China and the United States have agreed to try and stabilise relations to avoid veering into conflict, but did not announce any major breakthroughs during a visit by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to Beijing.
A roughly 30-minute meeting with Xi on Monday was Blinken’s final engagement on the closely watched trip, which included talks with China’s top diplomat, Wang Yi, and Foreign Minister Qin Gang.
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There are hopes that the two days of talks could lead to a meeting between US President Joe Biden and Xi this year. The two men last met on the sidelines of the G20 summit on the Indonesian island of Bali in November, pledging more frequent communication although ties have since deteriorated over issues ranging from the self-ruled island of Taiwan to espionage concerns.
“The Chinese side has made our position clear, and the two sides have agreed to follow through the common understandings President Biden and I had reached in Bali,” Xi told the US secretary of state in Beijing, adding that the “two sides have also made progress and reached agreement on some specific issues”.
During the otherwise closed-door talks, Xi said China “hopes to see a sound and steady China-US relationship” and believes the two countries “can overcome various difficulties”, according to a readout by China’s state news agency Xinhua.
He also urged the US not to “hurt China’s legitimate rights and interests”.
Blinken said the two countries “have an obligation and responsibility” to manage their relationship and the US was “committed to doing that”.
He told reporters afterwards that in every meeting, he called for “direct engagement and sustained communication at senior levels” to “responsibly manage differences and ensure that competition does not veer into conflict”.
“I heard the same from my Chinese counterparts. We both agree on the need to stabilise our relationship.”
He said he agreed with China’s leadership on the need to “stabilise” relations but that he was “clear-eyed about the challenges” posed by China.
“We have no illusions about the challenges of managing this relationship. There are many issues on which we profoundly – even vehemently – disagree,” he said.
Biden meanwhile said he thought relations between the two countries were on the “right trail”, and indicated that progress was made during Blinken’s trip.
Asked by reporters during a trip to California whether he felt progress had been made, the US president replied, “I don’t feel… You know it’s been made”. Biden also praised Blinken and said “he did a hell of a job”.
Ties between Beijing and Washington have soured over in recent years over issues from trade, to Taiwan, China’s expansive claims in the South China Sea and an ongoing US push against growing Chinese influence in the Indo-Pacific.
The US also has been warning China against coming to Russia’s aid in Ukraine.
The US State Department said Blinken held “candid, substantive, and constructive discussions” with Chinese officials.
In a lengthy statement describing the visit, US spokesperson Matthew Miller said Blinken pledged to “responsibly” manage US competition with China. He added that Blinken also raised concerns over “human rights violations in Xinjiang, Tibet, and Hong Kong” and the issue of US citizens “wrongfully detained” in China. Still, the two sides agreed that they should work together against “transnational challenges”, including climate change and public health, the statement said.
Qinduo Xu, a former journalist with Chinese state media and a senior fellow at the Pangoal Institution, a Chinese foreign policy think tank, told Al Jazeera that the visit had gone better than many had expected, pointing in particular to the seven and a half hour meeting between Qin and Blinken.
“That’s really substantial discussion between the two sides and I think people on the Chinese would see that as a good beginning,” he said.
But he noted Taiwan, a democratically goverened island that China claims as its own, remained a sticking point.
Beijing has not ruled out the use of force to take control of the island, while the US remains Taiwan’s biggest supporter and is bound by law to provide it with the means to defend itself.
“US policy, their policy on China, remains unchanged so any improvement will mostly come from the soft areas – business, culture, people to people exchange or to have a communication channel open,” Xu added. “That’s what the US is looking for but the Chinese side expects more to stabilise this relationship, so that’s probably the gap between the two sides.”
Blinken’s trip was the first by a US secretary of state to China since his predecessor Mike Pompeo visited the country in 2018.
Blinken was set to travel to China in February, but he postponed the visit after Washington accused Beijing of flying a spy balloon over the US. China insisted that the aircraft – which was shot down by US forces after traversing the country – was a research balloon that drifted off course.
When asked about the balloon incident, Blinken told the US news outlet MSNBC before leaving Beijing, “That chapter should be closed.”
Beijing has meanwhile also been explicit in its position that major disagreements remain.
When China’s director of the Office of the Central Foreign Affairs Commission, Wang Yi, met Blinken earlier on Monday, the Chinese diplomat blamed the US for the deterioration in their relationship as he emphasised that Taiwan was its “core interest” and there was “no room” for compromise.
China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs wrote afterwards in a statement that Blinken’s visit “coincides with a critical juncture in China-US relations, and it is necessary to make a choice between dialogue or confrontation, cooperation or conflict”.
It blamed the “US side’s erroneous perception of China, leading to incorrect policies towards China” for the current “low point” in relations.
On Sunday, Qin’s meeting with Blinken lasted more than seven-and-a-half hours. Afterwards, Beijing released a readout of the talks, which showed a number of positive outcomes, including an agreement to increase commercial flights between the countries.
Liu Fu-kuo, a research fellow at the Institute of International Relations at Taiwan’s National Chengchi University, told Al Jazeera that the Blinken-Xi talks appeared to sound “a positive note for the region”.
“It would be too early to say if tension of the bilateral relationship is melted. At least, China has responded with a positive feedback. The talks may be resumed, and the summit later this year can be hopeful. This visit signals such an encouraging move by the two.”