Blinken’s China Trip Yields Best Possible Result: More Talks

Secretary of State Antony Blinken got a muted reception when he arrived in Beijing: a lone Foreign Ministry official there to meet him and no red carpet, just red lines on the runway that social media users joked were a symbol of China’s unwillingness to compromise on issues like Taiwan.

(Bloomberg) — Secretary of State Antony Blinken got a muted reception when he arrived in Beijing: a lone Foreign Ministry official there to meet him and no red carpet, just red lines on the runway that social media users joked were a symbol of China’s unwillingness to compromise on issues like Taiwan.

But as he left less than 48 hours later, Blinken said the trip had achieved its goal because the two sides had restored some senior-level communications. President Xi Jinping pronounced the progress “very good,” warm words from a taciturn leader who held off confirming a meeting with Blinken — the highest-level US official to visit Beijing in five years — until the last minute.

The most positive outcome was the pledge to keep talking, including a plan for Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang to visit Washington in the next few months. US officials such as Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen and climate envoy John Kerry are also expected to travel to China soon.

Beyond that, the discussions yielded few specific takeaways. The two sides discussed increasing passenger flights and the need for more exchanges between students and business leaders, though offered nothing concrete. And the US didn’t get the one thing it really wanted: restored communications between the two countries’ militaries that China severed after then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan last August.

‘Notable Gaps’

That resuming some conversations counted as success was yet another sign of how sour the relationship has become between the world’s two largest economies. Threats lurk in every corner that could derail even this modest progress: Taiwan, human rights, the origins of the coronavirus pandemic, semiconductor policy and so many other issues.

“If you look at the realistic expectations that Blinken and his team set out for the visit, they were achieved and frankly, you could say even exceeded,” said Wendy Cutler, a veteran US diplomat and trade negotiator. “That said, when you parse through what was publicly announced, there are some notable gaps, including what the next steps will be beyond the reciprocal visit of the foreign minister to the United States.”

Given the current state of ties, with former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger warning of possible military conflict if there’s no course correction, regular meetings are at least likely to reassure countries in the region worried about a potential war. The Blinken visit sets the stage for a possible Biden-Xi meeting at the Group of 20 summit in India in September and smooths the way for the Chinese leader to visit the US for the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in November.

“He did a hell of a job,” Biden said when reporters asked about Blinken’s trip. “We’re on the right trail here.”

Blinken’s trip, initially set to take place in February, was scrapped amid the furor over an alleged Chinese spy balloon spotted over US territory. By the time he departed for Beijing, US partners were all but begging the two sides to make nice even as they set a realistic tone.

“You go with our full support,” Singapore Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan told Blinken at a press conference on the day he departed. He then turned to reporters: “But having said that, speaking now as a diplomat, I want to make this plea: Please don’t put too much weight on poor Tony’s shoulders.”

Colm Rafferty, chairman of AmCham China, said in a Tuesday statement that the organization had been advocating for “constructive, results-oriented” talks. “Our businesses understand the irreplaceable value of in-person engagement, especially when tackling challenging issues,” he added.

The challenges were plain to see over the course of Blinken’s visit. The mood was tense as Qin, China’s foreign minister, met Blinken at the entrance of a villa at the Diaoyutai guest compound. The former imperial garden, where Chinese officials host foreign dignitaries, had signs warning visitors to avoid “sloppy dress” and peeking through windows.

The two sat down at a long table with aides, nearly all wearing surgical masks. One of Blinken’s top policy advisers didn’t remove his aviator sunglasses before sitting down, and was photographed sitting across from the Chinese delegation looking like he was ready for more than just nuanced diplomacy. 

The next morning, the secretary of state set out to meet Wang Yi, the top foreign policy official in the Communist Party’s system, who has traded barbs with Blinken over the years.

Wang was waiting stone-faced and the two barely spoke before they sat down. China issued a readout after that meeting blaming the US’s “wrong perception” of the nation as the root cause of difficulties between them. 

Economic Woes

Still, China has reasons to cool tensions, seen most emphatically by the fact that Xi met Blinken at all. The official Xinhua News Agency published a photo of Xi’s meeting with Blinken focusing on the symbolism of the lotus flowers — a homonym for peace in Chinese — placed in the middle of the room.

Beijing is facing an increasingly challenging geopolitical landscape, as the US blocks China’s access to high-tech chips to thwart its military progress and puts pressure on Xi to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Geopolitical strains are also deterring foreign investment as China’s economy faces a host of challenges: Goldman Sachs Group Inc. on Sunday cut its forecast for growth this year in the world’s second-biggest economy to 5.4% from 6%.

Equity traders appeared to be more anxious about China’s economic outlook, with a slow stimulus rollout adding to their concerns. Chinese stocks listed in Hong Kong slumped on Tuesday, leading losses in Asia, after a relatively modest reduction to the mortgage reference rate disappointed the market. Property names were among the biggest losers.

“The economy in China is not in great shape,” George Magnus, a research associate at Oxford University’s China Centre, told Bloomberg TV. “He wants to appeal and be seen to be constructive to Global South partners.”

Washington Hawks

While Xi left Blinken waiting until the last minute, he gave a welcome reception to former Microsoft CEO Bill Gates last week, pledging cooperation on technology and pandemic prevention — two of the biggest areas China has clashed with the US in recent years.

In a news conference to end the trip, Blinken emphasized that the US didn’t want to contain China, an accusation made by Xi himself earlier this year. The top US diplomat emphasized that derisking was different than decoupling, noting that the US and China had record trade of nearly $700 billion last year. Numerous luminaries have visited in recent weeks, including Tesla Chief Executive Elon Musk and JPMorgan Chase & Co. Chief Executive Officer Jamie Dimon. 

Still, the political environment in the US ahead of next year’s election — coupled with broader concerns among US allies about China — limits how far either side can go. 

Biden faces increased hawkishness back home, as seen by an announcement Monday that four US lawmakers will travel to Detroit in a bid to push automakers Ford Motor Co. and General Motors Co. to reduce their supply-chain exposure to China. That reflected a broader push by world leaders to ease what German Chancellor Olaf Scholz called “dangerous dependencies” built up in areas like raw materials. 

Indeed, the mood on China in Washington has soured so much that many lawmakers oppose any conversations at all. Representative Michael McCaul called his trip a signal of the Biden administration’s “misguided and myopic pursuit of engagement.”

No Reset Happening

In Beijing, there’s also little incentive to compromise, including on demands that the US lift sanctions on Defense Minister Li Shangfu before resuming high-level military talks. China also worries that engaging with the US military will only backfire for Beijing, according to Amanda Hsiao, Crisis Group’s Senior Analyst for China. 

Officials in Beijing believe the talks “will in turn encourage more US behavior that they don’t like, namely more American military presence and activities close to China,” she told Bloomberg TV on Monday.

Soon after Blinken’s plane left Beijing, China’s Foreign Ministry sounded a downbeat note, portraying the Xi meeting as purely a matter of “courtesy” and laying the blame on the US for the frictions, according to state TV. 

“No reset is in the offing, or even possible,” Richard Fontaine, chief executive officer of the Center for a New American Security, wrote in a tweet. “Even cooperation in areas of theoretical shared interests — climate change, global health, nonproliferation — is very difficult when most of the relationship is based in rivalry and the attempt to achieve advantage.”

–With assistance from Philip Glamann, Shikhar Balwani, Lucille Liu, Jing Li, Yihui Xie and Jenni Marsh.

(Updates with statement from AmCham China statement.)

More stories like this are available on

©2023 Bloomberg L.P.