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Blinken calls China talks 'constructive,' while acknowledging 'deep differences'

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with China's president, Xi Jinping today, capping the first visit by a top U.S. diplomat to Beijing in five years.

ANTONY BLINKEN: Keeping those lines of communication open and, in effect, reopening them is, in and of itself, very, very important. Direct engagement, sustained communications at senior levels is the best way to responsibly manage our relationship. It's the best way to responsibly manage the differences - the deep differences that we have to make sure that the competition that we're in doesn't veer into conflict.

FADEL: I spoke with Secretary Blinken this morning and asked him about a diplomatic visit that has not been matched by a meeting between the top military officials in Beijing and Washington.

BLINKEN: These military-to-military contacts are hugely important if we're going to avoid an unintentional conflict. And that was only reinforced over the last couple of weeks. We saw incidents on the seas and in the skies that were really dangerous and, in our judgment, unprofessional. So that's exactly why I've raised it. I don't have any immediate progress to report on that. I can tell you it's an ongoing priority. And that's something that we've made clear and we'll continue to work on.

FADEL: One of the areas in which, really, there is global concern around conflict is Taiwan. Beijing blames Washington - or really, Beijing and Washington are trading blame for the rising tension. China blames the U.S. for bringing up its human rights record for what China perceives as growing support of Taiwan. With presidential elections in Taiwan in January, are you concerned things may escalate?

BLINKEN: Well, Taiwan is a question - a challenge that we've actually managed successfully for, you know, nearly five decades. And it really is, in a way, a hallmark of the success of responsible management because we've succeeded in preserving peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait for four decades. But we have real concerns about the direction that this has taken in recent years where China has taken reckless actions. We have a fundamental understanding that differences with regard to Taiwan will be resolved peacefully, that neither side will take any unilateral actions that could upset the status quo. We reiterated the policy that we followed from administration to administration, Republican and Democrat alike, of the "One China" policy. That's not changed. I made that very clear. We don't support Taiwan's independence.

And again, we oppose any unilateral actions by either side that would change the status quo. So it was important both - for China to understand that there has been no change to our policy. The concern that we have is China changing its policy when it comes to resolving these differences peacefully. And I also shared that this is not just our concern. It's the concern of many countries around the world. And there's a very good reason for that. If there were to be a crisis over Taiwan, you've got about 50% of the global commercial container traffic that goes through the Taiwan Strait every day - 50%. Half of the world's trade, in effect, goes through there every day. You've got about 70% of high-end semiconductors that are produced on Taiwan.

If either of those things were taken offline as a result of a crisis, it could have devastating consequences for the global economy, which is why countries around the world are looking with increasing concern at actions that are being taken that could disrupt the status quo, that could produce some kind of conflict or result in a crisis that has these consequences. So that's something that I shared, as well. It's tremendously important that we communicate clearly, directly about Taiwan. It's something, of course, that's a primary concern for China. So here we had really very direct, very detailed, very explicit conversations. And at the very least, that brings more clarity to each of us about what the other is thinking.

FADEL: In the U.S., there's pressure on both sides of the aisle here to be tough on China, and that seems like it will grow as the 2024 election approaches. China's leadership is surely constrained by domestic perceptions of the U.S., as well. How do you prevent those domestic pressures and constraints from pushing you into policy choices that aren't optimal on either side?

BLINKEN: We have a responsibility to defend, protect and advance the interests of the United States and its people. And that is what motivates us in our relationship with China and, for that matter, with any other country. And we believe the best way to do that is to do exactly what we've done over the last 2 1/2 years. We've made major investments - historic investments - at home in our infrastructure, in our technology, in our research and development capacity, in our competitiveness. And at the same time, we reengaged with allies and partners, and we created much greater alignment - convergence - with them on the approach to China. The result is that we're now dealing with the challenges that China poses from a position of much greater strength than when we started. And so from that new foundation that we built, we're better able to deal with the profound differences, as well as, again, to look for areas where it makes sense to cooperate. But the lead instrument we have now in doing that is our diplomacy.

And so it would be irresponsible not to engage and counterproductive to our interests. It's the best way to avoid misunderstandings and miscalculations that could lead to conflict. It's the best way to make clear, as I said, our position and intent when it comes to our profound differences. It's the best way to stand up for human rights. It's the best way to explore whether we can work together in our mutual interest. It's probably the only way to do things like get some detained Americans home, to produce cooperation on fentanyl, the leading killer of Americans aged 18 to 49, to defend the interests of our workers and our companies who are operating in China. So I think we set a very strong foundation, and now we're using engagement to try to advance our interests and to protect them.

FADEL: Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaking to us from Beijing as he wraps up his visit. Thank you for taking the time.

BLINKEN: Good to be with 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.

Leila Fadel
Leila Fadel is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.