Blinken’s postponement of his visit earlier this year and his public warning to Beijing at the Munich Security Conference. [in February] About possible Chinese death assistance to Russia,” he said.
Blinken will hold two days of meetings with Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang and other officials. It was unclear whether he would meet with Xi, whom he had planned to visit in February.
Wilder said Xi’s refusal to meet with Blinken would be a “strong signal” that Beijing is concerned by US actions that “do not endanger” China’s economy, including curbing the latter’s advanced technological development.
A Chinese scholar said Blinken’s trip would only be successful if he met Xi, adding that seeing only Qin or Wang, who are not foreign secretaries in the US, would be a “snub”.
Although US officials have said enough time has passed since the balloon incident to resume high-level meetings, it still hangs over the relationship.
The FT previously reported that China was reluctant to visit Blinken because of concerns that the FBI would release the results of an investigation into the balloon, which China says is a weather observation vessel. In a letter citing the FT story, 19 Republican senators urged Biden this week not to cave in to Chinese efforts to “push America into peace” and to “immediately” release the FBI findings.
Raja Krishnamurthy, the top Democrat on the House China Committee, said he had reviewed some of the FBI’s material related to the balloon, which he called “eye-opening.”
“For them [China] Call it a weather balloon. . . Not a great look,” he added.
Asked on Saturday if the trip would help ease tensions, Biden said he didn’t know what the balloon was doing. “It was more embarrassing than intentional,” Biden said, adding that he hoped to meet with Xi “in the next few months.”
Mike Gallagher, the Republican chairman of the House China Committee, told the FT that the president’s comments were “naive and misleading.”
“We cannot mistake the Chinese Communist Party’s recent violations of our sovereignty and increasing aggression as a mere accident,” he said.
Some analysts said China may want a “tactical pause” in tensions to counter its faltering economy as it struggles to recover from strict Covid restrictions.
Chinese moves to tighten U.S. export sanctions and anti-espionage laws, as well as a crackdown on foreign advice, have hurt investor sentiment.
But in a warning to those hoping for an imminent thaw, China’s foreign ministry took a swipe at the US on Friday, accusing Washington of continuing to seek “connections” while “damaging China’s interests”.
In Washington, the Biden administration is also facing criticism from Republicans, who have described reconciliation efforts with Beijing as “zombie engagement.” This week, he told CNBC that reaching out to China with olive branches to spur engagement is “a call to aggression.”
But Krishnamurthy, his Democratic counterpart, said the high-level meetings would help stabilize ties and make it clear how Beijing’s aggressive behavior would “trigger escalation.”
“Mike might like zombie movies . . . But it’s critical that we have these conversations, that we be clear, and at the same time listen carefully, and then try to find ways to discourage aggression.
Follow along Demetrius of Sevastopol on Twitter