U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Friday he would seek to establish “open and empowered” communications during a weekend visit to China — a trip that was rescheduled from February after a suspected Chinese spy balloon flew through U.S. airspace.
Shortly before departing for China on Friday evening, Blinken told a news conference in Washington that U.S. officials would speak candidly with their Chinese counterparts about “very real concerns” on a range of issues.
Speaking alongside visiting Singapore Foreign Affairs Minister Vivian Balakrishnan, Blinken said the U.S. wanted to make sure “that the competition we have with China doesn't veer into confrontation or conflict.”
Expectations are low that Blinken’s trip will reset the two countries’ fraught relationship.
Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Wang Wenbin said Friday that "the United States views China as its 'primary rival' and 'the most consequential geopolitical challenge.' This is a major strategic misjudgment.”
He said the competition the United States has with China is “not responsible competition, but irresponsible bullying. It will only push the two countries towards confrontation and create a divided world.”
Blinken is the first secretary of state to visit Beijing since 2018.
“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. He will also raise bilateral issues of concern, global and regional matters, and potential cooperation on shared transnational challenges,” the State Department said on Wednesday, referencing the People’s Republic of China.
In a tweet, Blinken said he and Qin “discussed ongoing efforts to maintain open channels of communication as well as bilateral and global issues.”
In Beijing, Chinese officials asked the United States to stop what they said was Washington’s undermining of China’s security and development interests, but added the two countries can manage differences and promote cooperation.
Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Wang Wenbin said during a Wednesday briefing that the Beijing government hopes the U.S. will “take concrete actions” to “work with China to effectively manage differences, promote exchanges and cooperation, [and] stabilize the relationship from further deterioration.”
Senior U.S. officials said topics high on the agenda during Blinken’s meetings in Beijing June 18-19 include regional security, counternarcotics, climate change, global macroeconomic stability, Americans wrongfully detained in China, as well as exchanges between American and Chinese people.
Officials said they would not anticipate “a long list of deliverables” after Blinken’s meetings in Beijing.
In Brussels on Friday, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin expressed optimism that he would eventually hold talks with his Chinese counterpart after China refused a meeting at an event in Singapore earlier this month.
"I'm confident that, over time, that's going to happen. We're going to meet at some point in time. But we're not there yet," Austin told a news conference at NATO headquarters.
On Wednesday, Daniel Kritenbrink, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, told reporters during a phone briefing that stopping illicit fentanyl “will feature prominently” in Blinken’s meetings in Beijing.
Officials also said China’s military escalation in the Taiwan Strait was “a global concern.”
Kurt Campbell, coordinator for Indo-Pacific affairs on the White House National Security Council, said the maintenance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait is “a clear bipartisan, strong determination” of the United States.
U.S. officials have said it is in the interest of both countries to maintain open lines of communication. The Pentagon also wants Beijing to answer a military hotline so generals can talk during incidents like a recent close encounter involving U.S. and Chinese ships in the Taiwan Strait.
Observers say despite the tensions, the two governments are trying to set up a summit later this year.
“Both countries are working toward a possible meeting between [U.S. President Joe] Biden and [Chinese President] Xi Jinping at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting, which will take place in San Francisco in November,” said Bonnie Glaser, managing director of the Indo-Pacific program at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. “And in order to have a successful summit, if that is indeed on the agenda, there needs to be a lot of preparation.” said Bonnie Glaser, managing director of the Indo-Pacific program at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.
While Washington is seeking to re-engage Beijing on the issues of counternarcotics and climate change, experts and congressional critics are skeptical that the two countries can have a substantial change in the status of their relationship.
“I do not think that we should be looking towards a reset of the U.S.-China relationship,” Glaser told VOA.
“It is an opportunity for both sides to continue to express their concerns and maybe find ways to address differences. This is particularly true in the military realm, where they've actually been frozen,” Glaser added.
After Beijing, Blinken heads to London to attend a Ukraine Recovery Conference to "mobilize international support from the public and private sector" and "help Ukraine recover from Russia’s brutal and ongoing attacks."
Some information for this report came from The Associated Press and Reuters.