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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

In China, Blinken faces clashing agendas and a question: Will Xi show up?


Secretary of State Antony Blinken testifies during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing at the Capitol in Washington on Wednesday, March 22, 2023.

By Edward Wong and David Pierson


Antony Blinken landed in Beijing on Sunday morning, the first visit of a U.S. secretary of state to China since 2018. Tense relations have delayed the trip for months: He had intended to visit in February, but postponed after the Pentagon announced that a Chinese surveillance balloon was drifting across the continental United States.


Blinken and other U.S. officials have expressed hope that the visit might open a more constructive era of diplomacy. But China has maintained a confrontational stance in recent weeks, raising concerns that the meetings in Beijing could end up being more antagonistic than amiable.


Both sides bring a list of grievances and issues to discuss in two days of meetings that are likely to be a critical gauge of whether China and the United States can mend fences anytime soon.


What issues are on Blinken’s list?


U.S. officials have stressed that reestablishing high-level diplomacy is their priority. They say the two sides need to establish channels of communication to defuse existing tensions that might escalate during a crisis — say, a collision between naval ships or aircraft in the Taiwan Strait or South China Sea.


Security issues are likely to weigh heavily. U.S. officials have grown increasingly anxious over close brushes with the Chinese military in the seas around China. The United States is also closely watching Chinese efforts to establish military bases across Asia, Africa and the Middle East, and it has warned China not to give lethal military aid to Russia for its war in Ukraine.


Blinken plans to talk with Chinese officials about global issues where the two nations might have shared interests, including climate change and economic stability worldwide, said Daniel J. Kritenbrink, the top East Asia official in the State Department.


Blinken is also likely to ask China to release some U.S. citizens who are detained, imprisoned or banned from leaving the country, and to try to restart some people-to-people exchanges. Those might include expanding the small number of journalist visas that each country had agreed to give each other early in the Biden administration before relations got worse.


U.S. officials also say they expect to talk to China about limiting the export of substances used to make fentanyl, a drug that has led to a deadly addiction problem in the United States and other countries.


What is China likely to say?


China is expected to raise a litany of grievances reflecting Beijing’s view that the United States is a declining hegemon determined to cling to power by containing China economically, militarily and diplomatically.


At the top of China’s list is Taiwan, a de facto independent island that Beijing claims as its own territory and that gets military aid from Washington.


China’s leader, Xi Jinping, has described Taiwan as “at the very core of China’s core interests” and has accused the United States of supporting “pro-independence” forces and meddling in China’s internal affairs.


China is also likely to express deep frustration over U.S.-led efforts to restrict Chinese access to advanced semiconductor chips and manufacturing equipment. The restrictions, which the United States says are necessary to prevent American technology from getting into the hands of the People’s Liberation Army, could set back China’s technological development for years. China sees the ban as an example of “zero-sum competition” that is driving the two countries toward confrontation.


Despite China’s rapid military buildup, Beijing is expected to accuse Washington of trying to provoke conflict by deepening security ties with regional powers including Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Australia and India.


China says it ultimately wants the United States to treat it like a peer power so that it has equal say on the global stage and doesn’t feel threatened by the U.S. military presence in Asia.


Will Xi meet with Blinken?


One big question hanging over the trip is whether Blinken will meet with Xi. U.S. and Chinese officials were still working out the final details of Blinken’s schedule this past week, and there might not be confirmation of a meeting between the two until the last minute. Much will depend on how meetings go Sunday and early Monday.


The two men have talked before. Blinken has met with Xi on several occasions, including in 2011 when he traveled to Beijing and Chengdu as the national security adviser for Biden, who was then the vice president and charged with going to China to get to know Xi, his counterpart at the time.


Weighing in favor of an appearance by Xi might be his and other Chinese officials’ efforts to show a more diplomatic face to the world recently, including his reception of a series of foreign leaders in China this year.

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