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Top U.S. Diplomat Meets Chinese Foreign Minister in Bid to Tamp Down Soaring Tensions


U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken held talks with Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang in Beijing on Sunday, becoming the first top American diplomat to visit China in nearly five years, in a bid to tamp down soaring tensions between the two superpowers.

Blinken, Qin and a coterie of officials from both sides held talks, with a smaller meeting and dinner also planned, after a scheduled February visit to Beijing was canceled when it was revealed that a suspected Chinese spy balloon had been flying over the U.S.

Qin greeted Blinken at Beijing’s Diaoyutai State Guest House, as the two made small talk in English before shaking hands in front of Chinese and American flags before kicking off their meeting.

Blinken was also expected to meet Wang Yi, China’s top diplomatic official, and possibly leader Xi Jinping during the two-day trip.

U.S. President Joe Biden on Saturday played down the balloon incident as Blinken was on his way to Beijing, saying: “I don’t think the leadership knew where it was and knew what was in it and knew what was going on.”

“I think it was more embarrassing than it was intentional,” he said in Washington.

The U.S. leader also put a positive spin on the visit and expressed how it may increase the odds of a second meeting with Xi following one last November on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit in Bali, Indonesia.

“I’m hoping that, over the next several months, I’ll be meeting with Xi again and talking about legitimate differences we have, but also how there’s areas we can get along,” Biden said.

Still, the bar for success will be low for both the U.S. and China as they look to at least prevent ties from bottoming out. Ahead of the visit, the State Department said Blinken would “discuss the importance of maintaining open lines of communication to responsibly manage” the relationship.

Sino-U.S. tensions have surged in recent months over a variety of issues — from punishing American controls on semiconductor exports to China to the fate of self-ruled Taiwan to altercations between the rivals’ militaries — sending the relationship between the world’s two biggest economies into a tailspin.

But top U.S. officials agreed ahead of Blinken’s trip that while there is a “significant and substantive agenda,” there is a “need to be realistic” about what can be achieved.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken walks with Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing on Sunday. | POOL / VIA REUTERS
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken walks with Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing on Sunday. | POOL / VIA REUTERS

The United States hopes the trip “will, at a minimum, reduce the risk of miscalculation so that we do not veer into potential conflict,” said Daniel Kritenbrink, the top State Department official for East Asia.

The balloon incident was followed by at least two close military encounters in recent weeks, with the U.S. labeling the Chinese intercepts — one over the South China Sea and another in the Taiwan Strait — as “unsafe and unprofessional.” Beijing lambasted Washington for flying spy planes close to its territory.

U.S. officials have in recent months warned of what they say is the rising possibility of an accident in the two waterways that could threaten to erupt into conflict, saying that the close encounters highlight the need for communication, especially in the military-to-military arena.

Lines of communication between the two countries’ militaries have been shut down by China for months amid acrimony between the two sides, with U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s request for a meeting with his Chinese counterpart at a key regional security forum snubbed by Beijing earlier this month over Washington’s refusal to lift sanctions on Defense Minister Li Shangfu.

Beijing has also poured cold water on the prospect of substantial progress from the Blinken visit, saying that the responsibility for improving relations lies with Washington.

“The U.S. needs to give up the illusion of dealing with China ‘from a position of strength,’” Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin told a news conference Friday. “China and the U.S. must develop relations on the basis of mutual respect and equality, respect their difference in history, culture, social system and development path and accommodate each other’s core interests and major concerns.”

Zhang Baohui, a professor of international affairs at Lingnan University in Hong Kong, said that while the U.S. threshold for success “is rather low” — a successful meeting for Washington would mean at least maintaining sufficient dialogue mechanisms to prevent inadvertent military conflicts — successful talks for China would require concessions from the U.S. that are unlikely to come.

“Beijing wants Washington to tone down strategic competition and its related measures to curtail China’s future rise, such as technology denials,” Zhang said. “Beijing also wants to restrain Washington’s growing ties with Taipei. On these matters, the Biden administration is unlikely to yield.”

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken (far left) arrives in Beijing on Sunday morning. | POOL / REUTERS
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken (far left) arrives in Beijing on Sunday morning. | POOL / REUTERS

Observers largely agree that few, if any, concrete deliverables are likely to emerge from the visit. But, some say, that shouldn’t get in the way of talking — especially as any talks could, at least, pave the way for further, potentially more consequential talks.

“While no given high-level exchange is likely to yield a decisive breakthrough in U.S.-China relations, sustained diplomacy will be essential if Washington and Beijing are to avoid war, manage competition, and preserve cooperative space,” Ali Wyne, a senior analyst with Eurasia Group focusing on U.S.-China relations wrote on Twitter. “Diplomacy is an imperative, not a favor.”

Ultimately, Blinken’s visit could set the stage for a trip to Beijing by U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen and possibly culminate in a leaders’ meeting later this year.

M. Taylor Fravel, a China expert and director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Security Studies Program, said that both sides “are also looking ahead to the November 2023 APEC meeting in San Francisco, which Xi is likely to attend and which creates an opportunity for Xi and Biden to meet in person.”

Such a meeting could also help reorient the relationship, playing a similar role as their talks last year in Bali.

But with just months to go, time is of the essence, said Bonnie Glaser, a China expert and managing director of the Indo-Pacific Program at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

This is especially the case as a roughly six-month window narrows before Taiwan holds its presidential election in January and the primary season kicks off for the 2024 U.S. presidential election. Both the Taiwan poll and U.S. primary season are widely expected to make holding meetings between American and Chinese officials more difficult.

“With the potential for a Biden-Xi summit in San Francisco this November, preparations need to start now,” she said.

Source: The Japan Times

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