The U.S. Secretary of State reached Beijing at the second attempt.
His trip was scheduled for February, but then Blinken himself postponed it due to the appearance of Chinese balloons in the U.S. sky. Tensions were running high and it was necessary to ease them, and both sides were aware of this.
At first it seemed that everything about this visit had been decided before it even started. As Reuters reported, citing the State Department, on Wednesday, the day before, Blinken "had a tense telephone conversation with Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang, during which Qin urged the United States to stop interfering in China's affairs and damaging its security." The words of the head of Chinese diplomacy confirmed Beijing's initial positions: there can be a real détente in relations between the two countries only after the United States "takes into account China's concerns." That is, they will stop interfering in Taiwan's affairs and China's domestic affairs, abandon a policy of using force and return to equal dialogue. This also includes ending the sanctions war, pressure on Chinese companies, and a number of other issues.
However, since the U.S. pays lip service to all these Chinese exhortations but does the opposite in practice, the possibility of progress in relations seemed minimal. "We are not going to retreat one step from our interests and values or from securing a lasting competitive advantage," the State Department said in a special note on U.S.-China relations before the visit.
The attitude of the Chinese leadership to Blinken's visit was expressed in the words of Wang Yi, head of the CCP Central Committee Foreign Affairs Commission Office (party foreign policy curator of the PRC): "The American side demands, on the one hand, communication, but, on the other hand, suppresses and restrains China by all possible means. The mixed signals sent by the American side are very confusing. This makes the Chinese side not to hold out particularly high hopes for Blinken's visit."
But it seems that both Foreign Minister Qin Gang and head of the CCP Central Committee's Foreign Affairs Office Wang Yi heard what they wanted to hear from Blinken. First of all, that the U.S. did not support Taiwan's independence. During the talks between Qin Gang and Blinken, which lasted seven hours, concrete agreements were reached that are important not even in themselves, but because they symbolize a détente in relations. These include an increase in mutual flights, more student exchanges, and other humanitarian issues.
According to Xinhua News Agency, Qin Gang "stated a firm position and made clear demands of the PRC on the Taiwan issue and other core interests and key concerns of the Chinese side." "He noted that the Taiwan issue is the core of China's fundamental interests, the most significant issue and the most obvious risk in China-US relations. The Chinese side calls on the U.S. to strictly adhere to the one-China principle and the three China-U.S. joint communiqués, embodying the promise not to support "Taiwan independence."
According to Xinhua, "the two sides held a lengthy, frank, deep and constructive discussion of the overall situation in China-U.S. relations and relevant important issues." Also, "the two sides agreed to maintain high-level contacts, agreed to further advance consultations on the guidelines for China-U.S. relations and to continue consultations in the joint China-U.S. working group to resolve specific issues in bilateral relations."
There must have been a lot of things discussed in those seven hours that were not told to the press. It could be the pre-election context, Beijing's views on who they are comfortable with as U.S. president, China's relationship with Republicans, personally with Biden. It could also be issues of mutual espionage, balloons and a secret tracking base in Cuba that the PRC seems about to build. It is also the conflict in Ukraine, among other things.
The official press release after Blinken's meeting with Wang Yi, head of the CCP Central Committee's Foreign Affairs Office, said the following: "Wang Yi urged the U.S. side not to portray China according to the template of a hegemonic power and not to make the mistake of assessing China according to the path followed by the traditional Western powers. This is the key to whether U.S. policy toward China can truly return to objectivity and rationality.
Wang Yi asked the U.S. side to stop inflating the "Chinese threat theory," to lift its illegal unilateral sanctions against China, to abandon the suppression of China's technological development, and to refrain from interfering in China's internal affairs.
Blinken presented the U.S. point of view, stating America's commitment to returning to the agenda set at the bilateral meeting of the two leaders in Bali. He expressed his hope for strengthening ties and responsibly resolving disagreements with China, as well as seeking cooperation in areas of common interest."
But these are just for the record, what we have been told. However, it appears that in these two meetings, the Secretary of State showed a willingness to compromise and take Chinese concerns into account. So toward the end of the visit, Blinken was, after all, received by Chinese President Xi Jinping. Since the Chinese had not announced this audience in advance, we can assume that it depended on the behavior of the Secretary of State during the first part of his trip and what he said. Here is what Xinhua News Agency wrote about the meeting, actually recounting President Xi's direct speech, only without the quote marks. "China respects the interests of the United States and will not challenge or replace the United States. Likewise, the United States should respect China and not harm China's legitimate rights and interests. China hopes that the two great powers can overcome all difficulties and find the right way to get along with each other on the basis of mutual respect, peaceful coexistence and mutually beneficial cooperation. I hope that the U.S. side will take a rational and pragmatic stance, go side by side with China, work together, and adhere to the consensus reached at the Bali meeting between President Biden and myself. The words "go side by side with China" are worth noting. Let's see if this apparent negotiating breakthrough turns into concrete action.
The attentive observer must have noticed how President Xi makes the Secretary of State reach for his hand, moving toward the monumental Chinese leader before the talks begin. And then Xi Jinping takes an authoritative seat at the head of the negotiating table, with Chinese diplomats on his left and American diplomats on his right. And in general, Blinken looked a little confused, as if he was not feeling well.
What is this about? Does the U.S. need détente in China-U.S. relations now more than China does? Or that China is not the same China it was ten years ago when Xi Jinping took the helm?
But the important thing here is the fact itself. If the meeting between Xi and Blinken took place, it means that the Americans promised to calm down in "containing China" and take into account Chinese grievances. Perhaps, Blinken got something in return. Whether talks between the two leaders, the PRC and the U.S., will take place depends on whether the Biden will keep its promises and whether the Republicans will let them do so. And if so, when?