CIA Director Bill Burns secretly traveled to China last month, a US official told CNN Friday, amid efforts by the United States to reset relations with Beijing after a year of extremely heightened tensions.
According to the US official, Burns “met with Chinese counterparts and emphasized the importance of maintaining open lines of communication in intelligence channels.”
Another US official explained that the trip was was an intelligence to intelligence engagement, not a diplomatic mission.
But Burns’ visit comes as the US has repeatedly signaled that Washington is seeking to diminish tensions with Beijing, particularly after the spy balloon incident earlier this year, which inflamed the bilateral relationship and caused Secretary of State Antony Blinken to postpone a planned trip to China.
Burns’ trip, which was first reported by the Financial Times, is the highest-level visit by a US official to date, and comes as the Biden administration has sought to resume cabinet-level engagement with Chinese officials, to varying degrees of success.
The specific intelligence matter that Burns discussed in Beijing is unclear.
US officials – including Burns – have been warning for months that US intelligence indicated Chinese leadership was considering provide lethal support to Ukraine, but so far Beijing has not moved ahead with that support.
US officials have also warned about a possible Chinese effort to takeover Taiwan.
“Our assessment at CIA is that I wouldn’t underestimate President Xi’s ambitions with regard to Taiwan,” Burns said earlier this year.
On Friday, US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and his Chinese counterpart Li Shangfu “spoke briefly” in Singapore, a Pentagon spokesperson said, after Beijing rebuffed a US request for a formal meeting between the two officials.
“Secretary Austin and PRC Minister of National Defense Li Shangfu spoke briefly at tonight’s opening dinner of the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore. The two leaders shook hands, but did not have a substantive exchange,” Pentagon Press Secretary Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder said in a statement.
“The Department believes in maintaining open lines of military-to-military communication with the PRC — and will continue to seek meaningful military-to-military discussions at multiple levels to responsibly manage the relationship,” the statement said.
Other than the brief encounter, Austin had not spoken with his counterpart, who is under US sanction, in months despite other requests. Earlier this year, China refused to take a call after the US shot down a suspected Chinese surveillance balloon that had traversed across the country.
China’s Defense Ministry blamed the US in a statement this week about the deteriorating communication, saying that responsibilities “for the current difficulties faced by the two militaries in their exchanges lies entirely with the US side.”
“The US claims that it wants to strengthen communication, but in reality it disregards China’s concerns and creates artificial obstacles, seriously undermining mutual trust between the two militaries,” said ministry spokesperson Tan Kefei.
The break in communication has extended past the most senior levels of the two countries’ militaries. Adm. John Aquilino, commander of the US Indo-Pacific Command, told lawmakers in April that Chinese officials have also declined to accept a standing invitation to meet with the eastern and southern theater commanders of the People’s Liberation Army.
Asked in Japan on Thursday about China’s turning down the meeting request, Austin warned that the ongoing lack of communication could result an “incident that could very, very quickly spiral out of control.”
Other US officials, however, have had engagements with Chinese officials in recent weeks. National security adviser Jake Sullivan met with top Chinese official Wang Yi in Vienna for “candid” and “constructive” talks in mid-May.
A US senior administration official said the meeting was an attempt to put communications back on track after the spy balloon incident.
“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.
“We made clear where we stand in terms of the breach of sovereignty, we’ve been clear on that from the very get-go. But again, trying to look forward from here on,” the official added, noting they focused on “how do we manage the other issues that are ongoing right now and manage the tension in the relationship that exists.”
US Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo and US Trade Representative Katherine Tai both met with Chinese Commerce Minister Wang Wentao last week.
“I had a productive meeting Thursday of last week in person with Minister Wang, the commerce secretary, who came to D.C. And it was a candid, direct, productive exchange where we tackled head on some of our issues related to economic coercion and other irritants, but also where we agreed to keep the channel of communication open in the hope that increased dialogue would lead to de-escalation of tension and an ability to solve problems,” Raimondo said at a press availability in Sweden earlier this week.