Blinken, China’s Top Diplomat Hold First Meeting Since Balloon Incident


In Munich meeting, spokesman says Blinken told China’s Wang balloon flights mustn’t happen again

‘We are advocating for peace talks,’ China’s Wang Yi said at the Munich Security Conference, referring to Russia’s war in Ukraine.Photo: Petr David Josek/Associated Press

By guest authors Keith Zhai and William Mauldin from the Wall Street Journal. Laurence Norman contributed to this article.

Updated Feb. 18, 2023

MUNICH—Senior officials from the U.S. and China traded accusations over the downed Chinese balloon in a tense atmosphere of public speeches and a secret meeting Saturday between the countries’ top diplomats.

Wang Yi, China’s most senior foreign-policy official, used a morning speech at the Munich Security Conference to criticize the “nearly hysterical” reaction of Washington to the appearance of its balloon over U.S. territory.

In the afternoon, Vice President Kamala Harris and Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned China against helping Russia in its war in Ukraine in front of a broad audience of diplomats and military officers at the conference.

In the evening, Messrs. Blinken and Wang sat down for an hourlong meeting that wasn’t publicly scheduled, and Mr. Blinken told his counterpart that China’s surveillance balloon program “has been exposed to the world,” according to the State Department.

“The secretary directly spoke to the unacceptable violation of U.S. sovereignty and international law by the PRC high-altitude surveillance balloon in U.S. territorial airspace, underscoring that this irresponsible act must never again occur,” spokesman Ned Price said in a statement, referring to the People’s Republic of China.

The meeting in Munich was intended to restore high-level communications with Beijing, part of the Biden administration’s effort to put a “floor” on deteriorating relations between the two countries after the balloon incident and the visit last year to Taiwan of then House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Mr. Price said in the statement that Mr. Blinken “underscored the importance of maintaining diplomatic dialogue and open lines of communication at all times.”

Ahead of the meeting, Chinese officials had expressed optimism, according to people familiar with the issue, who said both sides recognize the need to address frayed tensions around the balloon.

Wang Huiyao, a member of the Chinese delegation in Munich, said, “the meeting of the two top diplomats paved the way for the resumption of future high-level dialogue between the two sides, and the two countries can now talk beyond the balloon issue and come back to the negotiating table on some other pressing issues.”

Yet it wasn’t clear whether the sit-down would clear the poisoned air.

The Chinese side didn’t provide “anything that provides any kind of credible explanation as to what this balloon was,” a senior State Department official said.

“It’s safe to say there was no apology” about the surveillance balloon, Mr. Blinken said in an interview for CBS’s “Face the Nation,” due to air Sunday.

After the meeting, China’s state-run Xinhua News Agency said, “At the request of the U.S. side,” Mr. Wang had an “informal meeting” with Mr. Blinken.

Mr. Wang stated China’s position on the balloon incident, and urged the U.S. to resolve the damage to the relationship caused by “the indiscriminate use of force,” Xinhua said, a reference to the shooting down of the Chinese balloon by a U.S. jet fighter on Feb. 4.

People following the diplomatic spat said that Mr. Blinken’s meeting was intended mainly to restore normal communications with Beijing rather than to work on a variety of problems in the bilateral relationship.

Besides the balloon issue, Mr. Blinken expressed “deepening concern” about China’s support for Russia’s war in Ukraine, and there was a “candid exchange” on Taiwan and a condemnation of North Korea’s launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile on Saturday, the senior State Department official said.

Officials didn’t immediately announce the next step in communications between Washington and Beijing, but Mr. Blinken reiterated President Biden’s expectation that he will have a telephone call with Chinese leader Xi Jinping in the future, the official said.

The meeting didn’t follow the State Department’s common practice, since officials didn’t add it to Mr. Blinken’s list of engagements for the day or allow reporters or photographers to capture images or public remarks before or after.

Mr. Blinken’s motorcade left his Munich hotel from an underground parking garage, and a department spokesman declined to comment on plans for the meeting reported by The Wall Street Journal. Later the spokesman confirmed the meeting, moments before Mr. Blinken returned to the hotel for television interviews.

Mr. Wang, speaking Saturday before an audience of largely Western defense and security officials at the Munich Security Conference, also said Beijing would set out its position on a potential “political resolution of the Ukrainian crisis” next week, timed to the first anniversary of Russia’s war in Ukraine.

“We are against profiting from others’ misfortune. We are advocating for peace talks,” Mr. Wang said, reiterating China’s position that the Ukraine crisis wasn’t something it wanted to see. “We are not sitting idly by, nor are we adding fuel to the fire,” he said.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg signaled doubt that Beijing could play the role of a sincere mediator in Russia’s war in Ukraine.Photo: Johannes Simon/Press Pool

Asked about China’s plans for a peace proposal, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg told reporters that the Chinese ideas seemed “quite vague,” and signaled doubt about whether Beijing could play the role of a sincere mediator. “China has not been able to condemn the invasion,” he said. “China has not been able to say that this is an illegal war.”

In his speech, Mr. Wang laid out a sweeping critique of the U.S. for what he described as its “misperception and strategic misjudgment” of China.

Stoltenberg  NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg signaled doubt that Beijing could play the role of a sincere mediator in Russia’s war in Ukraine.Photo: Johannes Simon/Press Pool

Washington abruptly postponed a scheduled trip to Beijing by Mr. Blinken shortly after tracking the Chinese balloon flying over the American heartland. Mr. Blinken told Mr. Wang at the time that the balloon’s flight had violated U.S. sovereignty and undermined the purpose of the visit. Chinese officials have said the balloon was intended for research purposes and was blown off course.

On Ukraine, American diplomats have reiterated warnings to their Chinese counterparts against getting involved in Russia’s war effort in Ukraine, which was the main topic of discussion at the Munich conference.

Mr. Blinken in Munich told a Ukraine-focused panel, “We’ve made clear to our Chinese counterparts…that we would view any provision of military assistance or evading sanctions as a very serious problem.”

Speaking shortly after Mr. Wang in Munich, NATO’s Mr. Stoltenberg said that Beijing was watching the war in Ukraine closely to see if Russia’s aggression would succeed—particularly as it looks for ways to gain control of Taiwan, a separately governed democratic island off the coast of the Chinese mainland.

“What is happening in Europe today could happen in Asia tomorrow,” Mr. Stoltenberg said.

Asked after his speech to reassure the audience in Munich that a military escalation over Taiwan is not imminent, Mr. Wang demurred.

“I will briefly assure the audience that Taiwan is part of Chinese territory. It has never been a country and it will not be a country in the future,” he replied. “It is not China who wants to change the status quo but Taiwan’s separatist forces on the island.”