BEIJING: The United States and China have pledged to stabilize their badly deteriorated ties during a critical visit to Beijing by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who met Monday 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 were few indications is 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.
At the meeting with Blinken, Xi pronounced himself pleased with the outcome of 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 decision clear, and the two sides have agreed to follow through the common understandings President Biden and I had reached in Bali,” Xi said.
That agenda had been thrown into jeopardy in recent months, notably after the US 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 Xi suggested the worst could be over.
“The two sides have also made progress and reached agreement on some specific issues,” Xi said without elaborating, according to a transcript of the remarks released by the State Department. “This is very good.”
“I hope that through this visit, Mr. Secretary, you will make more positive contributions to stabilizing China-US relations,” Xi added.
In his remarks to Xi during the 35-minute session at the Great Hall of the People, which was not announced until an hour before it started, Blinken said “the United States and China have an obligation and responsibility to manage our relationship.”
“The United States is committed to doing that,” Blinken said. “It’s in the interest of the United States, in the interests of China, and in the interest of the world.”
Blinken described his earlier discussions with senior Chinese officials as “candid and constructive.”
Despite his presence in China, Blinken and other US 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 emphasized the importance of the two countries establishing and maintaining better lines of communication.
Blinken is the highest-level US 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 US and Chinese officials, possibly including a meeting between Xi and Biden in the coming months.
Blinken met earlier Monday with China’s top diplomat Wang Yi for about three hours, according to a US official.
China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs wrote in a statement that Blinken’s visit “coincides with a critical juncture in China-US relations, and it is necessary to make a choice between dialogue or confrontation, cooperation or conflict,” and blamed the “US side’s erroneous perception of China, leading to incorrect policies toward China” for the current “low point” in relations.
It said the US had a responsibility to halt “the spiraling decline of China-US relations to push it back to a healthy and stable track” and that Wang had “demanded that the US 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 Blinken “underscored the importance of responsibly managing the competition between the United States and the PRC through open channels of communication to ensure competition does not veer into conflict.”
In the first round of talks on Sunday, 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 US and China said Qin had accepted an invitation from Blinken to visit Washington but Beijing made clear that “the China-US relationship is at the lowest point since its establishment.” That sentiment is widely shared by US officials.
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 US
A snub by the Chinese leader would have been a major setback to the effort to restore and maintain communications at senior levels.
And Biden said over the weekend that he hoped to be able to meet with Xi in the coming months to take up the plethora of differences that divide them.
In his meetings on Sunday, 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.
Xi had offered a hint of a possible willingness to reduce tensions on Friday, saying in a meeting with Microsoft Corp. co-founder Bill Gates that the United States and China can cooperate to “benefit our two countries.”
Since the cancelation of Blinken’s trip in February, there have been some high-level engagements. CIA chief William Burns traveled to China in May, while China’s commerce minister traveled to the US And 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 US 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 US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin for a meeting on the sidelines of a security symposium in Singapore, a sign of continuing discontent.