The United States will seek to expand cooperation with Beijing when Secretary of State Antony Blinken visits China next year, a senior State Department official said in a recent interview, calling the trip the "next step" in advancing talks toward stabilizing ties between the major powers.
Returning from last week's trip to China, Japan and South Korea, Daniel Kritenbrink, the top U.S. diplomat for East Asia, also described the trilateral cooperation involving Tokyo and Seoul as reaching an "unprecedented level," and warned North Korea that further missile tests will be met with a resolute response.
Kritenbrink visited China in a follow up of last month's meeting between U.S. President Joe Biden and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit in the Indonesian resort island of Bali, with the two tasking their teams to discuss "principles" to manage their competition.
The leaders, who met for the first time in person after Biden took office in January last year, also agreed at the time that Blinken would visit China for follow-up discussions.
Kritenbrink said during the interview at the State Department that Blinken's trip to China early next year -- his first as secretary of state -- will be "the next step" in advancing discussions "on a full range of issues on our bilateral agenda."
"We hope that it will contribute to responsibly managing the competition between us, or, as we say, building a floor under the relationship in the name of hopefully imparting some stability to the relationship," he said, noting that the secretary is also expected to "discuss ways we can expand cooperation."
The Biden administration has cited global challenges such as climate change, health and food security issues as potential areas that the world's two largest economies should work together on.
While efforts continue to maintain open lines of communication between the two countries, the assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs indicated the difficulty of seeking an immediate breakthrough in their bilateral ties, which have been overshadowed by tensions over Taiwan, trade and other issues.
"The diplomacy that we've conducted with China, particularly between our presidents in Bali, I think it was constructive," he said. "But it doesn't represent a fundamental change... in this very consequential but complex relationship."
The Biden administration will maintain its approach to China based on three key pillars -- investing in strength at home, aligning with allies and partners in buttressing the regional and global rules-based order, and competing with China vigorously but in a responsible way that does not lead to miscalculation, he said.
It also believes in the importance of establishing what it calls guardrails, so that competition does not veer into conflict.
Concerns linger over China's growing pressure on Taiwan, a self-ruled democratic island which Beijing views as its own, and the country's assertiveness in the East and South China seas.
Recalling his visit to Japan and South Korea, Kritenbrink said he compared notes with officials of the two Asian allies about the "growing trilateral cooperation" and "the improvement of bilateral relations" between Tokyo and Seoul.
Signs of a thaw between Japan and South Korea have emerged after South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol took over in May from Moon Jae In with a pledge to take a future-oriented approach toward the relationship with Japan. Yoon has also favored stronger ties with the United States.
Under Moon's tenure, the relationship between Tokyo and Seoul sank to their lowest level in decades over a host of issues stemming from Japan's 1910-1945 colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula.
But interactions have been increasing bilaterally and trilaterally, with leaders of the United States, Japan and South Korea holding in June their first trilateral summit meeting since 2017. Japan and South Korea also held their first official talks in about three years between their leaders in November.
Kritenbrink said "unprecedented steps" have been taken over the past year to expand the three-way security cooperation. He emphasized that discussions regarding deterring North Korea were held "at length" during his recent trip to Asia, but did not elaborate.
Pyongyang has fired a barrage of ballistic missiles over the past year, and recently threatened to test an intercontinental ballistic missile on a normal trajectory, as opposed to a lofted manner to limit the flight distance -- an act that would be seen as highly provocative, as the weapon would fly toward the Pacific Ocean.
North Korea is also feared to be preparing what would become its first nuclear test since September 2017 and seventh overall.
Against additional provocations by North Korea, "We're going to respond very resolutely," Kritenbrink said, while touching on ongoing efforts to ensure the strict enforcement of U.N. Security Council resolutions and related sanctions aimed at impeding North Korea's progress on its weapons development.
But he also emphasized that the "door to diplomacy with North Korea remains open."
"North Korea needs to seize that opportunity," Kritenbrink said. "But unfortunately, so far they have not."