U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken says he is hopeful that he can reschedule a visit to China this year after postponing a planned trip to Beijing in February because of a Chinese spy balloon downed by the U.S. military.
Blinken's remarks reflect what experts see as signs of a thaw in the U.S.-China relationship, including a recent high-level meeting in Beijing between American and Chinese officials, as well as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's plan to resume inspections in China as soon as this summer.
"I am," said Blinken on Wednesday when asked by The Washington Post if he is hopeful that his China trip could be rescheduled this year. The top U.S. diplomat said it is important that the United States and China "reestablish regular lines of communication at all levels and across our government."
"We need to have a floor under this relationship. We need to have some guardrails on it. And the way to do that is through engagement," Blinken said.
Later Wednesday, State Department deputy spokesperson Vedant Patel told reporters that he will not "offer a moment in time, metric or assessment" about when Blinken's China trip would happen.
A day earlier, U.S. Ambassador to China Nicholas Burns voiced frustration at the lack of access to high-level officials in China.
"I think access for all of us in the U.S. government — that includes members of our Cabinet — has really ebbed and flowed over the last year," Burns said during a Tuesday event organized by the Washington-based Stimson Center. "There have been periods of time, I'm thinking now of early summer of last year, where we had a lot of access and a lot of communication back and forth."
"We are ready to talk," Burns said. "What we really need is a more broad-based engagement at the Cabinet level, and the United States is ready for that."
He added that U.S. President Joe Biden's administration has never supported an icing of the U.S.-China relationship.
Congressional critics have urged U.S. officials not to engage in talks with Beijing just for the sake of talking.
"What I hate to see is us finding ourselves in a situation where the [Chinese Communist Party] is making demands on us, and that we in some way are acceding to those demands just so we can get some sort of high-level visit over in Beijing and a photo opportunity," Bill Hagerty, a Republican senator from Tennessee, said Tuesday.
"We need to be pressing them [Chinese officials] at every level," added Hagerty during a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on East Asia, the Pacific, and International Cybersecurity Policy.
Signs of a thaw
Burns met on April 20 with Liu Jianchao, who is a minister in the international department of the CCP Central Committee.
Liu heads the party's international liaison department that conducts foreign policy, usually dealing with foreign ruling and opposition parties.
Stay informed. Subscribe to our newsletter
"We discussed the many challenges in U.S.-China relations," Burns said in a tweet.
Dennis Wilder, a former CIA top China analyst who is now an assistant professor of Asian studies at Georgetown University, said that "given the tense state of bilateral ties," Chinese President Xi Jinping would almost certainly have had to personally approve the meeting between Burns and Liu.
"His meeting with Burns therefore was unusual and signaled a willingness of Beijing to upgrade his interactions to senior party authorities beyond the foreign ministry," Wilder told VOA on Wednesday.
The meeting was the highest-level known engagement between American and Chinese officials in Beijing since Blinken's talks with top Chinese diplomat Wang Yi in Munich on the margins of the February Munich Security Conference.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is preparing to resume its inspections in China, which had been postponed since March 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The inspections of food facilities and medical devices could start as soon as this summer.
On Wednesday, Blinken said an April 26 phone call between Xi and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy was "a positive thing."
Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy speaks with Chinese President Xi Jinping by phone in Kyiv, April 26, 2023.
When asked about China's offer to mediate an end to the Ukraine war, Blinken said: "It's certainly possible that China would have a role to play in that effort, and that could be very beneficial."
The West has repeatedly rejected China's 12-point plan calling for a de-escalation and eventual cease-fire in Ukraine on the grounds that it would lock in place Russian territorial gains, including its illegal annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in 2014 and additional land seized in eastern Ukraine since February 2022.