‘Baby steps’ for Blinken as he tries to revive US-China ties

Top US diplomat holds talks with Wang Yi in Beijing amid reports he might also meet President Xi Jinping.

United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken has met China’s top diplomat Wang Yi in Beijing as the two countries take steps to repair their strained relationship.

The duo posed for a photo on Monday at Beijing’s Diaoyutai State Guesthouse before heading into diplomatic talks.

In a statement following the discussions, it appeared Wang had taken a more combative line than that of Foreign Minister Qin Gang who held more than seven and a half hours of talks with the US secretary of state on Sunday.

The Chinese foreign ministry said Wang had told Blinken that relations between the two countries were at a “critical juncture” and that he needed to make a dialogue or confrontation, cooperation or conflict.

Wang blamed the US for the problems between the two countries and stressed that Taiwan, a self-ruled democratic island that Beijing claims as its own, was its “core interest” and that there was “no room” for compromise.

Blinken struck a more conciliatory tone, stressing the need for open channels of communication to ensure “competition does not veer into conflict”.

It is still unclear if Blinken will meet Chinese President Xi Jinping later in the day before he concludes his two-day trip to the country and flies to London.

Blinken is the most senior US official to visit China since 2019, thanks in part to strict COVID-19 travel restrictions. The visit follows several months of increased contact between top US and Chinese officials abroad and by virtual meeting, amid concerns on both sides over the deterioration in relations over issues from Taiwan to semiconductors and human rights.

The secretary of state, who was originally set to visit Beijing in February until the discovery of an alleged Chinese spy balloon flying over the US, arrived on Sunday and spent most of the day with Qin Gang.

The US State Department described the talks as a “candid, substantive, and constructive” effort to maintain “open channels of communication” as Blinken invited Qin Gang to the US on a follow-up trip to maintain high-level contact between Chinese and American officials.

The Chinese readout of the meeting was also largely positive and said both sides agreed to increase commercial flights between China and the US as well as encourage more people-to-people exchanges through student, academic and business groups.

It also mentioned Xi and US President Joe Biden’s meeting in Bali last year, when both leaders promised to take more concrete action to improve communication.

While Blinken’s trip has so far been largely symbolic, it does appear to have gone better than the relatively pessimistic expectations around it had suggested, said Bonnie Glaser, the managing director of the German Marshall Fund’s Indo-Pacific Program.

“Given the deep mistrust in the relationship, so far the visit has gone better than I expected. There was zero chance of a breakthrough. We can only hope for baby steps toward a new modus vivendi in the relationship,” she told Al Jazeera by email.

Biden said over the weekend that he hopes to meet Xi again in the coming months, an event that would probably take place at the annual summit of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) grouping in California later this year.