US Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with China’s top diplomat Wang Yi on Saturday, in the first face-to-face between senior US and Chinese officials since the US military shot down a suspected Chinese surveillance balloon earlier this month.
In a meeting on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference, Blinken “directly spoke to the unacceptable violation of US sovereignty and international law” and said incidents like the balloon, which hovered over US airspace for days before the US shot it down off the coast of South Carolina, “must never occur again,” State Department spokesperson Ned Price said in a statement.
Blinken, who a senior State Department official characterized as “very direct and candid throughout,” began the hourlong meeting by stating “how unacceptable and irresponsible” it was that China had flown the balloon into US airspace. The secretary later expressed disappointment that Beijing had not engaged in military-to-military dialogue when the Chinese balloon incident occurred, the senior official told reporters.
“He stated, candidly stated, our disappointment that in this recent period that our Chinese military counterparts had refused to pick up the phone. We think that’s unfortunate. And that is not the way that our two sides ought to be conducting business,” the official said.
There was “no formal agreement” reached, however, on any kind of mechanism to increase dialogue between the two countries.
The diplomatic fallout from the balloon incident has been swift, with Washington accusing China of overseeing an extensive international surveillance program. Beijing has denied those claims, and in turn accused the US, without providing evidence, of flying balloons over its airspace without permission. China maintains that its balloon, which US forces identified and then downed earlier this month, was a civilian research aircraft accidentally blown off course.
Wang confirmed what he called an “informal” meeting with Blinken on Saturday and called on the US to repair the “damage” to the countries’ relations, according to a press release broadcast by CGTN, which is a Chinese state media outlet. Earlier, Wang had criticized the United States’ handling of the incident, calling the response “absurd and hysterical” and “100% an abuse of the use of force.”
The incident had an immediate impact on what had been seen as an opportunity for the US and China to stabilize relations. In early February, Blinken postponed an expected visit to Beijing, after the balloon – floating over the US in plain sight – dominated media headlines and public attention.
The visit would have been the first to China by a US secretary of state since 2018, on the heels of a relatively amicable face-to-face between US President Joe Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping at the Group of 20 summit in November.
Biden said Thursday that he expects to speak with Xi about the balloon but that he will not apologize for shooting it down. “I hope we are going to get to the bottom of this, but I make no apologies for taking down that balloon,” he said.
Blinken raised a possible conversation between Biden and Xi, according to the State Department official, who said US officials have not heard anything in recent days that would change the US assessment that the balloon was for Chinese surveillance.
“We haven’t heard anything that provides any kind of a credible explanation for what this balloon was. The US stands firmly behind our assessment,” the official said.
Some analysts believed that Beijing, economically drained by its now-abandoned zero-Covid strategy, had been softening its tone on foreign affairs and upping its diplomacy with Western governments in a bid to win back lost ground.
While expectations for substantial breakthroughs were low, Blinken’s trip was supposed to build a floor for fraught US-China relations and prevent tensions from veering into open conflict – guardrails intended to keep incidents like the suspected surveillance balloon from escalating into a full-blown diplomatic crisis.
CNN reported Wednesday that US intelligence officials are assessing the possibility that the balloon was not deliberately maneuvered into the continental US by the Chinese government and are examining whether it was diverted off course by strong winds, according to multiple people briefed on the intelligence.
Any intelligence suggesting that the balloon’s path into the US may have been unintentional could potentially ease tensions between the two nations.
Wang, who was named Xi’s top foreign policy adviser last month, has already visited France and Italy this week and is expected to visit Russia after the Munich conference.
The trip will be a test of Beijing’s attempt to strike a diplomatic balancing act between boosting relations with the West and maintaining close ties with Moscow.
Blinken and Wang on Saturday discussed Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, with the US secretary of state warning “about the implications and consequences” if China increases its support for Russia’s war effort, according to Price’s readout of the meeting.
The senior State Department official told reporters that Blinken “was quite blunt in warning about the implications and consequences of China providing material support to Russia or assisting Russia with systematic sanctions evasion.”
US officials familiar with the intelligence told CNN earlier Saturday that the US has recently begun seeing “disturbing” trendlines in China’s support for Russia’s military and there are signs that Beijing wants to “creep up to the line” of providing lethal military aid to Russia without getting caught.
Those officials would not describe in detail what intelligence the US has seen suggesting a recent shift in China’s posture, but said US officials have been concerned enough that they have shared the intelligence with allies and partners in Munich over the last several days.
China’s relationship with Europe has come under significant stress in the wake of the Ukraine war. Beijing has refused to condemn the invasion outright or support numerous measures against it at the United Nations. China has also continued to partner with the Russian military during large-scale exercises, while boosting its trade and fuel purchases from Moscow.
According to China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman, Wang’s visit to Moscow will provide an opportunity for China and Russia to continue to develop their strategic partnership and “exchange views” on “international and regional hotspot issues of shared interest” – a catch-all phrase often used to allude to topics, including the war in Ukraine.
The Foreign Ministry did not specify whether Wang would meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“China is ready to take this visit as an opportunity and work with Russia to promote steady growth of bilateral relations in the direction identified by the two heads of state, defend the legitimate rights and interests of both sides, and play an active role for world peace,” spokesman Wang Wenbin said.
Wang’s visit may also foreshadow a state visit by Xi to Moscow later this year. Putin extended an invitation to Xi during a customary end-of-year call between the two leaders, but China’s Foreign Ministry has yet to confirm any plans.
Blinken, who reiterated Saturday the US’ unchanging policy regarding Taiwan and “underscored the importance of maintaining peace and stability” with the democratically ruled island, reinforced statements from Biden that the US does not seek a conflict with China but will continue to “stand up for our values.”
“The Secretary reiterated President Biden’s statements that the United States will compete and will unapologetically stand up for our values and interests, but that we do not want conflict with the PRC and are not looking for a new Cold War,” Price said in the statement. “The Secretary underscored the importance of maintaining diplomatic dialogue and open lines of communication at all times.”
This story has been updated with additional developments.
CNN’s Natasha Bertrand and Larry Register contributed to this report.