Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken met with Xi Jinping, China’s leader, on Monday in Beijing, as the two governments sought to pull relations out of a deep chill that has raised global concerns about the growing risk of a conflict between them.
The 35-minute meeting, which capped a two-day visit by Mr. Blinken, sent a signal, at least for now, that the United States and China do not want their relationship to be defined by open hostility, and that they recognize that their rivalry and their diplomatic efforts carry enormous stakes.
Mr. Blinken and Mr. Xi held talks at the Great Hall of the People, the grand building on the west side of Tiananmen Square where Mr. Xi often receives dignitaries. Striking a congenial note at the top of the meeting, Mr. Xi praised the two sides for making progress on some unspecified issues during Mr. Blinken’s visit, saying: “This is very good.”
Both Mr. Xi and President Biden, as the leaders of the world’s two largest economies, have been under growing pressure from other nations to tamp down their governments’ increasingly contentious stances toward each other. The two countries have opposing positions on towering issues: the status of Taiwan, the de facto independent island that Beijing claims as its territory; the Chinese military’s growing footprint; the development of advanced technologies; Russia’s war in Ukraine; and human rights.
Many of the issues have bedeviled U.S.-China relations for years. But clashes over them have become much more acute, as China’s military and economic power have grown, and as Mr. Xi and his aides perceive the United States to be in terminal decline. It is unclear whether high-level diplomacy can change the trajectory of relations, but U.S. officials say they hope at the very least that such talks will allow each side to see more clearly the intentions of the other and avert miscalculations.
Officials in Washington and Beijing have acknowledged the need to arrest the free fall in relations. But even as they groped for paths to rebuild ties during Mr. Blinken’s visit, the two governments also sought to demonstrate that they are not compromising on core issues.
In his opening remarks at the meeting with Mr. Blinken, Mr. Xi hinted at China’s grievances, saying: “State-to-state interactions should always be based on mutual respect and sincerity. I hope that through this visit, Mr. Secretary, you will make more positive contributions to stabilizing China-U.S. relations.”
Mr. Blinken said afterward that he had stressed at every meeting the need for “direct engagement and sustained communication at senior levels.” Washington has blamed the Chinese government for shortcomings in this, and Mr. Blinken gave another example on Monday: He said that he and his aides had pressed in his meetings for China to open a military-to-military communications channel — which U.S. officials argue is critical for avoiding crises in the seas and airspace around China — but were rebuffed.
Mr. Blinken also said he had discussed other thorny topics: the Ukraine war, North Korea’s nuclear program, China’s wrongful detentions of U.S. citizens, economic coercion and repressive practices in Xinjiang, Tibet and Hong Kong.
Mr. Blinken had “candid, substantive, and constructive discussions” in separate meetings with Mr. Xi, Wang Yi, China’s top foreign policy official; and Qin Gang, the foreign minister; the State Department said. He asserted the United States would “responsibly manage that competition so that the relationship does not veer into conflict,” and raised areas of potential cooperation, including climate change, global food security and the control of the production of fentanyl, the deadly opioid.
Mr. Blinken heard some harsh words over the two days. On Monday morning, Mr. Wang delivered a blunt message during a three-hour session at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse, as he lay the blame on Washington for the recent tensions.
Mr. Wang said Washington should cooperate with Beijing instead of “hyping” the “China threat theory,” according to the Chinese government. He said Washington must lift sanctions on China and stop suppressing the country’s technological development. He accused the United States of “recklessly interfering in China’s internal affairs” on issues such as Taiwan, which the United States supplies with weapons.
Going into each meeting, U.S. diplomats did not voice any hope for sudden or dramatic breakthroughs in the relationship. Instead, they focused on trying to rebuild lines of communication that had crumbled in recent months and on bolstering negotiations on smaller issues, such as visas and commercial flights between the two countries. Both sides agreed to try to work on those in the coming months.
Mr. Blinken is the first American secretary of state to visit Beijing since 2018. His mission is taking place as bilateral relations have plummeted over a half-dozen years to their lowest point in decades. Tensions soared in February when the Pentagon announced that a Chinese surveillance balloon was drifting across the continental United States — prompting Mr. Blinken to cancel an imminent trip to Beijing — and then ordered American fighter jets to shoot it down.
Relations were further strained in late February when Mr. Blinken confronted Mr. Wang on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference to tell him that Washington believed China was considering providing lethal support to Russia for its war in Ukraine. China responded by freezing some important diplomatic exchanges and intensifying anti-American rhetoric.
Republican politicians have tried to portray the Biden administration as being soft on China, even though Mr. Biden and his aides have enacted tough, sweeping commercial policies such as export controls to try to limit China’s growth in strategic sectors, notably semiconductors, and have strengthened military cooperation with countries across Asia. Some Republican lawmakers have even criticized Mr. Blinken for traveling to China, saying it amounted to a concession to Beijing. The heated language on China among U.S. politicians is expected to intensify next year, when Mr. Biden seeks re-election.
Officials on both sides say Mr. Blinken’s trip will lead to a series of visits soon to the Chinese capital by other senior American officials, including Janet Yellen, the treasury secretary; Gina Raimondo, the commerce secretary; and John Kerry, the special presidential envoy on climate issues. Mr. Qin is expected to visit Washington at the invitation of Mr. Blinken.
The visit by Mr. Blinken may stem the deterioration in ties for now, though analysts say it will take much more for the two sides to overcome the mistrust that weighs on the relationship.
The hope is that the talks in Beijing spur the two governments to “shape a principled framework for managing U.S.-China relations, in order to bound the competition within acceptable limits and create more space for coordinated efforts where American and Chinese interests overlap,” said Jessica Chen Weiss, a political scientist at Cornell University who recently advised the State Department on China policy.
In the lead up to Mr. Blinken’s visit, China had struck a tough posture, repeatedly accusing the United States of lacking “sincerity” by calling for talks while continuing to harm Chinese interests, whether it was by imposing new sanctions or in building trade ties with Taiwan.
Mr. Xi’s decision to meet with Mr. Blinken, however, indicated that China was also uncomfortable with the escalation in tensions.
“Despite Chinese efforts to make it appear as though the U.S. side is more eager for the visit, the Chinese side has also placed significant importance in Blinken’s visit and in bringing greater stability to U.S.-China relations,” said Paul Haenle, a National Security Council official in the Bush and Obama administrations.
Pressure may be mounting on Beijing to stabilize ties because of China’s worsening economy. Mr. Xi may also want to steady the relationship because he appears eager to cast himself as a global statesman. He and Mr. Biden could meet again in San Francisco in November if he chooses to attend a leaders’ summit of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation group of nations.
“China has spent the past several months blaming the United States for all that is wrong in the relationship and inside China more broadly. Now, China’s leaders need to carve out political space to pivot toward more direct communication,” said Ryan Hass, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who was a China director at the National Security Council under President Obama.
“Beijing sees it as in its interest to communicate directly to manage stresses in the relationship,” he added, “and build an on-ramp for President Xi to meet with President Biden in the fall.”
Olivia Wang contributed reporting.