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China, US see progress in Blinken visit but close no gaps

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Chinese leader Xi Jinping said Monday he saw headway in the strained relationship with the United States on a rare visit by Secretary of State Antony Blinken, but the rival powers remained at odds over their core disputes.

In a symbolic sign of lowering the temperature after soaring tensions, President Xi received Blinken in the vast Great Hall of the People and said the two powers had “made progress and reached agreement” on unspecified issues.

“I hope that Secretary Blinken, through this visit, can make positive contributions to stabilising China-US relations,” Xi told the top US diplomat, the highest-ranking American official to travel to Beijing in nearly five years.

US President Joe Biden, in brief remarks to press during a trip to California, reacted hours later by saying, “We’re on the right trail.”

Both sides had played down prospects for breakthroughs, with Blinken saying his more than 11 hours of talks over two days were more about restoring dialogue.

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“We have made progress and we are moving forward,” Blinken told reporters in Beijing, while adding: “None of this gets resolved with one visit.”

Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang agreed to pay a return visit to the United States but Blinken acknowledged limited progress on jumpstarting communication with China’s military, a key priority for the United States as tensions simmer over Taiwan.

“Direct engagement and sustained communication at senior levels is the best way to responsibly manage differences and ensure that competition does not veer into conflict,” Blinken told reporters.

“I heard the same from my Chinese counterparts. We both agree on the need to stabilise our relationship,” he added.

Blinken said the world’s two largest economies would work together to expand flights — still at a bare minimum since the Covid-19 pandemic — and would explore ways to discuss Chinese exports of chemicals that make fentanyl, the painkiller behind an addiction epidemic in the United States.

– End ‘downward spiral’ –

At the ornate Diaoyutai State Guesthouse earlier Monday, China’s foreign policy supremo Wang Yi told Blinken that the United States and China need to “make a choice between dialogue and confrontation, cooperation or conflict”.

“We must reverse the downward spiral of China-US relations, push for a return to a healthy and stable track,” Wang said, according to state broadcaster CCTV.

Wang also issued a warning on Taiwan, the self-ruling democracy claimed by Beijing.

In the past year, China has launched live-fire military drills twice near the island in anger over meetings between top US lawmakers and Taiwanese leaders.

“On this issue, China has no room to compromise or concede,” Wang told Blinken.

Speaking later to reporters, Blinken voiced concern about China’s “provocative” actions over Taiwan but insisted that nothing has changed in US policy, including its opposition to a formal declaration of independence by Taipei.

US officials, fearing that China in the coming years will try to seize Taiwan, insist that Washington’s sales of weapons to the island are meant only to preserve the status quo.

Blinken said he also raised concern about China’s treatment of the Uyghur and Tibetan minorities and of Hong Kong, where Beijing has severely curbed free expression, although he spoke publicly only after meeting Chinese officials, who are highly sensitive to criticism on human rights on their own soil.

– ‘Quarrelling lovers’ –

Tensions between China and the United States have soared in recent years, with both Biden and his predecessor Donald Trump calling Beijing the most serious threat to long-term US global primacy.

Biden has kept Trump’s hard line on China and in some areas gone further, including banning exports of high-end semiconductors to the rising power.

Responding to Beijing’s heated criticism of the move, Blinken insisted the United States was not seeking “economic containment” of China.

“But at the same time,” he said, “it’s not in our interest to provide technology to China that could be used against us.”

On the streets of the Chinese capital, Sun Yi, 26, said she hoped Blinken’s trip would improve the relationship.

“I think the two countries right now are like quarrelling lovers. Both sides have their own personalities and interests and are not willing to compromise,” she said.

Xi met Biden in November in Bali on the sidelines of a Group of 20 summit, raising cautious hopes for a thaw.

Blinken abruptly shelved a February trip, which was agreed in Bali, after the United States said it detected — and later shot down — a Chinese spy balloon hovering over the US mainland.

Biden and Xi will next have an opportunity to meet in September at the latest G20 summit in New Delhi.

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