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Amid reports Blinken will meet Xi in China, US says visit aims to avoid ‘something more dangerous’

South China Morning Post logo South China Morning Post 02/02/2023
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks in Chicago, Illinois, in January. America’s top diplomat is expected to visit China on February 5-6. Photo: AFP US Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks in Chicago, Illinois, in January. America’s top diplomat is expected to visit China on February 5-6. Photo: AFP

Amid reports US Secretary of State Antony Blinken will meet Chinese President Xi Jinping during a two-day visit to Beijing next week, the State Department on Thursday remained evasive about the envoy's possible audience with the Chinese leader, instead highlighting that the trip aims to keep bilateral tensions from leading to something "much more dangerous".

"I don't have anything else to offer on the secretary's planned trip," State Department spokesman Ned Price said when asked about Blinken's potential meeting with Xi.

But Price said "when we have an opportunity to sit down" both "collaborative" and "potentially conflictual elements" of the relationship would be discussed.

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No US secretary of state has met with Xi since 2017.

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Price said the US sought to ensure the competition at the heart of its relationship with China "isn't in a position to spiral into conflict" and that what "our two countries are doing in the world" does not "veer into something potentially much more dangerous".

Blinken's visit to Beijing on February 5-6 builds on talks between Xi and US President Joe Biden on the margins of the G20 summit in Indonesia last November.

During their brief discussion, the presidents pledged to find areas of cooperation like climate change and enhance communication to prevent US-China ties from becoming even more frayed.

Last month US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen met with Chinese Vice-Premier Liu He on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Zurich, Switzerland. The two agreed to "strengthen macroeconomic and financial policy coordination", declaring that China and US economic and trade teams had "maintained good communication". Yellen is expected to visit China later this year.

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Bilateral relations have foundered since Biden's predecessor, Donald Trump, imposed unilateral tariffs on Chinese imports worth over US$300 billion in 2018 to rein in "unfair" trade deficits.

Despite expectations of a less hostile approach towards China under Biden, ties have soured further over contentious issues like human rights, security, technology, trade, the coronavirus pandemic, angling for Indo-Pacific dominance, and Taiwan - a self-governed island that Beijing considers a renegade province.

Bonny Lin, director of the Washington-based think tank China Power Project at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, believed no significant "breakthroughs or really large deliverables" would emerge from the highly anticipated visit.

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The trip should be viewed as the US "trying to showcase to the international community" that it can "continue to maintain channels of communication and that communication can occur at the highest levels", Lin said.

"We know since the 20th party congress that decision-making is becoming increasingly concentrated within Xi Jinping and those of his inner circle," she added, referring to the Chinese Communist Party's national gathering of its top officials last October.

Efforts to stabilise Sino-US relations coincide with a push in Washington to isolate China in advanced technologies, like 5G telecommunications and semiconductors, and to deepen defence ties with countries that historically share territorial disputes with the Asian giant.

On Wednesday, the Philippines granted the US greater access to its military bases amid mounting concern over China's increasing assertiveness in the disputed South China Sea.

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The announcement came just a day after the US and India, China's biggest rival in the Indo-Pacific, launched joint technology, space and defence initiatives to counter Beijing in the region.

And after kicking Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei Technologies Co out of its 5G plans over perceived national security threats, the Biden administration last week halted approval of new permits for American companies exporting US technology to the company.

Reports have also surfaced that the US has reached agreements with the European Union and Japan to impose export restrictions meant to deprive China of the most cutting-edge semiconductors, the tiny silicon wafers essential to devices ranging from submarines to laptops.

Last October the Commerce Department restricted exports of high-end semiconductors and chip-making technology to China.

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To complicate matters, US House Speaker Kevin McCarthy has voiced an intention to visit Taiwan soon. A trip last August by his predecessor, Nancy Pelosi, prompted Beijing to conduct large-scale military drills around the island and suspend cooperation with Washington on tackling drugs and climate change.

Traditionally the US has maintained "strategic ambiguity" towards Taiwan, a policy of being intentionally vague about whether it would come to the island's defence. Beijing has not ruled out the use of force to achieve reunification with Taiwan.

Commenting on whether a trip to Taiwan by McCarthy would undermine inroads made by Blinken's visit, Price on Thursday said Congress was a "coequal, independent branch of the government" and that any decision would be made by the speaker alone.

"But we'll continue to speak out when we see the PRC attempting to undermine the status quo," Price added, describing the existing state of affairs as something "we and our partners and allies around the world have only sought to strengthen and preserve".

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This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (, the leading news media reporting on China and Asia.

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