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Blinken visits China with the hopes to establish 'open and empowered' communication

DON GONYEA, HOST:

Secretary of State Antony Blinken is on his way to China, and there's a lot riding on this trip. Relations between the two countries have been on a downward spiral, and Blinken is trying to find a better way to communicate with Beijing.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANTONY BLINKEN: 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.

GONYEA: NPR's diplomatic correspondent Michele Kelemen joins us now. Michele, thanks for being here.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Nice to be here, Don.

GONYEA: What exactly does Secretary Blinken hope to get out of this?

KELEMEN: So mostly, it is just that - to establish what he calls this open and empowered communications with China. Chinese leader Xi Jinping is likely to come to the U.S. later this year for an Asia-Pacific summit in San Francisco. President Biden may also see him at the G-20 gathering in India in the fall. So Secretary Blinken has to prepare for all that. He's expected to meet Xi Jinping himself at some point while he's in Beijing Sunday and Monday. He also says he wants to explore areas where the U.S. and China might be able to work together. Think about climate change or illicit drugs, health and the global economy, things like that. You know, Blinken says the world is counting on the two countries to at least deal with these issues together.

GONYEA: The Biden administration calls this the most consequential and challenging relationship. How much are others in the region paying attention to this?

KELEMEN: They are a lot. You know, before leaving, Secretary Blinken met with Singapore's foreign minister, Vivian Balakrishnan, and he says there needs to be a modus vivendi between the U.S. and China because these two are crucial to resolving most global issues. So he told reporters that he and the rest of the world are watching and calling this a critical juncture.

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VIVAN BALAKRISHNAN: Fifty years ago, when Henry Kissinger went to Beijing, it completely reordered the strategic furniture in the globe. We are coming close to a point when this will be necessary again.

KELEMEN: So the stakes are really high, Don. And, you know, the Singaporean foreign minister thinks that Blinken is up to the task. He called him a consummate diplomat who's cool and rational. But he also didn't want to raise too many expectations for this trip. Just listen to this exchange also from their joint news conference on Friday.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BALAKRISHNAN: Please don't put too much weight on poor Tony's shoulders.

(LAUGHTER)

BALAKRISHNAN: You know, the fact is diplomats need time and space and sometimes just some quiet time to engage in some honest-to-goodness conversations.

KELEMEN: The foreign minister of Singapore called Blinken's trip to China essential, but not sufficient.

GONYEA: And what are the Chinese saying about the trip? Are they lowering expectations also?

KELEMEN: They are. And they're also laying down some markers. They say that the U.S. needs to respect China's core interests including on Taiwan. And they say that the U.S should not meddle in China's internal affairs. Secretary Blinken says he plans to raise some human rights issues and some specific cases of detained Americans. So the conversations could be pretty tough. You know, he was supposed to go to Beijing in February, but that trip was scuttled by that Chinese spy balloon saga. The State Department is clearly hoping there's going to be more smooth sailing, shall we say, this time around.

GONYEA: All right. NPR's Michele Kelemen. Michele, thanks.

KELEMEN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.
You're most likely to find NPR's Don Gonyea on the road, in some battleground state looking for voters to sit with him at the local lunch spot, the VFW or union hall, at a campaign rally, or at their kitchen tables to tell him what's on their minds. Through countless such conversations over the course of the year, he gets a ground-level view of American elections. Gonyea is NPR's National Political Correspondent, a position he has held since 2010. His reports can be heard on all NPR News programs and at NPR.org. To hear his sound-rich stories is akin to riding in the passenger seat of his rental car, traveling through Iowa or South Carolina or Michigan or wherever, right along with him.
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