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Antony Blinken has started meetings in Beijing, aiming to cool US-China tensions

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, left, shakes hands with Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang, right, at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing, China, Sunday, June 18, 2023.
Leah Millis
/
AP
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, left, shakes hands with Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang, right, at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing, China, Sunday, June 18, 2023.

Updated June 18, 2023 at 2:09 PM ET

BEIJING — The United States and China have failed to overcome their most serious disagreements but were able to discuss them in a potentially constructive way and have agreed to continue talks, U.S. officials said Sunday.

The officials said Secretary of State Antony Blinken was able during a nearly 6-hour meeting to secure a visit to Washington by Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang. But, they said progress on other issues remains a work in progress.

Blinken, the highest-level American official to visit China since President Joe Biden took office, will have more senior level contacts with the Chinese on Monday, including potentially with Chinese leader Xi Jinping.

Despite Blinken's presence in the Chinese capital and the relatively upbeat assessment of Sunday's meeting, the prospects for any significant breakthrough on the most vexing issues facing the planet's two largest economies remain slim.

Blinken's trip follows his postponement of plans to visit China in February after the shootdown of a Chinese surveillance balloon over the U.S. Blinken is the highest-level American official to visit China since President Joe Biden took office.

His talks could pave the way for a meeting in the coming months between U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping. He finished the first of two days of high-stakes diplomatic talks in Beijing aimed at trying to cool tensions that have set many around the world on edge.

'That long list incudes disagreements ranging from trade to Taiwan, human rights conditions in China and Hong Kong to Chinese military assertiveness in the South China Sea and Russia's war in Ukraine.

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.

U.S. officials said Blinken posed each of these points, though neither side has shown any inclination to back down on their entrenched positions.

Shortly before leaving Washington, Blinken emphasized the importance of the U.S. and China establishing and maintaining better lines of communication. The U.S. wants to make sure "that the competition we have with China doesn't veer into conflict" due to avoidable misunderstandings, he told reporters.

Biden and Xi had made commitments to improve communications "precisely so that we can make sure we are communicating as clearly as possible to avoid possible misunderstandings and miscommunications," Blinken said Friday.

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

"I believe that the foundation of Sino-U.S. relations lies in the people," Xi said to Gates. "Under the current world situation, we can carry out various activities that benefit our two countries, the people of our countries, and the entire human race."

Since the cancellation 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 U.S. And Biden's national security adviser Jake Sullivan met with Wang in Vienna in May.

But those have been punctuated by bursts of angry rhetoric from both sides 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.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrives in Beijing, Sunday, June 18, 2023.
Leah Millis / AP
/
AP
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrives in Beijing, Sunday, June 18, 2023.

Austin said Friday he was confident that he and his Chinese counterpart would meet "at some point in time, but we're not there yet."

Underscoring the difficulties, China rejected a report by a U.S. security firm, that blamed Chinese-linked hackers for attacks on hundreds of public agencies, schools and other targets around the world, as "far-fetched and unprofessional"

A Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson repeated accusations that Washington carries out hacking attacks and complained the cybersecurity industry rarely reports on them.

That followed a similar retort earlier in the week when China said Qin had in a phone call with Blinken urged the United States to respect "China's core concerns" such as the issue of Taiwan's self-rule, "stop interfering in China's internal affairs, and stop harming China's sovereignty, security and development interests in the name of competition."

Meanwhile, the national security advisers of the United States, Japan and the Philippines held their first joint talks Friday and agreed to strengthen their defense cooperation, in part to counter China's growing influence and ambitions.

This coincides with the Biden administration inking an agreement with Australia and Britain to provide the first with nuclear-powered submarines, with China moving rapidly to expand its diplomatic presence, especially in the Indian Ocean and the Pacific island nations, where it has opened or has plans to open at least five new embassies over the next year.

The agreement is part of an 18-month-old nuclear partnership given the acronym AUKUS — for Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States.

China's spokesperson for the Foreign Ministry, Hua Chunying, issued a statement of cautious optimism as Blinken started his first day of meetings in Beijing.

"Hope this meeting can help steer China-U.S. relations back to what the two Presidents agreed upon in Bali," she said in a statement on Twitter.

However, two U.S. officials downplayed hopes for major progress and stressed that the trip was intended to restore a sense of calm and normalcy to high-level contacts.

"We're coming to Beijing with a realistic, confident approach and a sincere desire to manage our competition in the most responsible way possible," said Daniel Kritenbrink, the top U.S. diplomat for East Asia and the Pacific.

Kurt Campbell, the top Asia expert at the National Security Council, said "intense competition requires intense diplomacy if we're going to manage tensions. That is the only way to clear up misperceptions, to signal, to communicate, and to work together where and when our interests align."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

The Associated Press