US Secretary of State Antony Blinken sat down with China’s top diplomat on the final day of a high stakes visit to Beijing aimed at stabilizing relations, which cratered in the wake of a dispute over a Chinese surveillance balloon.
All eyes are on whether Washington’s envoy will meet Chinese leader Xi Jinping later in the day for what could be a crucial step in patching fractured ties.
The global powers are increasingly at loggerheads and there is widespread international interest in whether Blinken’s trip can secure a cooling of tensions between the world’s two largest economies.
Blinken and China’s top diplomatic counterpart Wang Yi began talks Monday morning, posing for photos at Beijing’s Diaoyutai State Guesthouse before heading into closed door discussions.
Both sides have come into the visit – the first by a US Secretary of State to China in five years – with an expressed goal of course correcting their relationship, which has been deeply strained by a host of issues ranging from Beijing’s close ties with Moscow to American efforts to limit the sale of advanced technologies to China.
Monday is expected to be a key test for how far the two powers can go to stabilize their fractured lines of communication, which have broken down over the past year, especially when it comes to high-level military exchanges – raising concerns in Washington that a mistake or accident could quickly spin into conflict.
Inflamed tensions formed the backdrop to the first day of Blinken’s visit Sunday, with Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang saying during his meeting with the United States’ envoy that the China-US relationship was at the “lowest point” since diplomatic ties were re-established in 1979, according to Beijing.
Whether Blinken also meets with Xi will be a key indicator of China’s interest in taking steps to rebuild that rapport.
In the lead-up to the meeting, Beijing has sought to blame Washington for deteriorating ties and warned it against “interfering in China’s internal affairs.”
Previous trips by America’s top diplomat have often involved a face to face with China’s top leader. Neither side has yet confirmed whether such a meeting will take place.
Blinken’s Sunday meeting with Qin, which stretched more than five hours and then wrapped with a working dinner, resulted in progress “on a number of fronts,” with both sides showing a “desire to reduce tensions,” a senior State Department official told reporters Sunday.
“Profound differences” between the US and China, however, were also clear during the meeting, the official added.
China called the Sunday talks “candid, in-depth and constructive,” in its readout, noting that both sides agreed to “advance dialogue, exchanges and cooperation” and “maintain high-level interactions.”
Qin also called on the US to “adopt an objective and rational perception of China,” and “raised clear demands” on US policy toward Taiwan, the island democracy that China’s ruling Communist Party claims but has never controlled.
While Qin holds the title of foreign minister, he wields less power than Wang, who directs China’s foreign policy through his position among the party’s core leadership.
Both the US and China have played down expectations of a major breakthrough during Blinken’s visit.
Ahead of the meeting, Washington was careful to manage expectations, with a senior State Department official last week telling reporters that he does not expect “a long list of deliverables.”
Blinken’s visit was originally scheduled for early February and had been agreed on as a follow-up to an amicable face-to-face between US President Joe Biden and China’s Xi on the sidelines of the G20 in Bali in November.
That meeting – the first in person between the two leaders as presidents – was seen a pivotal step in restoring certain lines of communication, which Beijing severed following a visit last year from then-US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan.
The earlier planned visit by Blinken was postponed after a suspected Chinese surveillance balloon was detected traversing the continental US, further ratcheting tensions between the two powers, even as China issued a rare statement of regret and claimed the incident was an accident.