Blinken Holds ‘Candid’ Talks with China’s Xi amid Effort to Ease Tensions

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

BEIJING – Secretary of State Antony Blinken hailed his discussions with Chinese President Xi Jinping and top Chinese officials as “very candid, very in-depth” and “constructive” on Monday and raised the prospect of cooperating on key global challenges, including ending the war in Ukraine, curbing North Korea’s nuclear program and stemming climate change.

However, Blinken acknowledged that key differences remain on core issues, and U.S. diplomats failed to forge an agreement with Beijing to reopen military-to-military channels – a key objective of his trip.

“China has not agreed to move forward with that. It’s an issue we have to keep working on,” he told reporters at a news conference in Beijing following his meetings.

For weeks leading up to the visit, U.S. officials emphasized the importance of such communication links to prevent accidents from turning into a military confrontation – particularly recent close calls between planes and ships in the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait.

Still, the 35-minute-long meeting was the culmination of more than 10 collective hours of meetings Blinken held with Wang Yi, China’s top foreign policy official, and Foreign Minister Qin Gang and may at least stop the downward spiral in bilateral relations. Qin also accepted an invitation to visit Washington.

“We both agreed on the need to stabilize our relationship,” Blinken said.

Xi told Blinken that China “respects the interests of the United States and will not challenge or replace the United States,” and that Washington “must also respect China and not harm China’s legitimate rights and interests,” according to a readout released by the official state broadcaster CCTV.

Xi made similar remarks in November following a meeting with Biden in Bali on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit, which the Chinese leader also referred to Monday as the basis of the countries’ relationship.

Neither party can shape the other according to its own wishes, let alone deprive the other of its legitimate right to development, the readout said.

In an earlier statement, Xi was reported to have told the U.S. delegation that “the two sides have also made progress and reached agreement on some specific issues, and this is very good.”

On Ukraine, Blinken said U.S. and European leaders “appreciate” China’s assurances that it is not providing lethal assistance to Russia. He welcomed Xi’s involvement in bringing a “just” and “durable” end to the war in Ukraine. The hopeful tone stood in contrast to long-standing pessimism from U.S. officials that China will play a supportive role with regards to Russia.

It has been customary in the past for the Chinese leader to meet with visiting U.S. secretaries of state, but Monday’s meeting wasn’t confirmed until 45 minutes before the two men shook hands – a sign of how carefully orchestrated this trip has been.

The two sides have left very little to chance during Blinken’s two-day visit, keeping core disagreements – on human rights, trade and dangerous military encounters in the South China Sea and Taiwan Strait – away from the cameras.

Blinken did underscore several areas where the United States and China will continue to disagree. He said he pressed his Chinese counterparts on “human rights violations in Xinjiang, Tibet and Hong Kong” and continues to press for the release of detained U.S. citizens in China.

On his two-day trip, he said he “sought to clarify any misperceptions about our approach.” He underscored that decoupling the U.S. and Chinese economies would be “disastrous” given the $700 billion in trade between the two countries every year.

“We don’t want to decouple, we want to de-risk,” he said, noting U.S. export controls on sensitive technologies to China such as advanced semiconductors.

The meeting with Xi followed a careful encounter between Blinken and Wang earlier on Monday, where the two tight-lipped officials greeted each other in a highly formal exchange before closed-door talks that lasted more than three hours.

The two had a “candid and productive discussion,” with Blinken underscoring “the importance of responsibly managing the competition between the United States and [China] through open channels of communication to ensure competition does not veer into conflict,” State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said in a statement.

For his part, Wang told Blinken the United States needed to “reflect deeply” and work with China to avoid “strategic surprises,” according to China’s Foreign Ministry.

“We must reverse the downward spiral of Sino-U.S. relations, push for a return to a healthy and stable track, and work together to find a correct way for China and the United States to get along in the new era,” Wang said, according to the readout.

The two sides must “make a choice between dialogue or confrontation, cooperation or conflict,” said Wang. He asked Washington to lift sanctions against China and to stop “hyping up” the “China threat theory.”

The emphasis on dialogue was a significant departure in tone from Beijing’s previous stance that the blame for the negative state of relations lay entirely with Washington.

“Both sides know that Sino-U. S. relations need to return to normal,” said Zhu Feng, dean of the Institute of International Studies at Nanjing University. “A relationship between major countries requires competition, cooperation and dialogue – it must be interactive.”

However, Zhu didn’t think the Biden administration would really divert its course from suppressing China.

“China can still use this opportunity to express that if the U.S. cannot effectively respond to its concerns, then of course China cannot effectively respond to [theirs],” he said.

Still, the change in tone between the two sides over the past two days has been striking.

Chinese state media, after having castigated Blinken as a meddling provocateur, cast the visit in a favorable light. Sunday’s talks had brought “positive expectations to the international community,” said an editorial in the Global Times, a nationalist tabloid affiliated with the Chinese Communist Party.

Relations between Washington and Beijing had been at their worst since the establishment of diplomatic ties, multiple outlets pointed out, but that provided an opportunity for improvement, they said.

“The whole world is watching to find clues about whether the relationship between the two countries can thaw,” said the Global Times.

Yet concerns remain that Washington will simply continue what Beijing perceives as a strategy to contain China and suppress its development.

On social media, people questioned whether Washington was capable of keeping its promises. Popular current affairs blogger Hang Ziya wrote in a since-deleted post that Blinken had visited China “to get an official certificate of divorce, not to make the relationship work again.”

Monday’s discussions build on the modest gains of Sunday, when Blinken and Qin agreed to meet again – in Washington – and to hold “working-level” meetings to address specific challenges in the weeks ahead.

Qin added that the two nations discussed increasing passenger flights between China and the United States, and encouraging the exchange of more students, scholars and businesspeople. U.S. officials have also worked on increasing journalist visas for media seeking to cover the two countries.

U.S. officials spoke far more favorably about Sunday’s discussions than they did during meetings with Chinese counterparts on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference in February.

During those meetings, Washington angered Beijing after airing U.S. concerns about China considering providing lethal aid to Russia. Relations dipped further when the United States shot down a high-altitude surveillance balloon that crossed into U.S. airspace and canceled Blinken’s originally scheduled trip.

The talks are likely to pave the way for follow-on visits to China by Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen – a visit sought by Beijing, which is hoping to boost investment amid an economic downturn – and potentially Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo and climate envoy John F. Kerry.

President Biden on Saturday said he hoped to meet Xi in coming months to discuss the issues that divide the two.

Xi might attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting in November in San Francisco, where he could meet with Biden.

Chinese officials emphasized that key sticking points remain unresolved, like U.S. military assistance to Taiwan, which it considers a violation of its sovereignty, and U.S. export controls on technology, measures it considers a sign of trying to keep China weak.

But they also underscored a desire to turn a new page, saying the current state of relations “does not serve the fundamental interests of the two peoples or meet the shared expectations of the international community,” according to the Foreign Ministry.