The official trip announcement comes as China’s foreign minister issues a demand for ‘respect’ from America.
By Alex Willemyns for RFA
June 14, 2023
Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang, left, and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken will not be seeking “deliverables” during a visit to Beijing this weekend, according to a top official, who instead framed the trip as an embryonic effort to reopen communications between the world’s top powers.
Blinken will be hoping to “reduce the risk of miscalculation” and conflict by reengaging with Chinese diplomats on areas of disunity after months of tensions, Daniel Kritenbrink, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, said on Wednesday.
“This is not a visit in which I would anticipate a long list of deliverables coming out of it,” Kritenbrink said in a call to preview the trip by the top U.S. diplomat, who departs Washington on Friday.
After months of refusals by Chinese officials to speak with their American counterparts, Kritenbrink said Blinken’s primary objectives would instead be to reestablish open lines of communication, to signal U.S. priorities and then “to explore areas of potential cooperation.”
“This is really a critical series of engagements that we'll have in Beijing, at a crucial time in the relationship, that we again hope will, at a minimum, reduce the risk of miscalculation so that we do not veer into potential conflict,” he added. “It’s incredibly serious.”
U.S. defense officials say Chinese officials have refused phone calls since Blinken canceled a planned trip to Beijing in February due to the alleged Chinese spy balloon that was found in U.S. airspace.
Chinese Defense Minister Li Shangfu also declined to meet with U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore earlier at the start of the month, with Li instead using the forum to accuse the United States of “double standards.”
The refusal to talk, they say, has confounded efforts to reach a resolution over the “unsafe maneuvers” by Chinese warships and military planes in front of American vessels over the South China Sea and Taiwan Strait, both of which Beijing claims as territory.
Kritenbrink and Sarah Beran, senior director for China and Taiwan affairs on the National Security Council, earlier this month met with their own counterparts in Beijing to help pave the way for a meeting between Blinken and Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang.
But the efforts to resume talks have been complicated by the bad blood in the U.S.-China relationship after the months of tensions.
A Chinese J-16 fighter flies aggressively close to a U.S. RC-135 aircraft flying in international airspace over the South China Sea May 26, 2023. (U.S. Navy via AP)
Rep. Mike Gallagher, a Republican from Wisconsin who chairs the House Select Committee on China, for instance, called Kritenbrink and Beran’s trip to China an “outrage” after the pair arrived there on June 4, the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre.
Chinese officials have also indicated they have little interest in humoring any demands made by Blinken while in Beijing.
In a pre-meeting phone call between Blinken and the Chinese foreign minister on Wednesday, Qin stressed Beijing would maintain its “stern position” on its “core interests,” including that the self-governing island of Taiwan will be reunited with the mainland, according to a readout issued by China’s foreign ministry.
Qin said Washington should “show respect, stop interfering in China’s internal affairs and stop undermining China’s sovereignty, security and development interests,” the readout said.
A readout released by the U.S. State Department, by contrast, said that the pair “discussed the importance of maintaining open lines of communication to responsibly manage” the bilateral relationship.
Kritenbrink did not shy away from the differences between the two sides, acknowledging there had been “substantive, productive and candid exchanges” with Chinese officials in the lead-up to the visit.
Both sides nonetheless wanted to ensure “we have communication channels open, and that we do everything possible to reduce the risk of miscalculation. Chinese counterparts have used the words ‘to stop the downward spiral in the relationship,’” he explained.
Meeting for the sake of meeting
During the same call, Kurt Campbell, the White House's Indo-Pacific coordinator, said the trip would be a positive step in U.S.-China ties, and denied it would be meaningless without any deliverables.
“We've heard from unofficial interlocutors just a few months ago that China was giving up on diplomacy with the United States,” Campbell said. “But of course, we've seen other signals of late that suggest they recognize that diplomacy with Washington is still important.”
Campbell said he was “not going to speculate” on the reasons Beijing wanted to resume diplomacy after months of rejecting even phone calls, but said that China’s leaders may have been pressed by concerns over the economy amid U.S. tech export controls.
“It could be that they, too, see some of the risks associated with [military] accidents,” he said. “It could also be that they see the effectiveness of our engagement with allies and partners, and don't want to be further isolated, or there could be concerns around our technology steps. Or it could be a combination of reasons.”
“The simple fact is that we believe that both sides have an interest in maintaining consistent, clear and open lines of communication.”
Sailors assigned to Explosive Ordnance Disposal Group 2 recover a high-altitude surveillance balloon off the coast of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, in the Atlantic Ocean on Feb. 5, 2023. (Petty Officer 1st Class Tyler Thompson/US Navy via AFP)
Kritenbrink reiterated that a resumption of talks was enough.
“I fundamentally disagree with the assessment that somehow we're meeting for the sake of meeting,” Kritenbrink said. “The issues at stake are simply too significant to take that kind of approach.”
“But I do think we need to be realistic,” he said. “We're not going to Beijing with the intent of having some sort of breakthrough or transformation in the way that we deal with one another.
Edited by Malcolm Foster