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Antony Blinken to meet Xi Jinping in first visit to China by a Biden cabinet secretary

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Antony Blinken is expected to meet Xi Jinping in Beijing, making him the first US secretary of state to meet the Chinese leader in nearly six years and the first of President Joe Biden’s cabinet secretaries to visit China.

Several people familiar with the planning said the top US diplomat would meet Xi during his two-day visit which starts on Sunday. Blinken is visiting China after Biden and Xi agreed in Bali in November that they should find ways to stabilise the turbulent US-China relationship.

His visit marks a new phase of stepped-up engagement between the two countries following a very difficult period that was further complicated by the Covid-19 pandemic. US Treasury secretary Janet Yellen will visit China later this year. Yellen met Liu He, the top Chinese economic official, in Zurich last month.

“If President Xi Jinping decides to meet with Secretary Blinken it will be another in a series of recent signals from the Chinese leader of a desire to change the tone, if not the substance, of US-China relations,” said Dennis Wilder, who was the top White House Asia adviser to George W Bush.

“President Xi, since the end of his disastrous ‘zero-Covid’ policy, is clearly on a charm offensive designed, in part, to convince US businesses not to move their supply chains away from China,” Wilder said.

But Blinken’s trip to Beijing comes as relations between the two powers remain mired in their worst state since the US and China established diplomatic relations in 1979. Tensions rose in August when China held large-scale military exercises in response to then US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visiting Taiwan.

Underscoring the tensions, a top Air Force general recently said the US and China would probably go to war over Taiwan in 2025, in a leaked memo the Pentagon quickly dismissed as not reflecting the view of the Biden administration. The memo highlighted the growing concern in Washington about China. The Republican-led House of Representatives recently created a new committee that will focus exclusively on China.

Blinken is also expected to meet Wang Yi, the top Chinese foreign policy official who recently replaced Yang Jiechi. He will also meet Qin Gang, the former Chinese ambassador to the US and now foreign minister.

The trip comes nearly two years after Blinken and Yang engaged in a public spat at the start of a meeting in Alaska that was the first high-level engagement between the countries after Biden became president.

The state department declined to comment. The Chinese embassy in Washington did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Blinken would be the first secretary of state to meet Xi in China since Rex Tillerson visited in 2017, the first year of the Trump administration. When Mike Pompeo, who succeeded Tillerson, went to China the next year he did not have a meeting with Xi.

Blinken’s visit comes as the countries remain at loggerheads over a range of issues, including Chinese aggressive military activity around Taiwan, its refusal to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and its rapidly expanding nuclear arsenal.

China is frustrated at moves by Biden to restrict its ability to obtain advanced US technology, including semiconductors. The US, Japan and the Netherlands recently reached an accord designed to restrict the sale of chipmaking tools to China, while Washington and New Delhi this week launched several ambitious technology initiatives to counter China.

Chinese ministers are expected to start visiting the US later this year ahead of a gathering of the Apec forum in San Francisco in November. That event comes two months after a G20 summit in India that Biden and Xi are expected to attend.

Follow Demetri Sevastopulo on Twitter

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