By Robbie Gramer, a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy,

and Christina Lu, a reporter at Foreign Policy.


U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, second from the left, attends a meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, sitting at the head of the table,
at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on June 19. LEAH MILLIS/POOL/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES


When U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken stepped down from his plane on Chinese soil over the weekend, he was greeted with a chilly reception that set the tone for a series of tense and high-stakes meetings between the world’s two superpowers.


He was greeted at the plane by a midlevel Chinese official (as well as U.S. Ambassador to China Nicholas Burns), seen as a calculated diplomatic snub by Beijing. What followed was a series of tense public exchanges and hours long closed-door meetings with his counterparts—as well as a brief meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping—that showed that the Biden administration’s stated efforts to ease tensions with China aren’t making much headway.


But it’s little surprise that any olive branch might be spurned, given how Washington’s approach to China is hardening as it ramps up public and military support for Taiwan, works to create a new anti-China security architecture in the Asia-Pacific, and levies harsh new trade restrictions and sanctions on Beijing.


Blinken didn’t have much room to maneuver going into the visit, and the Biden administration’s efforts to simultaneously turn down the temperature and dial up the pressure illustrate the administration’s dilemma. Namely, the hard power confrontation against China is firing on all cylinders back in Washington, while at the same time the Biden administration says it wants to compete “responsibly” with China, cooperate on issues like climate change, and shield U.S. businesses from the fallout of great power competition. It’s not yet clear if the administration can do that, but what is clear is that China isn’t buying the strategy.


Xi seemingly rebuked the U.S. framing of responsibly managed competition between the two countries, declaring that said “major-country competition does not represent the trend of the times.”

Some of Biden’s most important allies on Capitol Hill still cheered the trip as a critically important step for managing tensions, and it’s also clear that the visit was also aimed at easing U.S. allies’ fears that Washington and Beijing may stumble from a new Cold War into a hot one.

“Overall it’s a promising restart to our dialogue, which is very much needed in order to stabilize the relationship,” said Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, the top Democrat on the influential new House select committee on the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). “There is room to [ease tensions], provided that we are also undertaking sufficient preparations to deter conflict and aggression.”

Other experts, including former top Republican foreign-policy officials, said the trip didn’t achieve anything other than giving Beijing new ways to slight American officials on their home turf.


“This is a symptom of the old way of approaching China, where we thought, well, if we just keep asking them at the right level or in the right way, if we find the magic formula and the right person to talk to in their system, then we’ll get a different response,” said Kelley Currie, a former top State Department official during the Trump administration. “When we keep asking them to do these meetings—it tells them this is more important to us than it is to them, and they use it as leverage.”


“The concern is not that there was a [Blinken-Xi] meeting at all—many recognize the need to engage with adversaries—but that the visit took place thanks to extensive lobbying on the part of the United States,” said Carrie Filipetti, the executive director of the Vandenberg Coalition, a conservative foreign-policy group. “That means we’re entering the discussion from a position of weakness when we need to be projecting strength.”


The practice of diplomacy rarely results in sweeping victories or stunning defeats, and this trip was no different. Even with low expectations, given the paltry state of U.S.-China relations, Blinken came away from the trip with a few tangible victories, including setting up a joint working group on tackling the fentanyl drug crisis and agreeing to expand “people-to-people” contacts, academic exchanges, and flights between the two countries.


The world’s two largest economies are walking a tightrope between bad blood and good business.


The United States hopes to redefine its economic relationship with China to prevail in the biggest strategic showdown of the century.


But he failed to net any major wins on some of the most important issues nagging the U.S.-China relationship, such as getting China to publicly address arbitrarily detained Americans in China or the war in Ukraine. More worrisome, Blinken was unable to get China to agree to reestablish military channels of communication in the event of accidents or miscalculations. The risk only seems to be going up, after news of a Chinese fighter jet buzzing a U.S. surveillance plane flying over the South China Sea last month and China reportedly looking to build new military training and spy bases in Cuba.


“The fact that the Chinese declined to revive mil-mil channels is disappointing and worrisome. They apparently don’t buy into this framework at all,” Bonnie Glaser, a China expert at the German Marshall Fund, said on Twitter. “That begs the question, is it then possible to stabilize relations?”


Direct military lines between the United States and China are “essential for de-escalating potential crisis situations,” Krishnamoorthi said. “The CCP is wildly off-base if they think that a lack of military-to-military communications coupled with their dangerous maneuvers in the region is going to lead to self-deterrence,” he said. “I think it’s going to lead to the opposite.”


Refusing to reopen military channels could give Beijing more leverage over the United States, according to some experts. “In keeping Washington guessing, Beijing hopes U.S. policymakers think twice about taking any steps that could further destabilize the relationship,” said Craig Singleton, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a conservative-leaning think tank.


But this is precisely why Biden administration officials have touted the importance of such talks. They also say the fact the trip even happened is something of a minor diplomatic achievement—a bragging point that only underscores the dismal state of bilateral ties.


Chinese officials were infuriated by Blinken’s decision to cancel his first visit to China earlier this year, after they were caught floating spy balloons above U.S. soil, leading China to halt high-level talks with the United States. Beijing pushed the administration to send Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen or Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo to Beijing first, before Blinken, according to several officials and congressional aides familiar with behind-the-scenes planning of the trip. China wanted talks focused on the economy first, but the Biden administration insisted on sending Blinken, since unlike some of his counterparts, he could address the full scope of hang-ups in U.S.-China relations, including human rights, military tensions, and the war in Ukraine. Beijing eventually relented.


Prior to Blinken, “no secretary of state had been to China in five years. That’s an extraordinary period,” said Evan Medeiros, a professor at Georgetown University and former National Security Council official during the Obama administration. “I think there’s probably a lot of misunderstanding, misperception that has accumulated in that time period.”


A key marker of whether Blinken’s trip will have any diplomatic staying power is whether China will continue to engage in high-level talks with their U.S. counterparts. Blinken and Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Qin Gang plan to schedule a reciprocal visit to Washington, and other top U.S. officials, including Raimondo, Yellen, and U.S. Climate Envoy John Kerry, are expected to follow suit with their own trips to Beijing. Biden administration officials are also hoping the renewal of talks will convince Xi to attend a major gathering of Asia-Pacific leaders at an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in San Francisco in November.


“At the moment, the core goal isn’t to restore trust,” said Scott Kennedy, a senior advisor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “It is to restore a sense of frankness and honesty and credibility on both sides that allows them to still interact despite the very low levels of trust that they have.”