In China, Blinken Holds Talks to Restart High-Level Diplomacy

Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken met on Monday with Wang Yi, the top foreign policy official in China, in the second day of high-level diplomatic talks in Beijing between the two governments to try to rebuild channels of communication that crumbled during an explosive clash over a Chinese spy balloon early this year.

The talks on a rainy morning in the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse were a prelude to a likely meeting between Mr. Blinken and Xi Jinping, China’s leader, in the afternoon. The two governments have not formally announced that meeting, but American and Chinese officials have spoken of the planning for it in optimistic tones in recent days. They have said the two days of diplomacy in Beijing would ideally lead to a series of visits soon to the Chinese capital by other cabinet-level American officials.

The efforts to establish regular top-level diplomacy come at a pivotal point in the fraught relationship between the two nations. Bilateral relations between the United States and China are at their lowest point in decades. Tensions soared in February when the Pentagon announced that a Chinese surveillance balloon was drifting across the continental United States, then ordered American fighter jets to shoot it down.

Mr. Blinken canceled a scheduled visit to Beijing hours before leaving as U.S. lawmakers voiced fury over the balloon. That infuriated Chinese officials, who said the entire episode spoiled progress made four months earlier in Bali, Indonesia, when President Biden and Mr. Xi agreed to try to stabilize ties. Chinese officials have continued to say the balloon had been launched for weather research and had floated off course.

Relations were further strained in February when Mr. Blinken confronted Mr. Wang on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference to tell him Washington believed China was considering providing lethal support to Russia for its war in Ukraine. China responded by freezing some important diplomatic exchanges and intensifying anti-American rhetoric.

The two men appeared to be cordial on Monday, when they walked together down a hallway with a red carpet into a meeting room. As with Mr. Blinken’s long meeting in the same statehouse compound with Qin Gang, the Chinese foreign minister, on Sunday, delegations from the two governments sat at long tables facing each other.

Mr. Blinken and Mr. Qin had made progress by Sunday night on rebuilding regular diplomacy, even as they spoke candidly in the seven-and-a-half hour meeting about the areas of conflict in the relationship, according to readouts from each government and a briefing by State Department officials to reporters traveling with Mr. Blinken.

On Sunday, Mr. Blinken met with China’s foreign minister, Qin Gang, right, for more than seven hours.Credit…Pool photo by Leah Millis

The U.S. officials said the two governments had agreed to have working groups and diplomats meet soon on a range of issues, including people-to-people exchanges and journalist visas. The U.S. officials also said they and Chinese counterparts had agreed to expand direct flights between the two nations.

The two days of meetings may arrest the downward spiral in ties. Analysts say it will take much more for the two sides to overcome the mistrust that weighs on the relationship, but aiming to rebuild a foundation of high-level diplomacy is a worthwhile start.

“Diplomacy is not a gift but an indispensable means of understanding the other side and tackling difficult issues,” said Jessica Chen Weiss, a Cornell University professor who has studied Chinese politics and was an adviser in the State Department for one year on China policy. “Re-establishing channels of communication is the bare minimum needed to reduce the growing risk of miscalculation and crisis.”

China has rebuffed attempts by the Biden administration to establish so-called guardrails to prevent potential accidents in contested areas like the Taiwan Strait and South China Sea from spiraling out of control. Analysts say Beijing views its unpredictability and growing appetite for risk as a useful deterrent to persuade the United States to think twice about patrolling the waters and skies around China.

China has repeatedly blamed the United States for the deterioration in bilateral ties. No issue rankles Beijing more than Washington’s perceived growing support for Taiwan, the de facto independent island claimed by China. Beijing has also sought to push back against Washington’s efforts to restrict its access to advanced semiconductor chips and manufacturing equipment, as well as deepening defense ties with regional partners like Japan, Australia and the Philippines.

Analysts said China may have been driven to meet with Mr. Blinken for a number of reasons. Pressure may be mounting on Beijing to stabilize ties because of China’s worsening economy. Other countries have also been imploring China and the United States to break the cycle of hostility. Mr. Xi may have also wanted to steady the relationship so that he’s received like a global statesman if he chooses to attend a leaders’ summit of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation group of nations in San Francisco in November.

“China has spent the past several months blaming the United States for all that is wrong in the relationship and inside China more broadly. Now, China’s leaders need to carve out political space to pivot toward more direct communication,” said Ryan Hass, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who was director for China at the National Security Council under President Obama.

“Beijing sees it as in its interest to communicate directly to manage stresses in the relationship and build an on-ramp for President Xi to meet with President Biden in the fall,” Mr. Hass added.

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