Anthony Blinken, the US secretary of state, arrived in Beijing on the highest-level visit by a US official to China in nearly five years.
Blinken’s two-day visit on Sunday comes amid frosty bilateral relations and the discovery of a suspected spy balloon over the United States in February that prompted him to delay a trip planned for the same month.
With the world’s two largest economies at odds on issues ranging from trade to technology and regional security, both China and the United States expressed guarded hopes for improved communications, though they played down expectations of a significant breakthrough.
US President Joe Biden played down the balloon episode when Blinken was on his way to China, saying: “I don’t think the leadership knew where it was and knew what was in it and knew what was going on.”
“I think it was more embarrassing than intentional,” Biden told reporters Saturday.
Biden said he hoped to meet Chinese President Xi Jinping again after a lengthy meeting on the sidelines of a Group of 20 (G20) summit in Bali in November, where the two agreed on Blinken’s visit.
“I hope that, over the next few months, I will meet again with Xi and talk about our legitimate differences but also how we can come together,” Biden said.
The two leaders are expected to attend the G20 summit in New Delhi next September, and Xi has been invited to travel to San Francisco in November when the US hosts leaders of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) grouping.
Blinken is expected to meet top Chinese officials and attend a banquet at the state guesthouse in Diaoyutai Gardens.
A phone call between Blinken and his Chinese counterpart Qin Gang indicated the growing tension between the two sides, with the Chinese foreign minister stressing the need for the US 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 harming China’s sovereignty, security and development interests in the name of competition”.
Relations between Beijing and Washington have deteriorated across the board, raising the specter that the two could one day clash militarily over the self-ruled island of Taiwan, which China claims as its own.
They are at odds over everything from trade, to US efforts to clamp down on China’s semiconductor industry and Beijing’s human rights track record.
Of particular concern to China’s neighbors is the United States’ reluctance to engage in regular military-to-military talks with Washington despite repeated attempts at dialogue.
Blinken said at a press conference on Friday before leaving for Beijing that his visit had three main objectives: to establish mechanisms for crisis management, to advance US and allied interests as well as to speak directly to related concerns and to explore areas of potential cooperation. .
“If we want to make sure, as we do, that the competition we have with China doesn’t turn into conflict, the place you start is with communication,” Blinken said.
The United States also kept close to its allies, with Blinken speaking by telephone with counterparts in Japan and South Korea during his 20-hour trip across the Pacific.
Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, traveled to Tokyo for separate trilateral meetings involving Japan, South Korea and the Philippines.
In recent months, the United States has reached agreements on troop deployments in southern Japan and the northern Philippines, both strategically close to Taiwan.
Blinken also met in Washington with his counterpart in US ally Singapore before his departure, who expressed hope that the US would remain a power but also find ways to coexist with a rising China.
Singaporean Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan said Blinken’s “visit is essential, but not sufficient”.
“There is a fundamental difference in outlook, values. And it takes time to build mutual respect and strategic trust.”
Blinken is the first top US diplomat to visit Beijing in 2018, a stop by his predecessor, Mike Pompeo, who later championed a no-holds-barred confrontation with China in the final years of Donald Trump’s presidency.