Why is US Secretary of State Antony Blinken going to China?

Expectations are modest for Beijing and Washington in attempt to improve relations after a particularly bumpy year.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken is due to visit China on Sunday as Beijing and Washington attempt to move forward with rapprochement after a particularly tense year.

Blinken was originally slated to visit China in February but his trip was delayed after the United States shot down a so-called “Chinese spy balloon” found flying over US territory and said to be gathering intelligence on domestic military sites.

Blinken is the most senior US official to visit China since 2019 and the first secretary of state since Mike Pompeo’s trip in 2018 amid then-President Donald Trump’s trade war with Beijing. Blinken is expected to meet with Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang or top diplomat Wang Yi.

It is unclear if he will meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping as Pompeo did in June 2018, but it would be noteworthy as Xi is due to meet Microsoft founder Bill Gates in Beijing on Friday.

The main focus of Blinken’s trip will be re-establishing “communication channels” to “address misperceptions and prevent miscalculation”, while also ensuring that competition between the rival superpowers does not devolve into “conflict”, according to Daniel Kritenbrink, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs.

These are likely not empty talking points from the US State Department.

Last month, a Chinese fighter jet nearly collided with a US surveillance plane flying over international air space in the South China Sea, with the US Pacific Command claiming that the Chinese pilot had manoeuvred in an “unnecessarily aggressive manner”.

The incident was just the latest between the two powers whose relationship soured under the Trump administration and has remained so under President Joe Biden.

Washington and Beijing may now be ready for a thaw, said Ryan Hass, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, who described Blinken’s trip as the “first stage of an exploratory process” by the two sides to see whether they can improve their relationship.

“Neither President Biden nor President Xi benefits from a perception of runaway escalation in US-China relations. At the same time, neither want to be seen as softening their approach toward the other,” Hass told Al Jazeera.

“This is the space that both sides will be exploring during the visit. Is it possible to chart a path forward for the relationship that manages competition and maintains open channels of communication? We simply don’t yet know,” Hass said.

“But this is why there are diplomats. To probe, test, explore non-hostile ways for managing hard challenges. Time will tell,” he said.

The visit follows recent engagements including a call between Blinken and Foreign Minister Qin and a meeting between top US and Chinese officials in Beijing. In May, US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan met with senior Chinese diplomat Wang Yi in Vienna for “candid talks”.

Beijing, however, rejected a meeting between US and Chinese military officials at the Shangri-La security forum in Singapore last month apparently due to Biden declining to lift sanctions on China’s Minister of Defence Li Shangfu, that have been in place since 2018.

Qinduo Xu, a former journalist and a senior fellow at the Pangoal Institution, a governance-focused think tank in Beijing, said the two sides may also be testing the waters for a possible meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Biden later this year at the 2023 APEC Summit in the US.

“Beijing would say there is little they can get from meeting Blinken, but that being said I think people are still looking at any possibility or any chance they may stabilise the relationship,” Xu said.

“Yes, it is bad, but if we can do something to prevent it from getting worse that would be acceptable at least for Beijing,” he said.

There are still many sticking points, however.

Earlier this week, the Wall Street Journal reported that China was planning to build a new spy base in Cuba, just 145 kilometres (90 miles) from the US mainland – although US officials pushed back on the story, describing it as an “ongoing issue”.

Blinken will also likely bring up issues including Americans detained in China and the illegal flow of fentanyl from China to the US, which other diplomats have raised in recent meetings.

For its part, Beijing will be keen to discuss US tariffs on Chinese goods and sanctions on high-ranking officials, as well as the growing number of Chinese companies either banned from doing business with the US or placed on the US Department of Commerce’s trade-restricting “Entity List”.

In the meantime, they will have to work through low levels of mutual trust, said Andy Mok, a senior research fellow at the Center for China and Globalization.

Foreign Minister Qin has insisted the US respect “China’s sovereignty, security, and developmental interests”, while also urging the US to cease interfering in China’s interests “under the pretext of competition”, Mok said.

And, owing to “recent American economic coercion and escalatory provocations towards China, expectations for the visit remain modest”, he said.