The Biden administration is looking at arranging a series of possible visits to Beijing by top administration officials in the coming months as part of an effort to reengage with China on substantive issues after the Chinese spy balloon incident prompted Secretary of State Antony Blinken to postpone a planned trip to Beijing, multiple US officials told CNN.
There are ongoing discussions about visits for four top Biden administration officials — Blinken, Secretary of the Treasury Janet Yellen, Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo and Climate Envoy John Kerry – but the order of those visits remains unclear, even among US officials who will be involved in the planning.
Inside the administration, some officials have strong views about who should travel first, while others are less concerned about the sequence, multiple US officials told CNN.
Blinken and national security adviser Jake Sullivan have met Chinese officials since the balloon incident but within the administration there is a recognition that high-profile visits to Beijing to discuss substantive issues are vital to managing the relationship with the US’ main geopolitical adversary. And more than two years into President Joe Biden’s presidency no members of his cabinet have visited China.
The discussions about the possible visits have been taking place ahead of Biden’s trip to Japan for the G7 where he is expected to focus on strengthening the alliance against China’s coercive behavior globally. Stops in Australia and Papua New Guinea intended to demonstrate America’s commitment to the Pacific region were canceled due to ongoing debt ceiling negotiations.
State Department officials are making the case that Blinken should be the first administration visitor to Beijing, ahead of any other cabinet officials, two sources familiar with the conversations told CNN.
They believe it is important for Blinken to address a wide swath of issues with Chinese counterparts that he planned to during his cancelled visit earlier this year, including the Ukraine war, the flow of fentanyl precursor chemicals from China, tensions over Taiwan, and Americans wrongfully detained in China.
There are no specific dates currently under consideration for a possible Blinken visit, the officials said. The sources noted that it’s possible Raimondo and Yellen may visit before Blinken.
“The reality is that China has a vote,” said one US official, noting that China would likely prefer to initially engage with the US on economic issues.
When Kerry announced that he was invited to visit China in the “near term” in recent weeks officials in Foggy Bottom were frustrated because they have long been working towards re-scheduling a Blinken visit and initially felt concerned that Kerry might try to leapfrog the top diplomat. But administration officials now believe that Kerry’s trip is unlikely to come first with the other three officials having discussed possible visits for months.
The officials aren’t expected to travel within the next few weeks and the administration’s economic and national security teams are keenly focused on debt ceiling negotiations and Biden’s G7 meetings.
But one thing is clear: Biden administration officials are ready to engage with Beijing after the Chinese spy balloon incident, and they are expressing confidence that trips by senior officials can take place after Sullivan met with his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi last week in Vienna.
Sullivan and Wang met for more than 8 hours over the course of two days and covered a wide range of topics, administration officials explained to reporters. After the meeting both the US and Chinese sides described the engagement as candid, substantive and constructive.
US wants to move beyond the spy balloon drama
A senior administration official clearly stated the US wants to move forward beyond the spy balloon drama that tainted an already tense relationship.
“I think both sides recognized that that unfortunate incident led to a bit of a pause in engagement. We’re seeking now to move beyond that and reestablish just a standard normal channel of communications,” the official said on a call with reporters after the meeting.
Blinken also left the spy balloon incident out of his opening remarks during a congressional hearing on Tuesday, in what US officials said was a clear public demonstration of the administration’s willingness to move on from the incident.
“The world is watching how we, and Beijing, manage this relationship. And it is in our best strategic interest to do so responsibly,” Blinken said. “We will purposefully engage China not as a favor or with engagement as an end in and of itself, but in ways that reflects our values and where we can find areas of cooperation that are of mutual interest.”
Blinken faced questions from some lawmakers about efforts to get the Chinese to clamp down on precursor chemicals for fentanyl that are flowing out of the country, fueling the fentanyl crisis in America. Blinken said “we do not have that now” when asked if there is genuine cooperation with China on the topic, while suggesting that the China will only face growing pressure from the US and its allies to focus on this issue.
Fentanyl is one of the topics that Blinken planned to address with his Chinese counterpart earlier this year. But the cancelled meeting meant months of no substantive engagement between the two countries on the topic, the department said.
“We continue to press the PRC (People’s Republic of China) at multiple levels to resume bilateral engagement on this issue. While the PRC has not engaged on these issues in recent months, we continue to actively seek PRC cooperation to stop the criminal diversion of chemicals to illicitly manufacture fentanyl and other synthetic drugs. The PRC needs to do more as a global partner to disrupt synthetic drug supply chains,” a State Department spokesperson told CNN.
Blinken also planned to raise the issue of Americans wrongfully detained in China on his visit earlier this year. The special representative for hostage affairs at the Department specifically called the families of Americans wrongfully detained in the country the day before the trip was supposed to begin to tell them that their cases would be raised and suggested that “he may do even more than raise the names,” a source familiar with the discussions told CNN.
“I believe that we would be in a different place now in terms of getting my father home if Blinken had gone ahead with the visit,” Harrison Li told CNN. His father, Kai Li, is one of three Americans deemed wrongfully detained in China by the State Department.