U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken is reportedly heading to China later this week, over four months after a previously planned trip was canceled following the appearance of a Chinese surveillance balloon over the continental United States.
According to the Associated Press, “U.S. officials say Blinken expects to be in Beijing on June 18 for meetings with senior Chinese officials, including with Foreign Minister Qin Gang and possibly President Xi Jinping.”
Blinken was originally supposed to make his first visit to Beijing in February 2022. Media reporting at the time pegged the trip to start on February 5, although it was never officially confirmed by the U.S. and Chinese governments.
The “balloon-gate” scandal burst into public view just days before Blinken was supposed to depart for China. Americans in Montana started reporting sighting of an unusual aerial object, causing questions. Late on February 2, the Pentagon held press conference identifying the object as “a high-altitude surveillance balloon” from China.
The next day, the United States announced that Blinken’s trip had been called off. Given the “clear violation of our sovereignty as well as international law” posed by the incident, “the conditions are not right at this moment for Secretary Blinken to travel to China,” a senior State Department official said.
Meanwhile, China responded with incandescent fury after the United States shot down the balloon over the Atlantic Ocean, accusing Washington of “overreaction and a serious violation of the spirit of international law and international practice.”
For months afterward, China-U.S. diplomacy ground to a halt, aside from a testy exchange between Blinken and China’s top diplomat, Wang Yi, on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference in February. But there was a breakthrough in May, when Wang met with U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan over the course of two days in Vienna, Austria. The United States described the talks as “candid, substantive, and constructive,” while China said they were “candid, in-depth, substantive, and constructive.”
Two weeks later, China’s new ambassador to the United States – seasoned diplomat Xie Feng, who has been specializing on the U.S. for his entire career – arrived in Washington, pledging “to enhance China-U.S. exchanges and cooperation.”
Most recently, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Daniel Kritenbrink visited Beijing on June 5, meeting with Vice Foreign Minister Ma Zhaoxu.
After all of the recent engagements, U.S. readouts repeated, like a mantra, the need to “maintain open lines of communication,” signaling the importance the Biden administration places on high-level dialogue with China.
Notably, however, the diplomatic thaw unfolding at the moment does not extend to the security sphere. U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin was rebuffed in his request to meet with Chinese Defense Minister Li Shangfu while both were attending the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore in early June. Around the same time, the U.S. publicized video clips of a Chinese naval vessel cutting dangerously close to a U.S. warship transiting the Taiwan Strait.
Still, it appears that the relationship has improved enough for Blinken to finally make his long-delayed trip to China, well over two years after assuming office. But nothing has been officially announced yet, allowing both governments plausible deniability if something goes wrong. That’s what happened last time.
As I noted back in February: “On February 3, in the last regular press conference before Blinken’s reported arrival, [Foreign Ministry spokesperson] Mao [Ning] was asked three times about the trip. Each time, she responded with some variation of “I have nothing to offer at the moment.” When Washington announced the trip had been called off, China’s Foreign Ministry rather testily pointed out that “neither side has ever announced that there would be a visit.”
Less than week before the reported date for Blinken’s trip, once again all we have are anonymous leaks – notably only from the U.S. side, thus far. There has yet to be official confirmation from the U.S. State Department or Chinese Foreign Ministry. Indeed, on June 12, when spokesperson Wang Wenbin was asked about the reported Blinken trip less than a week away, he responded, “I have nothing to share.”