Blinken to be in Beijing for talks on June 18 -U.S. official

FILE PHOTO: U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken participates in a virtual bilateral meeting with Kenya's President Uhuru Kenyatta during a videoconference at the State Department in Washington, U.S., April 27, 2021. REUTERS/Leah Millis/Pool

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken will travel to China next week for long-delayed talks aimed at stabilizing tense relations, and a U.S. official said he is expected to be there on June 18.

Reuters reported on Wednesday that Blinken would travel to China in the coming weeks, citing an official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

An official on Friday said Blinken would be in Beijing on June 18, but gave no other details.

In February, Washington’s top diplomat scrapped a planned trip to Beijing, which would have been the first by a U.S. secretary of state in five years, over a suspected Chinese spy balloon that flew over the United States.

Washington has been keen to reschedule the trip, and the timing emerged after the Wall Street Journal reported on Thursday that China has reached a secret deal with Cuba to establish an electronic eavesdropping facility on the island roughly 100 miles (160 km) from Florida.

The spokesperson for the White House National Security Council on Thursday said the report was not accurate, while saying that Washington has had “real concerns” about China‚Äôs relationship with Cuba and was closely monitoring it.

The State Department, White House and Pentagon did not, however, immediately respond to requests for comment on a subsequent New York Times report that said China was planning to build a facility in Cuba that U.S. officials were concerned could be capable of spying on the United States by intercepting signals from nearby U.S. military and commercial facilities.

In Havana on Thursday, Cuban Vice Foreign Minister Carlos Fernandez de Cossio dismissed the Journal report as “totally mendacious and unfounded,” calling it a U.S. fabrication meant to justify Washington’s decades-old economic embargo against the island nation. He said Cuba rejects all foreign military presence in Latin America and the Caribbean.

China’s foreign ministry said on Friday that “spreading rumors and slander” was a common tactic of “hacker empire” the United States.

The Cuba issue could raise questions about Blinken’s planned trip, intended by Washington to be a major step toward what President Joe Biden has called a “thaw” in relations between the world’s two largest economies.

Ties have deteriorated over disputes ranging from military activity in the South China Sea and near Taiwan, Beijing’s human rights record, and technology competition.

U.S. Senator Mark Warner, chairman of the Select Committee on Intelligence, and Senator Marco Rubio, the panel’s vice chair, said on Thursday they were “deeply disturbed” by the Journal report and urged the Biden administration “to take steps to prevent this serious threat to our national security and sovereignty.”

A spokesperson for China’s Washington Embassy said it had no information about Blinken’s trip, but referred to Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping’s last meeting in November, and added: “China is open to having dialogue with the United States. We hope the U.S. will work in the same direction with China, and jointly implement the important common understandings between the two Presidents in their Bali meeting.”

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