US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has arrived in Beijing, his first trip to China in almost five years.
Blinken’s two-day visit comes amid frosty bilateral relations after the sighting of a suspected spy balloon over the United States in February prompted him to postpone a visit scheduled for the same month.
With the world’s two largest economies at odds over a range of issues including trade, technology and regional security, both China and the United States have expressed cautious hopes for improved communication, even as they played down expectations for a major breakthrough.
U.S. President Joe Biden downplayed the balloon incident as Blinken traveled to China, saying: “I don’t think the leadership knows where it is, what’s in it, or what’s going on.”
“I think it’s more embarrassing than intentional,” Biden told reporters Saturday.
Biden said he hoped to meet again with Chinese President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Bali last November, where the two agreed to Blinken’s visit.
“I hope that in the next few months, I will be able to meet with Xi Jinping again to discuss the legitimate differences that we have and the areas where we can get along,” Biden said.
The two leaders are likely to attend the next G20 summit in New Delhi in September, while Xi has been invited to San Francisco in November, when the US will host leaders of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC).
Blinken is expected to meet with senior Chinese officials and attend a banquet at the Diaoyutai Garden State Guesthouse.
The tension between the two sides was underscored by a phone call between Blinken and his Chinese counterpart, Qin Gang, who emphasized the need for the United States to recognize Beijing’s “core concerns,” such as Taiwan. China’s top diplomat also said the US should “stop interfering in China’s internal affairs and stop undermining China’s sovereignty, security and development interests in the name of competition”.
Relations between Beijing and Washington have soured across the board, raising fears that the two could one day clash militarily over the self-governing island of Taiwan, which China claims as its own.
They also disagree on issues including trade, U.S. efforts to thwart China’s semiconductor industry and Beijing’s human rights record.
Of particular concern to China’s neighbors is China’s reluctance to engage in regular military talks with Washington, despite repeated U.S. attempts at dialogue.
Blinken told a news conference on Friday ahead of his departure for Beijing that the three main goals of his trip were to establish a crisis management mechanism, advance the interests of the United States and its allies, speak directly about related issues and explore areas of potential cooperation.
“If we want to make sure that our competition with China doesn’t turn into conflict, as we have done, your starting point is communication,” Blinken said.
The U.S. has also been in close touch with its allies, and Blinken spoke on the phone with his counterparts in Japan and South Korea during the 20-hour journey across the Pacific.
Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, was also in Tokyo for a separate three-way meeting involving Japan, South Korea and the Philippines.
In recent months, the United States has reached agreements to deploy troops in southern Japan and the northern Philippines, both of which are strategically close to Taiwan.
Before his departure, Blinken also met with his colleagues from Singapore, an American ally, who expressed his hope that the United States will continue to maintain its status as a great power, while also trying to find ways to coexist with a rising China.
Vivian Balakrishnan, Singapore’s foreign minister, said Blinken’s “trip was necessary but not sufficient”.
“There are fundamental differences in outlook and values. It will take time to build mutual respect and strategic trust.”
Blinken is the first senior U.S. diplomat to visit Beijing since his predecessor, Mike Pompeo, who later backed unrestricted confrontation with China in the final years of Donald Trump’s presidency, visited Beijing in 2018.