Chinese President Xi Jinping met with top U.S. diplomat Antony Blinken in Beijing on Monday, as the two superpowers seek to put relations back on track after they were derailed by a Chinese spy balloon earlier this year.

Ahead of Mr. Blinken’s visit to the Chinese capital, the first by a U.S. secretary of state since 2018, Washington had been keen to play down expectations, with officials saying that any talks would be progress enough. The meeting with Mr. Xi at the Great Hall of the People was confirmed at the last minute, but could indicate that China is keen to put an end to the often fiery rhetoric of recent months and return to the optimism following a summit between Mr. Xi and U.S. President Joe Biden in Indonesia last year.

“The two sides made progress and reached agreement on some specific issues,” Mr. Xi said Monday. “This is very good.”

He acknowledged global concern about the direction of the relationship, saying the two countries “must take a responsible attitude toward the people, history and the world.”

Mr. Blinken, speaking to reporters in Beijing before departing for London, where he will attend the Ukraine Recovery Conference, said “it was clear coming in that the relationship was at a point of instability and both sides recognized the need to stabilize it.”

“We have made progress and we are moving forward,” he said while acknowledging that disagreements and challenges remain. He said he looked forward to more visits by senior U.S. officials to China in the coming months, as well as hosting Chinese officials in Washington.

“In every meeting, I stressed that direct engagement and sustained communication at senior levels is the best way to responsibly manage our differences and ensure that competition does not veer into conflict.”

Allies of both sides were openly frustrated earlier this month when China rebuffed an invitation for defence officials to meet on the sidelines of a summit in Singapore.

The U.S. diplomat had been due in Beijing in February, but the trip was scrapped after a Chinese spy balloon crossed into U.S. airspace. That was followed by standoffs over Taiwan, microchips and an open competition for influence in Europe, the Middle East and the Pacific, as well as increasingly heated anti-China rhetoric as the U.S. heads into an election year.

Qin Gang, China’s Foreign Affairs Minister and a former ambassador to the U.S., said Beijing was “committed to building a stable, predictable and constructive relationship with the U.S.” In an apparent reference to the balloon saga, which became a political scandal in Washington even as it emerged that such flyovers had happened in the past, he said China hoped the U.S. would “handle unexpected and sporadic events in a calm, professional and rational manner.”

Since Mr. Biden took office, Washington has spoken of establishing a floor for the relationship. But this has often proved easier said than done, with the two sides having major disagreements over such things as whether they can co-operate in some areas while competing, often acrimoniously, in others.

“Both countries want more stability for domestic reasons, and both are being told by the rest of the world to manage their competition better,” Evan Medeiros, a professor at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, wrote last week.

“Their visions for how to do this differ greatly. They cannot yet figure out a way to reconcile very different approaches to building a more stable, predictable, and resilient relationship.”

Beijing has often been frustrated by the mixed signals coming from Washington, with the Biden administration at times appearing to assume it can be tough on China for domestic purposes without paying any cost in bilateral relations.

“For Xi, stability can only come from a reduction in the U.S.’s constant strategic pressure on it and, of course, greater U.S. sensitivity to China’s top priorities, like Taiwan,” Prof. Medeiros said.

China claims the self-ruled island as its territory and has vowed to seize it by force if necessary. The U.S. does not have diplomatic relations with Taiwan – officially the Republic of China – but is nevertheless Taipei’s closest ally, with Mr. Biden saying repeatedly that Washington would intervene if China were to invade.

Last week, Republican lawmakers urged Mr. Blinken to add Taiwan to his trip. While U.S. cabinet officials have visited the island in recent years, particularly during the Trump administration, a visit by the Secretary of State would be considered hugely provocative by Beijing.

Speaking Monday, Mr. Blinken said he had reiterated that Washington “does not support Taiwan’s independence, and we’ve made clear we oppose any unilateral change to the status quo by either side.”

“Were there to be a crisis over Taiwan, the likelihood is that would produce an economic crisis that could affect the entire world.”

Coverage in Chinese state media consistently blames the U.S. for the souring in relations and painted Washington as the instigator of Monday’s visit, with the Global Times newspaper saying, “Obviously, the U.S. has become much more eager now to engage with China.”

China is also keen to stabilize ties, however, as it faces an increasingly uncertain economic situation, with unemployment at record levels, shrinking foreign investment and sluggish growth. The State Council is expected to unveil a stimulus package in the coming weeks.

Mr. Xi met with Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates last week, greeting him as an “old friend” in an apparent signal that China is not closed to U.S. businesses.

But the picture on the ground can be very different. Recent raids on foreign due-diligence firms and a new espionage law have alarmed foreign businesses, which are also facing increased scrutiny in Western capitals as politicians push for a decoupling from China.

Mr. Blinken said that, in all his meetings, he worked to “disabuse our Chinese hosts of the notion that we are seeking to economically contain them. We are not.”

He said Washington would only seek to restrict exports to China when they risk harming U.S. national security interests. “If the shoe was on the other foot, I have no doubt China would do the same thing.”

The Globe and Mail, June 19, 2023