Politics

Blinken to embark on a high-stakes trip to China

Abigail Williams, Megan Lebowitz and Michael Mitsanas
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U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee annual policy summit on June 5, 2023 in Washington, DC.
Chip Somodevilla | Getty Images

Secretary of State Antony Blinken is expected to travel to China in the coming weeks for talks, two U.S. officials told NBC News on Tuesday.

The news comes after a previously planned trip was postponed following the discovery of a Chinese spy balloon flying over the United States.

U.S. officials did not provide additional details on the timing of Blinken's rescheduled trip, which was first reported by Bloomberg.

Blinken postponed that trip in February after the suspected spy balloon entered American airspace and flew across the continental U.S. American fighter jets later downed the balloon off the coast of South Carolina, although the craft was able to gather intelligence from several sensitive U.S. military sites, current and former U.S. officials said in April.

Blinken conveyed to Chinese official Wang Yi at the time that the balloon was "an irresponsible act and a clear violation of U.S. sovereignty and international law that undermined the purpose of the trip," then-State Department spokesman Ned Price said.

China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs previously called the balloon a "civilian airship" used for weather research.

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The relationship between the two countries has spiraled since the incident, with leaders postponing or rejecting talks. Just last week, China declined a U.S. request for the defense chiefs to meet at a security summit in Singapore. President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping previously met in November in Bali, Indonesia, where they agreed that Blinken would visit China to follow up on the discussions.

Taiwan and territorial tensions were among the subjects discussed between the two leaders — issues that have not faded in the following months.

National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said Tuesday that Biden is "confident" the two countries will be able to "get back to the spirit of Bali," referring to the November meeting.

On Monday, the U.S. military released a video from last weekend showing a Chinese warship and an American destroyer in the Taiwan Strait coming within 150 yards of each other, according to the U.S. military. A Chinese government representative defended its actions, saying Monday that "China always respects the right of navigation."

The close call comes as debate over the future of Taiwan — a self-governing island that Beijing claims as its own, but has never controlled — is expected to be high on the agenda when Blinken visits Beijing.

U.S. destroyer has close call with Chinese warship in the South China Sea
VIDEO1:2701:27
U.S. destroyer has close call with Chinese warship in the South China Sea

In a speech to the United Nations General Assembly last fall, Biden said the U.S. opposes "unilateral changes to the status quo" in the Taiwan Strait, but Xi has refused to rule out using force to seize the island.

The U.S. has typically declined to say whether it would defend Taiwan from a Chinese invasion, a policy known as "strategic ambiguity," after enactment of the Taiwan Relations Act in 1979. The act requires the U.S. to provide Taiwan with defensive weapons and makes clear that Washington established diplomatic ties with Beijing with the expectation that Taiwan's future would be determined peacefully.

Biden, however, has repeatedly said the U.S. would defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese invasion. In September, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson said his comments "breached the important commitment the U.S. made not to support Taiwan independence," though Biden administration officials insist U.S. policy has not changed.

Other points of contention between the U.S. and China continue to sour their relations: In October, the Biden administration restricted sales of key semiconductors to China, a move the Chinese foreign minister called "bullying tactics." Blinken has also said China's systematic detention of its Uyghur minority amounts to "genocide and crimes against humanity," and he has been sharply critical of the country's crackdown on civil liberties in Hong Kong and Tibet.

U.S. and China relations look extremely delicate and fragile now, says Asia Society's Rorry Daniels
VIDEO3:5903:59
U.S. and China relations look extremely delicate and fragile now, says Asia Society's Rorry Daniels

Blinken's upcoming visit will also likely aim to assuage the security concerns of key U.S. allies in the Indo-Pacific, such as South Korea and Japan.

"The current state of Chinese-U.S. relations is a powder keg that I fear could explode anytime," South Korean Rep. Lee Jae-jung, who sits on the foreign affairs committee of the country's National Assembly, said in March.

Aspects of U.S.-China relations have proven to be a rare point of bipartisan agreement in Congress. Last month, the bipartisan House select committee on China adopted policy recommendations relating to a potential conflict in Taiwan and the mistreatment of Uyghurs.

Last August, then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi met with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen during a visit to the self-governing island, prompting a furious response from China, which conducted military drills that experts say simulated an attack on the island. Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., met in April with Tsai in California, shortly before a bipartisan delegation visited Taiwan.