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Blinken has ‘candid’ talks with China’s Qin on trip to mend ties

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken (L) walks with China's Foreign Minister Qin Gang (R) ahead of a meeting at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing on June 18, 2023. (Leah Millis/POOL/AFP via Getty Images/TNS)

Secretary of State Antony Blinken had “candid” talks with his Chinese counterpart in Beijing, the two countries said, as both looked to project a positive but cautious tone about a visit that’s meant to bring some semblance of normalcy back to a strained relationship.

Discussions between the delegations led by Blinken and Foreign Minister Qin Gang lasted 7 1/2 hours — much longer than planned, officials said. In a further signal that the two saw the meeting as a path to closer ties, Qin accepted Blinken’s invitation to visit Washington at “a mutually suitable time,” the State Department said.

“The Secretary emphasized the importance of diplomacy and maintaining open channels of communication across the full range of issues to reduce the risk of misperception and miscalculation,” a U.S. readout of the meeting said. “The Secretary raised a number of issues of concern,” it said, without identifying them.

The U.S. described the talks as “candid, substantive, and constructive.” State-run China Central Television used similar phrasing, calling them “candid, deep and constructive.”

Blinken’s previous attempt to visit China in February was scrapped at the last minute when the U.S. revealed an alleged Chinese spy balloon was floating over American territory — an incident that led China to accuse the U.S. of “hysteria.” In its own description of the conversations, CCTV said it hoped the U.S. could “deal with accidents in a sober, professional and rational manner.”

The main goal of Blinken’s trip will be to try to reestablish senior-level communications channels with Chinese counterparts, including between their militaries, to manage the intense competition between the countries, according to U.S. officials. They have sought to set expectations low, saying there would be no breakthroughs.

Blinken has more meetings set for Monday, including with Wang Yi, the Communist Party’s top foreign affairs official. One sign that China considers his visit a success will be if he’s granted a meeting with President Xi Jinping. No such meeting was on the schedule as of Sunday night, but it could be added at the last minute.

The most senior U.S. official to visit China in five years, Blinken is making his trip at a tumultuous time, with the two sides sparring over everything from human rights and technology to trade and weapons sales to Taiwan. Qin said Taiwan is “the core of the core interests” of China and “the biggest problem” and “the most prominent risk” in China-U.S. ties.

But there were also signs of progress on tangible matters on Sunday. Both sides said they’d discussed increasing flights between the two countries. Many of those flights were scrapped during the coronavirus pandemic.

Blinken and Qin didn’t just read talking points to one another, one senior official told reporters on condition of anonymity. The official described the conversation as substantive, with extensive back-and-forth.

The primary goal of the trip was to help establish communications channel at the minister and sub-minister levels, so the U.S. and China don’t always operate from a position of distrust, and the discussions today helped accomplish that, the official said.

Blinken’s visit is part of a renewed flurry of high-level U.S.-China engagement that has gradually picked up momentum after the balloon incident derailed an attempt by Biden and Xi — who met late last year in Bali, Indonesia — to establish a steadier path for bilateral relations. Biden said Saturday he’s “hoping that over the next several months I’ll be meeting Xi again.”

Some of the meetings have taken place in public, including when Chinese Commerce Minister Wang Wentao visited the U.S. But other meetings have been out of the limelight. White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan recently met with his counterpart for a low-key meeting in Vienna, while CIA Director Bill Burns made a secret trip to Beijing last month to discuss intelligence issues.

The U.S. and Chinese militaries recently had two dangerous confrontations between naval vessels and jets in the region, which the Pentagon characterized as “unnecessarily aggressive” and “dangerous.” Chinese Defense Minister Li Shangfu — who is sanctioned by the U.S. government in relation to Russian arms purchases — also recently rejected a meeting with his US counterpart Lloyd Austin when the two men attended a defense forum in Singapore this month.


© 2023 Bloomberg L.P

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