Chinese President Xi Jinping met with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Monday as the top American diplomat wrapped up his two-day high-stakes visit to Beijing aimed at easing soaring tensions between the world's two largest economies.
The meeting at the Great Hall of the People had been expected and was seen as key to the success of the trip, but neither side confirmed it would happen until a State Department official announced it just an hour beforehand.
A snub by the Chinese leader would have been a major setback to the effort to restore and maintain communications at senior levels.
Blinken is the highest-level US official to visit China since President Joe Biden took office, and the first secretary of state to make the trip in five years. His visit is expected to usher in a new round of visits by senior US and Chinese officials, possibly including a meeting between Xi and Biden in the coming months.
In an interview with reporters following the meeting, Blinken said he agreed with China's leadership on the need to "stabilise" relations but that he was "clear-eyed" on vast disagreements.
"In every meeting, I stressed that direct engagement and sustained communication at senior levels is the best way to responsibly manage differences and ensure that competition does not veer into conflict," Blinken told reporters.
"I heard the same from my Chinese counterparts. We both agree on the need to stabilise our relationship."
The encounter with Xi came after Blinken held talks with other senior Chinese officials, during which the two sides expressed a willingness to talk but showed little inclination to bend on hardened positions that have sent tensions soaring.
Blinken met earlier Monday with China’s top diplomat Wang Yi for about three hours, according to a US official.
China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs wrote in a statement that Blinken's visit "coincides with a critical juncture in China-US relations, and it is necessary to make a choice between dialogue or confrontation, cooperation or conflict,” and blamed the "US side’s erroneous perception of China, leading to incorrect policies towards China” for the current “low point" in relations.
It said the US had a responsibility to halt “the spiralling decline of China-US relations to push it back to a healthy and stable track” and that Wang had "demanded that the US stop hyping up the ‘China threat theory’, lift illegal unilateral sanctions against China, abandon suppression of China’s technological development, and refrain from arbitrary interference in China’s internal affairs.”
Wang was also quoted as saying that Beijing will has "no room to compromise" on the question of Taiwan, which it considers as a province and part of the Chinese territory.
Wang, a long-time Chinese foreign minister who now serves as the Director of the Office of the Central Foreign Affairs Commission, also said that the US-China relationship is at a low point, with the root cause being a wrong perception by the United States of China.
"We must take a responsible attitude toward the people, history and the world, and reverse the downward spiral of US-China relations," Wang said, according to the Chinese foreign ministry statement.
Wang was also quoted as saying that China and the United States must choose between "cooperation or conflict".
Despite Blinken’s presence in China, he and other U.S. officials had played down the prospects for any significant breakthroughs on the most vexing issues facing the planet’s two countries.
'A real conversation'
On Sunday, the top US diplomat met for seven and a half hours with Foreign Minister Qin Gang, more than expected, with the two sides agreeing to keep up communication as they look to avoid all-out conflict.
The talks were "candid, substantive and constructive", State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said.
Blinken stressed "the importance of diplomacy and maintaining open channels of communication across the full range of issues to reduce the risk of misperception and miscalculation", Miller said.
Behind closed doors, Qin told Blinken that relations between the United States and China "are at the lowest point since the establishment of diplomatic relations", according to state-run broadcaster CCTV.
"This does not conform to the fundamental interests of the two peoples, nor does it meet the common expectations of the international community," Qin said during the talks at the ancient gardens.
But he issued a warning on Taiwan, the self-ruling democracy claimed by Beijing, which has launched live-fire military drills twice near the island since August in anger over actions by top US lawmakers.
"The Taiwan issue is the core of China's core interests, the most important issue in China-US relations and the most prominent risk," Qin said.
A senior US official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the discussions went beyond the usual talking points, including on Taiwan.
"This was a real conversation," he said.
Last week, President Xi had struck a conciliatory note as he met another prominent American, software tycoon turned philanthropist Bill Gates.
"You are the first American friend I have met in Beijing this year," Xi told Gates in Beijing, according to the state-run People's Daily.
"We have always placed our hopes on the American people, and hoped for continued friendship between the peoples of the two countries," he added.