United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken met Chinese President Xi Jinping on Monday afternoon, wrapping up his two-day trip to Beijing that both sides acknowledged to be a good first step to mending frayed ties between the two major powers.
Mr Xi, sitting at the head of a large meeting table in the Great Hall of the People, told the American top envoy and his delegation seated to his right that the world needed a stable US-China relationship and that other countries are unwilling to choose sides.
Both the US and China have a responsibility to “inject stability, certainty and constructiveness into a turbulent world”, Mr Xi was quoted as saying by the Foreign Ministry.
The meeting was the first time a US secretary of state had met the Chinese leader since 2018, and it could pave the way for a summit between Mr Xi and US President Joe Biden later in the year.
During the talks, Mr Xi emphasised that China respects the interests of the US and will not challenge or displace it. But the US must also respect China and not harm its legitimate rights and interests, he added.
“Neither party should try to shape the other by its own will, still less deprive the other of its legitimate right to development,” he was quoted as saying.
In a press conference held after his meeting with Mr Xi, Mr Blinken gave the assurance that the US does not seek to decouple from China, but is looking to “de-risk and diversify”. With nearly US$700 billion (S$938 billion) in trade last year, it would be “disastrous for us to decouple and stop all trade investment”, he said.
But the US needs to protect its own critical technologies, “so they aren’t used against us”. “I made clear that we will continue to take targeted actions that are necessary to protect US national security,” said Mr Blinken about his meetings with Chinese leaders.
He told reporters he had raised with them issues such as human rights, more people-to-people exchanges, and anti-narcotics cooperation, among others.
He stressed the importance of maintaining open lines of communication, but said military-to-military talks have not resumed. Chinese Defence Minister Li Shangfu had refused a meeting with his US counterpart Lloyd Austin on the sidelines of the Shangri-La Dialogue security conference in Singapore recently, citing US sanctions against him.
In a briefing on Monday night, Mr Yang Tao, director-general of the North American and Oceanian Affairs Department at the Chinese Foreign Ministry, said defence talks cannot be reinstated until sanctions are removed on senior Chinese officials, including General Li.
He also dismissed the US’ framing of “de-risking” as a defensive move. “Our question is whether de-risking is just a repackaging of decoupling,” said the official, who had been part of the various meetings in the past two days. “If, fundamentally, de-risking is about shutting China out, then it is turning away from cooperation, stability and development. It won’t solve the US’ problem and will boomerang, putting a drag on the whole world.”
Earlier on Monday, Mr Blinken met China’s top diplomat Wang Yi, who said US-China relations have reached a critical point where a choice has to be made between cooperation and conflict.
In a meeting lasting three hours, Mr Wang, who ranks above Foreign Minister Qin Gang, blamed strained ties on the US holding “an erroneous perception of China”, and urged Washington to stop thinking that a strong country must be hegemonic.
Beijing has described relations as being in their worst state since diplomatic ties were established more than four decades ago.
A Foreign Ministry statement on Monday quoted Mr Wang telling Mr Blinken that the US should “reflect deeply” and work with Beijing to manage differences.
“The trough in Sino-US relations is rooted in the US’ erroneous perception of China, which leads to wrong policies towards China,” said Mr Wang, who is director of the Communist Party of China Central Committee Foreign Affairs Commission.
Mr Wang’s comments echoed those made by Mr Qin on Sunday during meetings with Mr Blinken that lasted more than eight hours.
The Sunday talks were “candid, substantive and constructive”, said a statement from the US State Department, which added that Mr Blinken had told Mr Qin that Washington does not wish to decouple from China.
“The Secretary emphasised the importance of diplomacy and maintaining open channels of communication across the full range of issues to reduce the risk of misperception and miscalculation,” said State Department spokesman Matthew Miller.
Both sides had committed to stabilising relations and to prevent competition from veering into conflict.
Calling on Washington to meet Beijing halfway to improve ties, Mr Qin had reiterated that Taiwan is the “most consequential issue” and the “most pronounced risk” in bilateral relations, according to a Chinese Foreign Ministry statement on the Sunday meeting.
Beijing views the self-ruling island as its territory that has to be reunified with it, whereas the US is committed to helping Taiwan defend itself in case of an invasion.
Mr Wang, in his Monday meeting with Mr Blinken, also restated China’s red line over Taiwan, warning the US that “China has no room for compromise or concession”.
Mr Wang also protested against US sanctions against China and what he said was a suppression of its technological development.
Besides Taiwan and the ongoing tech rivalry that has seen the US restrict Chinese access to advanced semiconductor chips and manufacturing equipment, Beijing and Washington disagree on a wide range of other issues, including trade.
This has kept expectations of any deliverables from Mr Blinken’s visit low. But some hope that his visit will help reset bilateral relations to be more constructive, rather than the confrontational stance seen in recent months.
Mr Qin will visit the US “at a mutually convenient time”, confirmed the Chinese Foreign Ministry on Monday night, while other senior US officials may also be making trips to Beijing.
Mr Blinken is the most senior US official to visit China since Mr Biden took office.
He was forced to postpone a much-needed trip to Beijing in February to mend frayed relations, after a row erupted when the US shot down an alleged Chinese spy balloon that floated into American airspace.
Last November, Mr Biden and Mr Xi held a long-awaited face-to-face meeting on the sidelines of a Group of 20 summit on the Indonesian island of Bali, engaging in talks on Taiwan and North Korea. They also pledged more frequent communication between Washington and Beijing.
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