By Trevor Hunnicutt and Michael Martina
WASHINGTON (Reuters) -U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken will travel to China for talks in the coming weeks, an official said on Tuesday, months after Washington’s top diplomat scrapped a planned trip over a suspected Chinese spy balloon that flew across the U.S.
The visit is intended by Washington to be a major step toward what President Joe Biden has called a “thaw” in relations between the world’s two largest economies.
Blinken postponed a visit to Beijing in February after the balloon, which Beijing denies was a government spy vessel, flew through U.S. airspace and over sensitive military sites, eventually being shot down by the U.S. military and creating a diplomatic crisis.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, did not elaborate on timing. The State Department did not confirm any updated plans for Blinken’s trip.
“We have no travel for the Secretary to announce; as we’ve said previously the visit to the People’s Republic of China will be rescheduled when conditions allow,” deputy spokesman Vedant Patel said.
In response to a request for comment, the spokesperson for China’s embassy in Washington referred to the last meeting between Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping in Indonesia in November.
“China is open to have dialogues with the U.S. side and hopes that the U.S. will meet China halfway and jointly implement the important consensus reached by the two presidents at the Bali Summit,” Liu Pengyu said.
Separately, and without mentioning Blinken’s trip, U.S. Indo-Pacific coordinator Kurt Campbell told an event at the Hudson Institute that exchanges with Beijing were improving.
“The lines of communications are opening up and we are able to lay out more constructively our areas of interest and concern,” although the U.S. had been unsuccessful in getting China to agree to effective crisis mechanisms, Campbell said.
He said episodes like what he called “dangerous” navigation by a Chinese destroyer in the Taiwan Strait on Saturday, showed the need for these “to prevent circumstances where unintended consequences can have terrible consequences.”
“China is increasingly a great power. Her (military) forces rub up against ours much more than they did in the past. The potential for miscalculation, inadvertence, is real and growing,” Campbell said.
A Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson said on Monday that the measures taken by the Chinese military in the Taiwan Strait were “reasonable, legitimate, and professional and safe”.
The Biden administration has pushed to boost engagement with China even as ties have deteriorated over disputes ranging from military activity in the South China Sea, Beijing’s human rights record, and technology competition, to democratically governed Taiwan – which China claims as its own territory.
But critics have questioned U.S. overtures to China, arguing that decades of engagement have failed to change Beijing’s behavior.
The State Department’s top official for East Asia, Daniel Kritenbrink, was in Beijing this week for talks with Chinese counterparts, a visit seen as a step toward a possible Blinken trip. The two sides struck an upbeat tone.
Asked by reporters in Beijing if Blinken would visit soon, Kritenbrink said: “we’ll see.” The United States was “working hard” to manage the relationship with China, he said.
Kritenbrink’s arrival on June 4 coincided with the 34th anniversary of the 1989 crackdown by Chinese troops on demonstrators in and around Beijing’s Tiananmen Square that rights groups say killed hundreds, if not thousands, of protesters.
The Biden administration dismissed any significance behind the arrival date, but some Republican lawmakers and Tiananmen survivors criticized the timing, arguing U.S. eagerness to hold talks with Chinese officials was watering down U.S. positions.
Reuters reported in May that the State Department delayed human rights-related sanctions, export controls and other sensitive action to try to limit damage to the U.S.-China relationship after the balloon incursion.
(Reporting by Trevor Hunnicutt, Michael Martina, David Brunnstrom, Simon Lewis and Doina Chiacu;Editing by Don Durfee, Grant McCool and Gareth Jones)
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