CIA Director Bill Burns’ Secret Beijing Visit Signals Biden Admin’s Bid to Repair Strained U.S.-China Relations

In an apparent effort to mend the strained relations between the United States and China, CIA Director Bill Burns made a secret trip to Beijing last month.

This move is a clear indication of the mounting concern within the Biden administration about the worsening ties with China.

Sources with Financial Times, five individuals privy to the matter, have confirmed that Burns, a high-ranking diplomat with extensive experience in managing sensitive international missions, undertook this trip for discussions with Chinese officials.

One individual emphasized that Burns’ visit involved meetings solely with intelligence officials and not any diplomatic encounters.

The official shared, “Last month, director Burns traveled to Beijing where he met with Chinese counterparts and emphasized the importance of maintaining open lines of communications in intelligence channels.”

This visit stands as the highest-level trip to China by a Biden administration official, marking a significant step towards high-level engagement with Beijing, as the White House attempts to regain stability in the relationship.

Both the White House and the CIA have chosen to refrain from commenting on this matter.

Coinciding with Burns’ visit, Jake Sullivan, the U.S. national security adviser, held a meeting with Wang Yi, China’s chief foreign policy official, in Vienna.

This meeting remained unannounced until its conclusion. The last such high-level visit to China by a U.S. official was undertaken by Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, who visited Tianjin in July 2021.

President Biden has often relied on the CIA director to handle intricate assignments, both domestically and internationally.

For instance, Burns was dispatched to Moscow in November 2021 to caution Russian officials against invading Ukraine.

Likewise, Burns was asked by Biden to persuade Nancy Pelosi, then House Speaker, against a proposed visit to Taiwan.

The relationship with China has been turbulent, especially since a suspected Chinese spy balloon was detected over North America in February.

This event disrupted efforts to establish a stable relationship, something both President Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping had agreed on during their meeting at the G20 summit in Bali in November.

Biden has recently hinted at an upcoming “thaw” in relations, without delving into specifics.

Interestingly, this comment was made after Burns’ visit to China, during a G7 summit in Hiroshima.

Paul Haenle, the current director of the Carnegie China think-tank and a former top White House China official, spoke highly of Burns, citing his respect among Democrats, Republicans, and Chinese officials.

He added, “They know him as a trusted interlocutor. They would welcome the opportunity to engage him quietly behind the scenes.”

Respected and trusted by many, Burns is no exception to the long-standing tradition of CIA directors undertaking sensitive assignments.

Dennis Wilder, a former CIA China expert, noted, “CIA directors have a long history of secret diplomacy. They are able to travel in complete secrecy and often have strong relationships with the host intelligence services built over time.”

Efforts are ongoing to arrange a visit to China by Secretary of State Antony Blinken, a trip that was abruptly canceled due to the spy balloon incident.

However, Beijing is yet to give the go-ahead.

Moreover, Li Shangfu, China’s defense minister, has denied meeting U.S. defense secretary Lloyd Austin at the Shangri-La Dialogue security conference in Singapore, citing ongoing sanctions on him.

While a formal meeting was not expected, the Pentagon confirmed that the two ministers “spoke briefly” at the forum’s opening dinner.

The Pentagon stated, “The two leaders shook hands, but did not have a substantive exchange,” according to the Times.