US confirms top diplomat Blinken’s long-anticipated China visit

Trip had been delayed amid ‘spy balloon’ incident that underscored rising tensions between the superpowers.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken will travel to China for first time since President Joe Biden took office [Stefani Reynolds/The Associated Press]

The United States has confirmed that top diplomat Antony Blinken will visit China this week, a long-anticipated trip that had been postponed in February amid increasingly fraught tension between the two superpowers.

Blinken will become the highest-ranking Biden administration to visit China on a trip that spans June 16 to 21 and will also include a visit to London, the Department of State said on Wednesday.

In Beijing, Binken will meet senior Chinese officials to discuss the “importance of maintaining open lines of communication” between the US and China, the statement said. It did not specify which officials.

The top US diplomat “will also raise bilateral issues of concern, global and regional matters, and potential cooperation on shared transnational challenges”, the brief statement said.

US officials were quick to lower expectations.

“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,” Daniel Kritenbrink, the Department of State’s top diplomat for East Asia, told reporters in a briefing call Wednesday.

“We’re coming to Beijing with a realistic, confident approach and a sincere desire to manage our competition in the most responsible way possible,” Kritenbrink said.

On the same call, White House Indo-Pacific Coordinator Kurt Campbell said Blinken will focus on forwarding “top line goals” of its agenda, but did not seek “to produce a long list of deliverables”.

Topping those goals will be better military-to-military communication, which has proven a particular area of concern in recent times.

“I believe Secretary Blinken will advocate strongly that these lines of communication are necessary,” Campbell told reporters. “They are how mature, strong militaries interact and the stakes are just too high to avoid these critical lines of communication.”

On Tuesday, Blinken spoke by phone with Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang, stressing “the importance of maintaining open lines of communication to responsibly manage” the relationship, Department of State spokesman Matthew Miller said in a statement.

Blinken also “made clear the US would continue to use diplomatic engagements to raise areas of concern as well as areas of potential cooperation”, the statement said.

China took a more confrontational tone in a readout of the call with Blinken, saying that Qin had warned that relations between the two countries had faced “new difficulties and challenges” since the beginning of the year.

“It’s clear who is responsible,” Qin said, according to the Chinese foreign ministry.

“China has always viewed and managed China-US relations in accordance with the principles of mutual respect, peaceful coexistence and win-win cooperation put forward by President Xi Jinping,” he added.

Tensions between the two countries – which span trade, espionage, military presence in the Indo-Pacific, the war in Ukraine and the future of self-governing Taiwan – were on full display in February, when Blinken delayed a planned trip to China.

A view from a plane cockpit of a white balloon carrying equipment
Imagery provided by the US government shows the alleged spy balloon as it floats across the continental United States [Department of Defense/Reuters]

The delay came amid a dispute about what the US alleged was a Chinese spy balloon that drifted over the continental US. More recently, the US officials, including Blinken, begrudgingly admitted China had operated spying facilities in Cuba for years, which were upgraded in 2019. US media had previously reported on the spy base.

Rhetoric has remained heightened regarding Taiwan, with Biden last year saying several times the US would defend the island, which Beijing claims as its own territory, in the event of an incursion from the Chinese mainland. The US has maintained for years an official policy of “strategic ambiguity” under which it provides key military support to Taiwan, but does not explicitly recognise or promise to come to the island’s aid in the event of a Chinese attack.

Earlier this month, the US Navy accused its Chinese counterpart of carrying out “unsafe” manoeuvres near a US destroyer in the Taiwan Strait. Officials described the incident as one of several close calls in recent times that risk accident and escalation, including an incident in May, when a Chinese fighter jet passed closely in front of a US surveillance plane over the South China Sea. The US called the manoeuvre “unnecessarily aggressive” while China attributed it to a US “provocation”. Officials have said those incidents underscore the need for better communication.

The US has also sought to bolster its ties with allies in the Indo-Pacific region, including through the informal Quad grouping of the US, Australia, India and Japan. It has also signed a new security pact with the US and UK, dubbed AUKUS, that seeks to equip Australia with nuclear-powered submarines.

Trade relations have also been combative in recent years, with Biden maintaining a host of aggressive tariffs imposed by former President Donald Trump. The Biden administration has also imposed export controls on some key advanced technologies, such as semiconductors and the tools used to make them, while encouraging allies to do the same and seeking to shift critical supply chains away from China.

For its part, Beijing has regularly accused Washington of having a dangerous “Cold War” mentality.

Nevertheless, the two countries have made some overtures to keep tensions in check in recent months. They have also sought cooperation in some areas, notably climate change.

Last month, Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, held extensive, closed-door meetings with senior Chinese diplomat Wang Yi in Vienna.

The US called the talks “candid, substantive and constructive”.

China’s embassy in Washington, DC said the talks were focused “on removing obstacles in China-US relations and stabilising the relationship from deterioration”.

Blinken had previously met Yi in February on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies