BEIJING — Secretary of State Antony Blinken told NBC News on Monday that his trip to Beijing marked an “important start” in stabilizing U.S. ties with China and that the countries should move on from the spy balloon incident that postponed his visit earlier this year.
“That chapter should be closed,” Blinken said in an interview before leaving Beijing, where he spent two days meeting with senior Chinese officials and President Xi Jinping.
Stopping the downward spiral in relations between the world’s two largest economies “is not the product of one visit, even as intense and in some ways productive as this was,” Blinken said. “But it’s a good and I think important start.”
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U.S. officials had played down expectations for the trip, saying any breakthroughs were unlikely. Even after Blinken’s visit, the two countries have yet to restore several military-to-military communication channels that China cut last year in protest of former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, a self-ruling democracy that Beijing claims as its territory.
Blinken said it was imperative for that communication to be re-established, citing recent encounters in the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea that China says were necessary to defend its national sovereignty but the U.S. has labeled dangerous.
“That’s the quickest path to an inadvertent conflict,” said Blinken, who added that restoring the channels was “not something we’re going to drop.”
Blinken’s trip to China, the first by a U.S. secretary of state since 2018, was postponed in February after the discovery of an alleged Chinese spy balloon over U.S. territory. President Joe Biden said last month that an agreement he and Xi made to keep communications open had also been derailed by “this silly balloon.”
Blinken said the Biden administration, which ordered the balloon shot down by the military off the coast of South Carolina, had taken the necessary action at the time to protect U.S. interests and made its concerns clear to Beijing, which maintains it was an unmanned civilian airship that strayed off course.
“We said what we needed to say and made clear what we needed to make clear in terms of this not happening again, and so long as it doesn’t, that chapter should be closed,” Blinken said.
“But it’s something we’re very vigilant about and that we’ll continue to watch,” he added.
The results of the FBI’s investigation into the balloon, debris from which was recovered by U.S. officials, have yet to be publicly released.
Last week, there were concerns Blinken’s trip could again be postponed at the last minute after U.S. officials alleged that China had a spy station in Cuba, which both Chinese and Cuban officials denied.
Blinken said he had repeatedly raised the issue with his Chinese counterparts.
“Of course this is not something new,” he said. “This is something that’s been going on for a number of years and something that we’ve been taking action on for a couple of years.”
Blinken dismissed criticism that the Biden administration had played down the spying allegations and delayed punitive economic measures against China in order to revive the U.S.-China relationship.
“We don’t pull any punches, and I certainly didn’t pull any punches with our Chinese counterparts,” he said.
“I think if you look at the actions that we’ve taken it’s hard to make that case, and in fact if you listen to our Chinese counterparts they’re saying exactly the opposite, complaining about many of the actions that we’ve taken because it’s necessary to advance our national interest.”
Congressional Republicans had expressed opposition to Blinken’s trip, saying the White House needs to take a harder line with Beijing. Blinken said it would be “totally irresponsible” not to engage with China.
“If we’re not engaging, it makes it that much more difficult to make sure that the competition we’re in doesn’t veer into conflict,” he said.
Blinken’s China trip could pave the way for a phone call or in-person meeting between Biden and Xi, who first met more than a decade ago when they were both vice presidents. The two men have not spoken since meeting in person last November, on the sidelines of a summit in Indonesia.
“Ultimately there’s no substitute for the two leaders speaking directly to each other,” Blinken said. “That’s especially true in China given the power that Xi Jinping has.”
Janis Mackey Frayer reported from Beijing, and Jennifer Jett reported from Hong Kong.