BEIJING — Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrived in China on Sunday on the highest-level trip by a US official in nearly five years, with the rival powers looking to lower the temperature after soaring tensions.
Neither side expects breakthroughs during Blinken's two-day visit, with the world's two largest economies at odds on an array of issues from trade to technology to regional security.
But the two countries have increasingly voiced an interest in seeking greater stability and see a narrow window before elections next year both in the United States and Taiwan, the self-ruling democracy which Beijing has not ruled out seizing by force.
In a sign of the fragility of the effort, Blinken had been due to visit four months ago, the fruit of a cordial summit between Presidents Joe Biden and Xi Jinping in Bali in November.
But Blinken abruptly postponed the trip after the United States said it detected a Chinese spy balloon over US soil, leading to furious calls for a response by hardliners in Washington.
Speaking in the US capital before his departure, Blinken said he would seek to "responsibly manage our relationship" by finding ways to avoid "miscalculations" between the countries.
"Intense competition requires sustained diplomacy to ensure that competition does not veer into confrontation or conflict," he said.
Keeping allies close
Blinken was speaking alongside Singaporean Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan, who said that the region wanted the United States both to stay as a power and to find ways to coexist with a rising China.
Blinken's "trip is essential, but not sufficient", Balakrishnan said.
"There are fundamental differences in outlook, in values. And it takes time for mutual respect and strategic trust to be built in."
As part of the Biden administration's focus on keeping allies close, Blinken spoke by telephone with his counterparts from both Japan and South Korea during his 20-hour trans-Pacific journey.
Biden's national security advisor, Jake Sullivan, travelled separately to Tokyo for separate three-way meetings involving Japan and both South Korea and the Philippines.
In recent months the United States has reached deals on troop deployments in southern Japan and the northern Philippines, both strategically close to Taiwan.
Beijing carried out major military drills around Taiwan in August, seen as practice for an invasion, after Nancy Pelosi, then speaker of the US House of Representatives, visited.
And in April, China launched three days of war games after Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen visited the United States and met the current speaker, Kevin McCarthy.
China's 'core concerns'
Ahead of Blinken's visit, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said that the United States needed to "respect China's core concerns" and work together with Beijing.
"The US needs to give up the illusion of dealing with China 'from a position of strength'. China and the US must develop relations on the basis of mutual respect and equality, respect their difference in history, culture, social system and development path," he said, a nod to frequent US criticism of China's rights record.
Blinken is the first top US diplomat to visit Beijing since a brief stop in 2018 by his predecessor Mike Pompeo, who later championed all-out confrontation with China in the final years of Donald Trump's presidency.
The Biden administration has kept in place Trump's hard line in practice if not tone and has gone further in areas, including working to ban exports to China of high-end semiconductors that have military uses.
But unlike Trump, who is running again for president, the Biden administration has said it is willing to work with China on narrow areas of cooperation such as climate -- as Beijing sweats in record mid-June temperatures.
Danny Russel, who was the top diplomat on East Asia during Barack Obama's second term, said that each side had priorities -- with China seeking to forestall additional US restrictions on technology or support for Taiwan, and the United States eager to prevent an incident that could spiral into a military confrontation.
"Blinken's brief visit will not bring resolution to any of the big issues in the US-China relationship or even necessarily to the small ones. Neither will it stop either side from continuing with their competitive agendas," said Russel, now a vice president at the Asia Society Policy Institute.
"But his visit may well restart badly needed face-to-face dialogue and send a signal that both countries are moving from angry rhetoric at the press podium to sober discussions behind closed doors."
© Agence France-Presse