When Antony Blinken travels to Beijing on Sunday, he’ll be the first U.S. Secretary of State to do so since 2018 and the first cabinet member to visit China in the Biden administration. Still, given an increasingly fractious bilateral relationship, expectations for the two-day trip were low—that was until reports emerged Friday that Chinese President Xi Jinping would break with recent protocol and meet personally with Blinken.
First reported by the Financial Times and since confirmed by diplomatic sources to TIME, Blinken is expected to sit down with Xi to build on the nascent rapprochement forged with President Joe Biden in Bali last November, when the leaders agreed to explore avenues to stabilize relations between the world’s top two economies.
Xi’s decision to meet Blinken in Beijing has surprised U.S. diplomats given recent frosty engagement between the two countries has been governed by strict adherence to parity of officials’ numbers and rank, with COVID-19 travel restrictions rendering preparations for meetings especially testy. Still, given enduring tensions over trade, technology, human rights, military build ups and the status of Taiwan, among many other bugbears, few believe that anything substantial will emerge from the confab.
“My sense is Secretary Blinken is just going to Beijing to show the U.S. can be reasonable,” says Sean King, a former U.S. diplomat and now senior vice president of political risk firm Park Strategies. “Whatever ‘deliverables’ there may be will thus be reassuringly cosmetic and superficial at most.”
Still, any face-to-face meeting can hopefully build trust and pave the way for what is already shaping to be a busy schedule of post-pandemic engagement. U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen met Liu He, China’s outgoing top economic strategist, in Zurich last month and is due to visit Beijing later this year. Xi may visit the U.N. General Assembly in New York in September and will almost certainly attend the APEC summit in San Francisco in November. The opportunity for Xi to peg a long overdue first state visit to Washington onto either event is clear should the political will exist. (Despite visiting the U.S. eight times as a Chinese official of various rank, Xi has never made a state visit during his decade as President.)
Economic expediency stands to be the chief driver of any reconciliation. Professor Wang Yiwei, director of the Institute of International Affairs at Beijing’s Renmin University, says that following November’s U.S. midterm elections and confirmation of Xi’s protocol-breaking third leadership term a month prior, the two sides can tone down the political bombast and focus on repairing their respective economies. The White House’s looming showdown with the Republican-controlled House of Representatives over raising the government debt ceiling is another impetus to find common ground with China, says Wang. “We need to grow our economy, there are opportunities for American business, so Blinken should also talk about this.”
Yet many obstacles persist. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy has indicated he will follow his predecessor, Nancy Pelosi, by visiting Taiwan, the self-ruling island of 23 million that China claims as its own territory. Pelosi’s visit last August sparked a furious response from Beijing, including a trade embargo and unprecedented military exercises. Last week, a Four-Star U.S. General told troops in a sensational memo that he expects war with China over Taiwan in 2025.
Meanwhile, the U.S. and China continue to needle each other on an almost daily basis. On Wednesday, Blinken announced the U.S. was reopening its embassy in the Solomon Islands after a three-decade absence in a move widely perceived as a challenge to China’s outreach in the Pacific. And on Thursday, the Pentagon was mulling military options after a Chinese spy balloon was spotted over Montana.
But arguably the most pressing fissure in the relationship is Xi’s backing of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine. On Monday, Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs revealed that it expected to welcome Xi to Moscow in the spring, which observers have noted would roughly correspond to the first anniversary of the Feb. 24 full-scale invasion. Of course, Xi’s visit could be perceived as “tradition,” says Wang, given he had visited in March 2013, immediately after he first took office. At that time, Xi also gave a seminal speech at Moscow State Institute of International Relations on “a community with a shared future for mankind,” which later formed the bedrock of his foreign relations philosophy.
In fact, China’s perception of the war in Ukraine has deteriorated, both among its masses and elites, as it has become clear that what Putin initially deemed a “special operation” to demilitarize and de-nazify eastern Ukraine is now undeniably a full-scale invasion. The challenge for Blinken in Beijing will be to make Xi reevaluate China’s support of Russia. “Putin said that the operation was to counter NATO expansion and a unipolar world,” says Wang. “But now many Chinese wonder whether he actually seeks an empire like that of Peter the Great.”