WASHINGTON – U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken will travel to China this weekend as part of the Biden administration’s push to repair deteriorating ties between Washington and Beijing and keep lines of communication open, the State Department said Wednesday.
Blinken will be the most senior U.S. official to visit China since President Joe Biden took office. His visit had initially been planned for early this year but was postponed indefinitely after the discovery and shootdown of what the U.S. said was a Chinese spy balloon over the United States.
Since then, however, there have been lower-level engagements between the U.S. and China despite ongoing hostility and recriminations over both sides’ actions in the Taiwan Strait, the South China Sea, China’s refusal to condemn Russia for its war against Ukraine, and allegations from Washington that Beijing is attempting to boost its worldwide surveillance capabilities, including in Cuba.
The State Department said Blinken had spoken with his Chinese counterpart, Foreign Minister Qin Gang, on Tuesday night to confirm his trip, which will begin on Sunday and was first reported by The Associated Press and other news organizations last week. Blinken will leave Washington late Friday.
“While in Beijing, Secretary Blinken will meet with senior PRC officials where he will discuss the importance of maintaining open lines of communication to responsibly manage the U.S.-PRC relationship,” the department said, using the acronym for the People’s Republic of China. “He will also raise bilateral issues of concern, global and regional matters, and potential cooperation on shared transnational challenges.”
Two senior U.S. officials downplayed the prospects for any significant breakthrough on the wide array of problems between the countries during Blinken's visit. Instead, they said it was aimed at restoring a sense of calm and normalcy to high-level contacts.
“This is a really critical series of engagements that we’ll have in Beijing at a crucial time in the relationship that we again hope will, at a minimum, reduce the risk of miscalculation so that we do not veer into potential conflict,” said Daniel Kritenbrink, the top U.S. diplomat for East Asia and the Pacific.
“We’re not going to Beijing with the intent of having some sort of breakthrough or transformation in the way that we deal with one another,” he said. “We’re coming to Beijing with a realistic, confident approach and a sincere desire to manage our competition in the most responsible way possible.”
“We’re clear-eyed about the PRC,” said Kurt Campbell, the top Asia expert at the National Security Council. “We know efforts to shape or reform China over several decades have failed and we expect China to be around and to be a major player on the world stage for the rest of our lifetimes.”
“As the competition continues, the PRC will take provocative steps – from the Taiwan Strait to Cuba – and we will push back,” Campbell said. “But intense competition requires intense diplomacy if we’re going to manage tensions. That is the only way to clear up misperceptions, to signal, to communicate, and to work together where and when our interests align.”
In its readout of the Blinken-Qin phone call, China's foreign ministry said Qin urged the United States to respect “China’s core concerns” such as the issue of Taiwan’s self-rule, “stop interfering in China’s internal affairs, and stop harming China’s sovereignty, security and development interests in the name of competition.”
Qin noted China-U.S. ties “have encountered new difficulties and challenges” since the beginning of the year, and the two sides’ responsibility is to work together to properly manage differences, promote exchanges and cooperation and stabilize relations, it said.
Blinken, who will be the first secretary of state to visit China since 2018, expects to meet with Qin on Sunday, as well as China’s top diplomat, Wang Yi, and possibly Chinese President Xi Jinping on Monday, according to U.S. officials.
The trip will take place amid myriad complications in U.S-China relations, which have steadily declined over the past several years dating back to the Trump administration, starting with trade and industrial espionage.
Those concerns grew rapidly to include human rights concerns over the treatment of Uyghur Muslims and other minorities in China’s western region of Xinjang, Hong Kong, Tibet, and increasing Chinese aggressiveness toward Taiwan, and then escalated over questions about the origin of the COVID-19 virus.
Blinken’s visit came out of a meeting in Bali last year between Xi and Biden, who agreed that the world’s two largest economies must remain in contact and take precautions to ensure there are no miscalculations in their global rivalry that could lead to conflict. The trip came within a day of happening in February but was delayed after the spy balloon incident. Beijing insists the craft was a weather balloon that strayed off course.
Contacts after that have taken place, but they have been rare as tensions have risen over China’s conduct in the South China Sea, aggressive actions toward Taiwan and support for Russia’s war against Ukraine. Earlier this month, China’s defense minister rebuffed a request from U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin for a meeting on the sidelines of a security symposium in Singapore.
However, shortly after postponing his trip to Beijing, Blinken met briefly with Wang at the Munich Security Conference in Germany. And, CIA chief William Burns traveled to China in May, while China’s commerce minister traveled to the U.S.. And Biden’s national security adviser Jake Sullivan met with Wang in Vienna in early May.
More recently, the top U.S. diplomat for the Asia-Pacific region, Daniel Kritenbrink, traveled to China last week along with a senior National Security Council official to finalize details of Blinken’s trip.
Just in the past several days, though, the Biden administration has said that it has quietly blunted Chinese efforts to bolster its intelligence collection and military capabilities around the world, including in Cuba.
Blinken said on Monday that when Biden took office in January 2021, U.S. intelligence agencies briefed him “on a number of sensitive efforts by Beijing around the world to expand their overseas logistics, foreign collections infrastructure to allow them to project and sustain military power at a greater distance."
Although the Chinese had already upgraded their facilities in Cuba in 2019, Blinken said Biden determined that more needed to be done because Trump administration officials “weren’t making enough progress on this issue and we needed a more direct approach.”
He did not elaborate on what had been done since, although the Biden administration has moved rapidly to expand its diplomatic presence, especially in Indian Ocean and the Pacific island nations, where it has opened or has plans to open at least five new embassies over the next year or so.
“We’ve been executing on that approach quietly, carefully, but in our judgment, with results,” Blinken said. “We’ve engaged governments that are considering hosting PRC bases at high levels. We have exchanged information with them. Our experts assess that our diplomatic efforts slowed down this effort by the PRC.”
After his meetings in Beijing, Blinken will travel to London to attend a Ukraine reconstruction conference on June 21, the State Department said.