U.S., China pledge to improve relations, resume high-level talks after Blinken’s visit

However, Mr. Blinken played down the prospects for any significant breakthroughs on the most vexing issues facing the countries and emphasised the importance of maintaining better communication

Updated - June 19, 2023 06:44 pm IST

Published - June 19, 2023 05:50 pm IST - BEIJING

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China on June 19, 2023.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China on June 19, 2023. | Photo Credit: AP

The United States and China have pledged to stabilise their worn out ties during a critical visit to Beijing by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who met on June 19 with Chinese President Xi Jinping. It remains to be seen whether the two countries can resolve their most important disagreements, many of which have international financial, security and stability implications.

Apart from a willingness to talk, there was little sign that either was prepared to bend from hardened positions on issues ranging from trade to Taiwan, to human rights conditions in China and Hong Kong, to Chinese military assertiveness in the South China Sea, to Russia’s war in Ukraine.

Also Read | Blinken in Beijing as U.S., China look to cool tensions

At the meeting with Mr. Blinken, President Xi pronounced himself pleased with the outcome of Mr. Blinken's earlier meetings with two top Chinese diplomats and said the two countries had agreed to resume a program of understandings that he and President Joe Biden agreed to at a meeting in Bali last year.

“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,” Mr. Xi said.

That agenda had been thrown into jeopardy in recent months, notably after the U.S. shot down a Chinese surveillance balloon over its airspace in February, and amid escalated military activity in the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea. Combined with disputes over human rights, trade and opiate production, the list of problem areas is daunting.

But Mr. Xi suggested the worst could be over.

Also Read | Explained | Why is the U.S. shifting its approach to China from decoupling to de-risking?

“The two sides have also made progress and reached agreement on some specific issues,” he said without elaborating, according to a transcript of the remarks released by the State Department.

“I hope that through this visit, Mr. Secretary, you will make more positive contributions to stabilizing China-U.S. relations,” Mr. Xi added.

In his remarks to President Xi during the 35-minute session at the Great Hall of the People, which was not announced until an hour before it started, Mr. Blinken said “The United States and China have an obligation and responsibility to manage our relationship.”

“The United States is committed to doing that,” Mr. Blinken said. “It’s in the interest of the United States, in the interests of China, and in the interest of the world.” He described his earlier discussions with senior Chinese officials as “candid and constructive.”

Despite his presence in China, Mr. Blinken and other U.S. officials had played down the prospects for any significant breakthroughs on the most vexing issues facing the planet’s two largest economies. Instead, these officials have emphasised the importance of the two countries establishing and maintaining better lines of communication.

Mr. Blinken is the highest-level U.S. official to visit China since President Joe Biden took office, and the first Secretary of State to make the trip in five years. His visit is expected to usher in a new round of visits by senior U.S. and Chinese officials, possibly including a meeting between Xi and Biden in the coming months. Mr. Blinken earlier met China’s top diplomat Wang Yi for about three hours, according to a U.S. official.

Also Read | Blinken opens second day of talks in Beijing; China blames U.S. for ‘incorrect policies towards China’

China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs wrote in a statement that Mr. Blinken's visit "coincides with a critical juncture in China-U.S. relations, and it is necessary to make a choice between dialogue or confrontation, cooperation or conflict,” and blamed the “U.S. side’s erroneous perception of China, leading to incorrect policies towards China” for the current “low point” in relations.

It said the U.S. had a responsibility to halt “the spiralling decline of China-U.S. relations to push it back to a healthy and stable track” and that Mr. Wang had "demanded that the U.S. stop hyping up the ‘China threat theory,’ lift illegal unilateral sanctions against China, abandon suppression of China’s technological development, and refrain from arbitrary interference in China’s internal affairs.”

The State Department said Mr. Blinken “underscored the importance of responsibly managing the competition between the United States and the People’s Republic of China through open channels of communication to ensure competition does not veer into conflict.”

In the first round of talks on June 18, Mr. Blinken met for nearly six hours with Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang, after which both countries said they had agreed to continue high-level discussions. However, there was no sign that any of the most fractious issues between them were closer to resolution. Both the U.S. and China said Mr. Qin had accepted an invitation from Blinken to visit Washington but Beijing made clear that “the China-U.S. relationship is at the lowest point since its establishment.” That sentiment is widely shared by U.S. officials.

Also Read | Explained | China’s ‘developmental’ security approach

Mr. Blinken's visit comes after his initial plans to travel to China were postponed in February after the shootdown of a Chinese surveillance balloon over the U.S. A snub by the Chinese leader would have been a major setback to the effort to restore and maintain communications at senior levels.

President Biden said over the weekend that he hoped to be able to meet with Mr. Xi in the coming months to take up the plethora of differences that divide them. In his meetings on June 18, Mr. Blinken also pressed the Chinese to release detained American citizens and to take steps to curb the production and export of fentanyl precursors that are fueling the opioid crisis in the United States.

Mr. Xi had offered a hint of a possible willingness to reduce tensions on June 16, saying in a meeting with Microsoft Corp. co-founder Bill Gates that the United States and China can cooperate to “benefit our two countries.”

Also Read | Chinese president Xi Jinping stresses U.S.-China cooperation in meeting with Bill Gates

Since the cancellation of Blinken’s trip in February, there have been some high-level engagements. CIA Chief William Burns travelled to China in May, while China’s Commerce Minister travelled to the U.S. And Mr. Biden’s National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan met with senior Chinese Foreign Policy Adviser Wang Yi in Vienna in May.

But those have been punctuated by bursts of angry rhetoric from both countries over the Taiwan Strait, their broader intentions in the Indo-Pacific, China’s refusal to condemn Russia for its war against Ukraine, and U.S. allegations from Washington that Beijing is attempting to boost its worldwide surveillance capabilities, including in Cuba.

And, earlier this month, China’s Defense Minister rebuffed a request from U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin for a meeting on the sidelines of a security symposium in Singapore, a sign of continuing discontent.

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