Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Chinese President Xi Pledge to Stabilize Deteriorated U.S.-China Ties, But China Rebuffs Primary U.S. Request

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken met Monday with Chinese President Xi Jinping and said they agreed to “stabilize” deteriorated China-U.S. ties; however, America’s top diplomat left China with his biggest ask rebuffed: better communications between their militaries.

After meeting with Xi, Blinken said China isn’t ready to resume military-to-military contacts, which the United States considers critical to avoid conflict and miscalculation, particularly over Taiwan.

Still, Yang Tao, China’s primary diplomat for the Western Hemisphere, said he thought Blinken’s visit to China “marks a new beginning.”

“The U.S. side is surely aware of why military-to-military exchanges are difficult,” he said and blamed the issue on U.S. sanctions that Blinken said were entirely due to threats to American security.

However, Xi and Blinken pronounced themselves satisfied with the progress made during the two days of talks without pointing out specific areas of agreement beyond a decision to return to a broader agenda of competition and cooperation endorsed last year by President Joe Biden and Xi at a summit in Bali.

It remained to be seen if the understanding could resolve the most critical disagreements, many of which have international implications. However, both men say they are pleased with the outcome of the highest-level U.S. visit to China in five years.

The two sides expressed willingness to hold more talks. Still, there was a minimal indication that either is prepared to move from their positions on issues including human rights conditions in Hong Kong and China, Taiwan, trade, Russia’s war in Ukraine, and Chinese military assertiveness in the South China Sea.

Blinken said U.S.’s limited objectives for the trip had been achieved

Sec. Blinken said later that the U.S. set limited objectives for the trip and had achieved them. He told reporters before leaving for a Ukraine reconstruction conference in London that he had raised the issue of military-to-military communications “repeatedly.”

“It is absolutely vital that we have these kinds of communications,” said Blinken. “This is something we’re going to keep working on.”

Since 2021, the U.S. has said that China has declined or failed to respond to over a dozen requests from the Department of Defense for top-level dialogues.

According to a transcript of the meeting with Blinken, Xi said he was pleased with the outcome of Secretary Blinken’s earlier discussions with top Chinese diplomats and said restarting the Bali agenda was very important.

“The Chinese side has made our position clear, and the two sides have agreed to follow through the common understandings President Biden and I had reached in Bali,” said Xi.

The agenda had been jeopardized recently, most notably after the United States shot down a Chinese spy balloon over its airspace in February amid increased military activity in the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait. When combined with other disputes over civil rights, opiate production, and trade, the problem list is lengthy.

However, Xi hinted the worst could be over.

“The two sides have also made progress and reached an agreement on some specific issues,” said Xi without elaborating, according to a transcript of the remarks the State Department released. “This is very good.”

During the 35-minute session at the Great Hall of the People, during his remarks to Xi, a meeting that was expected but not announced until an hour before it started, Blinken said, “The United States and China have an obligation and responsibility to manage our relationship.”

“The United States is committed to doing that,” said Blinken. “It’s in the interest of the United States, in the interests of China, and in the interest of the world.”

Secretary Blinken described his earlier discussions with senior Chinese officials as “candid and constructive.”

Despite his symbolic presence in China, Blinken and other officials from the U.S. had played down the prospects for any significant breakthroughs on the most vexing issues facing the planet’s two biggest economies.

Instead, the officials emphasized the importance of the two countries building and maintaining improved communication.

However, China’s refusal to resume military-to-military contacts is a roadblock.

“Progress is hard,” the secretary told reporters. “It takes time; it takes more than one visit.”

Since the cancellation of the February trip, there have been some high-level engagements. William Burns, CIA chief, traveled to China in May, while China’s commerce minister traveled to the U.S. and Biden’s national security adviser Jake Sullivan met with senior Chinese foreign Wang Yi in Vienna in May.

But those have been punctuated by bursts of angry rhetoric from both countries over their broader intentions in the Indo-Pacific, the Taiwan Strait, China’s refusal to condemn Russia for its war against Ukraine, and U.S. allegations from Washington that Beijing is attempting to boost its worldwide surveillance capabilities including Cuba.

Earlier in the month, China’s defense minister rebuffed a request from U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin for a meeting on the sidelines of a Singapore security symposium as a sign of continuing discontent.