© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken boards his plane for his travel to China and the UK from Joint Base Andrews, Maryland, U.S., June 16, 2023. REUTERS/Leah Millis/Pool

By Humeyra Pamuk

BEIJING (Reuters) -U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrived in Beijing on Sunday, the first top American diplomat to visit China in five years, amid frosty bilateral ties and dim prospects for any breakthrough on the long list of disputes between the world’s two largest economies.

Having postponed a February trip after a suspected Chinese spy balloon flew over U.S. airspace, Blinken is set to become the highest-ranking U.S. government official to visit China since President Joe Biden took office in January 2021.

During his June 18-19 trip, he is expected to meet with Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang, China’s top diplomat Wang Yi and possibly President Xi Jinping, and work to establish open and durable communication channels to ensure the strategic rivalry between the two countries does not spiral into conflict.

It will be a trip also closely followed by the rest of the world as any escalation between superpowers could have worldwide repercussions on everything from financial markets to trade routes and practices and global supply chains.

“There’s a recognition on both sides that we do need to have senior level channels of communication,” a senior State Department official told reporters during a refuel stop in Tokyo en route to Beijing.

“That we are at an important point in the relationship where I think reducing the risk of miscalculation, or as our Chinese friends often say, stopping the downward spiral in the relationship, is something that’s important,” the official said.

Ties between the countries have deteriorated across the board, raising concerns that they might one day clash militarily over the self-ruled island of Taiwan, which China claims as its own. They are also at odds over issues ranging from trade, U.S. efforts to hold back China’s semiconductor industry and Beijing’s human rights track record.

Particularly alarming for China’s neighbors has been its reluctance to engage in regular military-to-military talks with Washington, despite repeated U.S. attempts.

Speaking at a news conference on Friday before departing for Beijing, Blinken said the trip had three main objectives: Setting up mechanisms for crisis management, advancing U.S. and allies’ interests and speaking directly about related concerns, and exploring areas of potential cooperation.

“If we want to make sure, as we do, that the competition that we have with China doesn’t veer into conflict, the place you start is with communicating,” Blinken said. He said he would also be raising the issue of U.S. citizens detained in China on charges Washington sees as politically motivated.

But U.S. officials in a briefing call previewing the trip earlier in the week played down any expectations of much progress. While Blinken’s main goal will be “candid, direct and constructive” discussions, the officials said, breakthroughs are not likely on any major issues, including the flow of fentanyl precursors and Americans detained in China.

But there is an expectation that Blinken’s visit will pave the way for more bilateral meetings in coming months, including possible trips by U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen and Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo. It could also set the stage for meetings between Xi and Biden at multilateral summits later in the year.

Biden and Xi’s Bali meeting last November briefly eased fears of a new Cold War, but following the flight of an alleged Chinese spy balloon over the United States in February that led Blinken to postpone a Beijing visit planned for that month, high-level communication has been rare.

The U.S. official also said trying to secure China’s cooperation on stemming the flow of fentanyl precursors was going to be a key item on the agenda. The Chinese side has been reluctant to cooperate on the issue, U.S. officials have said.

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