BEIJING (Reuters) – US Secretary of State Antony Blinken began meetings in Beijing on Sunday, the first senior US diplomat to visit China in five years, amid frosty bilateral relations and bleak prospects for any breakthrough in the two countries’ long list of differences. the two largest economies in the world.
After the February trip was delayed after a suspected Chinese spy balloon flew over US airspace, Blinken is the highest-ranking US government official to visit China since President Joe Biden took office in January 2021.
Blinken and his group were greeted by Chinese Foreign Minister Chen Gang at the door of a villa on the grounds of the Diaoyutai Guest House in Beijing, where the two had a brief conversation in English before shaking hands in front of the Chinese and American flags.
After heading to the conference room, neither Blinken nor Chen commented in front of the reporters, who were briefly allowed in.
During his stay through Monday, Blinken is also expected to meet with China’s top diplomat Wang Yi and possibly President Xi Jinping, in an effort to create open and permanent channels of communication to ensure the two countries’ strategic rivalry does not devolve into conflict.
There are expectations that Blinken’s visit will set the stage for more bilateral meetings in the coming months, including possible trips by Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen and Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo. It could also pave the way for meetings between Xi and Biden at multilateral summits later in the year.
Biden said on Saturday that he hopes to meet with President Xi in the next few months.
The two leaders meeting on the Indonesian island of Bali in November briefly allayed fears of a new Cold War, but in the aftermath of alleged Chinese spy balloon flights over the United States, high-level communication was scarce.
The rest of the world will follow Blinken’s journey closely because any escalation between the great powers could have global ramifications for everything from financial markets to the methods and practices of trade and global supply chains.
“There is recognition on both sides that we need high-level channels of communication,” a senior State Department official told reporters during a refueling stop in Tokyo en route to Beijing.
“We are at an important point in the relationship where I think reducing the risk of miscalculation, or as our Chinese friends often say, stopping the downward spiral in the relationship, is important,” the official said.
Relations between the two countries have deteriorated across the board, prompting fears that they could one day clash militarily over the self-ruled island of Taiwan, which China claims as its own. They are also at odds on issues ranging from trade to US efforts to curb China’s semiconductor industry and Beijing’s human rights record.
Of particular concern for China’s neighbors is its reluctance to engage in regular military talks with Washington, despite repeated US attempts.
Speaking at a press conference on Friday before leaving for Beijing, Blinken said his trip had three main goals: to establish crisis management mechanisms, advance the interests of the United States and its allies and speak directly about related concerns, and explore areas of potential cooperation.
“If we want to make sure, as we do, that the competition we have with China doesn’t veer into conflict, the place to start is with communication,” Blinken said. He said he would also raise the issue of US citizens being held in China on charges Washington says are politically motivated.
A US official said that among the topics to be discussed is the possibility of increasing commercial flights between the two countries, describing this as a step that would help strengthen relations between people, although the official did not expect any progress.
However, US officials in a briefing call reviewing the flight earlier in the week played down any expectations of significant progress. While Blinken’s main goal will be “frank, direct, and constructive” discussions, officials said, breakthroughs are unlikely on any major issues, including the flow of fentanyl precursors and Americans detained in China.
The US official said seeking China’s cooperation in stemming the flow of fentanyl precursors was a key item on the agenda. US officials said the Chinese side has been reluctant to cooperate on this issue.
(Reporting by Himiyah Pamuk). Additional reporting by Dominic Button and Mike Stone in Washington. Editing by Daniel Wallis and William Mallard
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Hamira Pamuk is a senior foreign policy correspondent based in Washington, DC. She covers the US State Department, and travels regularly with the US Secretary of State. In her 20 years with Reuters, she has had posts in London, Dubai, Cairo and Turkey, covering everything from the Arab Spring and the civil war in Syria to several Turkish elections and the Kurdish insurgency in the Southeast. In 2017, she won the Knight-Bagehot Fellowship Program at Columbia University School of Journalism. She holds a BA in International Relations and an MA in European Union Studies.
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