Senior US officials visit Beijing in search of thaw

The trip comes amid an uptick in near-collisions between the two militaries.
Alex Willemyns for RFA
Senior US officials visit Beijing in search of thaw Vendor at a booth displaying China and American flags during a Spring Carnival in Beijing, May 13, 2023.
Andy Wong/AP

Two senior Biden administration officials visited their counterparts in Beijing on Monday for “candid and productive discussions” on the state of U.S.-China ties, according to the U.S. State Department.

The trip by Daniel Kritenbrink, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, and Sarah Beran, senior director for China and Taiwan affairs on the National Security Council, was meant “to maintain open lines of communication,” said a press release.

It’s the highest-level visit by American officials to China since U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken in February nixed a trip to Beijing due to the spy-balloon episode, when a Chinese balloon drifted across U.S. airspace. 

It also comes after a weekend war-of-words between the countries’ top defense officials and two high-profile near-collisions between their militaries.

The State Department press release was light on details and noted little more than who Kritenbrink and Beran met with: Ma Zhaoxu, the executive vice foreign minister, and Yang Tao, director general of the foreign ministry’s North American and Oceanian Affairs Department.

“The two sides exchanged views on the bilateral relationship, cross-Strait issues, channels of communication, and other matters,” it added. “U.S. officials made clear that the United States would compete vigorously and stand up for U.S. interests and values.”

Speaking at the State Department press briefing on Monday, deputy spokesperson Vedant Patel also said he could not offer more details, but indicated Blinken had not made any new plans to visit Beijing.

“I'm just not going to get into specifics of the meeting beyond what we already shared,” Patel said. “As we've previously said … we hope to have this visit rescheduled, when conditions allow.”

Escalating tensions

Kritenbrink and Beran are the highest-level American officials to visit Beijing since Blinken’s cancellation, which led some Chinese officials to cut off lines of communication with U.S. defense counterparts. 

Blinken’s postponed trip was itself meant to be a moment of thawing in China-U.S. ties after bilateral relations hit a nadir last year following then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan in August.

U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, left, and Taiwanese President President Tsai Ing-wen greet each other during a meeting in Taipei, Taiwan, Aug. 3, 2022. (Taiwan Presidential Office via AP)

Rick Waters, deputy assistant secretary of state for China and Taiwan and the head of the State Department’s “China House,” in March also visited Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong, with the State Department at that time also declining to provide many details.

Besides Waters’ visit, though, U.S.-China ties have seemingly only gotten worse in the four months following Blinken’s nixed trip. 

Near-collisions between American and Chinese vessels and jets in the Taiwan Strait and over the South China Sea, both of which Beijing claims sovereignty over, have also become more frequent, with two such incidents occurring in the past two weeks alone.

Almost accidents

National Security Council spokesman John Kirby blamed China’s military for aggressive maneuvering near American vessels making freedom-of-navigation ops, but said U.S. officials would “continue to keep lines open” to hold talks with their Chinese counterparts.

“It’s part of a growing aggressiveness by the PRC that we're dealing with and that we're prepared to address," Kirby said, referring to the Chinese government. “It won’t be long before somebody gets hurt.”

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, right, shakes hands with China Defense Minister Li Shangfu, left, during the opening dinner for the 20th International Institute for Strategic Studies Shangri-La Dialogue, Asia's annual defense and security forum, in Singapore, June 2, 2023. (Vincent Thian/AP)

On the weekend in Singapore, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin – in an apparent reference to China’s decision to cut-off communication after Blinken’s trip cancellation – also accused Beijing of being “unwilling to engage more seriously on better mechanisms for crisis management between our two militaries.”

Speaking at the same conference, Chinese Defense Li Shangfu called out “some country” for what he said was a “selective approach” to international law and of “forcing its rules on others.”

Edited by Malcolm Foster.


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