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Blinken to Beijing for high-stakes diplomacy after spy balloon saga

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U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken boards his plane for travel to Berlin at Joint Base Andrews, Maryland, June 22, 2021.

Andrew Harnik | Pool | Reuters

BEIJING — U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken is set to travel to Beijing this weekend in his first trip to China under the Biden administration.

Delayed by more than four months, Blinken’s trip marks a rare high-level meeting between the U.S. and China in a period of heightened tension.

Little is expected to emerge from the talks themselves. But Blinken’s Beijing visit helps pave the way for additional meetings — including a potential one-to-one between U.S. President Joe Biden and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping later this year.

Blinken’s Beijing trip is a “potential important turning point in the relationship,” Scott Kennedy, senior advisor and trustee chair in Chinese business and economics at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told CNBC.

“Just simply strengthening communication is a reasonable goal,” he said. “If [both sides] announce the talks went well enough they can schedule additional cabinet-level meetings.”

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Communication and meetings between the U.S. and China have dried up in the last few years due to the pandemic and political tensions.

The U.S. Department of State said Blinken is set to meet with “senior [People’s Republic of China] officials where he will discuss the importance of maintaining open lines of communication to responsibly manage the U.S.-PRC relationship.”

Blinken “will also raise bilateral issues of concern, global and regional matters, and potential cooperation on shared transnational challenges,” department spokesperson Matthew Miller said in a statement.

China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs confirmed the visit but did not provide details on specific meetings.

Expectations for a significant recovery in the U.S.-China relationship, especially as a result of Blinken’s upcoming trip, remain low.

“The objective is still to prevent the relationship from deteriorating further, rather than articulating and agreeing to a shared vision for a way ahead,” said Drew Thompson, a former U.S. Defense Department official and current visiting senior research fellow at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore.

“The Biden administration’s rhetoric is we’ll compete, where we can; and cooperate, where we must,” Thompson said. “But China doesn’t see it that way. China sees the political elements of both competition and cooperation, and they’re not willing to cooperate if there’s still an element of competition or the U.S. is challenging it politically.”

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“And so I think that the administration’s goals are, at this point unrealistic because of the way Beijing has framed its interest in its strategy.”

Growing tensions

It’s been an intense few months geopolitically while the world waited for Blinken to reschedule his trip to China — and potentially help stabilize the relationship between the two economic powers.

The U.S. in February shot down an alleged Chinese spy balloon flying over U.S. airspace. Its appearance had forced Blinken to indefinitely postpone his Beijing trip at the time. Beijing insisted the balloon was an unnamed weather tracker that blew off course.

Elsewhere, the CEO of TikTok, owned by Chinese tech giant ByteDance, got grilled in U.S. Congress in March over security concerns. China’s Foreign Ministry said at the time that it “has never” and “will never” ask companies to go against local laws and provide data located abroad.

“The US government has provided no evidence or proof that TikTok threatens U.S. national security, yet it has repeatedly suppressed and attacked the company based on the presumption of guilt,” the ministry said, according to a briefing transcript.

And in May, China said U.S. chipmaker Micron had failed a security review and banned operators of critical infrastructure from buying from the company.

“The relationship has not remained in a steady state since February,” Kennedy said. But he added that the mood in Washington, D.C., where he’s based, is “not as dark as it had been” in February and March.

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“The U.S. needs to honor its commitment to the ‘One China’ policy,” Jia Qingguo, a professor at Peking University, said Tuesday on the sidelines of the Caixin New Asia Vision conference in Singapore.

“China also does not wish to see any accidents between both militaries,” Jia added.

“It recognizes that even though there is a need to establish military guardrails between both countries, that is not enough. The two countries should also establish similar guardrails for diplomacy and economic relations to avoid confrontation. This will reduce reactive actions and reduce any possibility of accidents.”

Among the many other points where the U.S. and China differ is the Russian war on Ukraine, which Beijing has refused to label an invasion, while calling for peace talks.

Hopes for more U.S.-China meetings

Still, the two sides remain each other’s largest trading partners in terms of goods.

China’s Commerce Minister Wang Wentao met with his U.S. counterpart in Washington in May. And U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen is expected to visit China at an unspecified date.

Looking ahead, Xi could potentially visit the U.S. during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Leaders’ Summit — set to be held in San Francisco in November.

Jia said expectations for any outcomes of Blinken’s upcoming meetings with the Chinese should not be too high, but that it was important he was going.

“It’s not usual for two of the world’s great powers to rely on the highest levels of leadership to upkeep ties. It is actually quite risky.” Jia said. “Hence, it is important that both countries have more levels of exchange.”

— CNBC’s Clement Tan contributed to this report.

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