The director of the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) travelled to Beijing last month in secret, in an effort to “stabilise” Chinese-American relations.
Bill Burns, a former diplomat regularly entrusted with overseas negotiations, made the clandestine visit to China as Washington ramps up efforts to engage with Beijing.
He is the most senior member of the Biden administration to have visited the country.
“Last month, director Burns travelled to Beijing where he met with Chinese counterparts and emphasised the importance of maintaining open lines of communications in intelligence channels,” a US official said, according to the Financial Times.
“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,” said Dennis Wilder, a former CIA China expert.
Paul Haenle, a former top White House China official, said Mr Burns is widely regarded as a “trusted interlocutor”.
“[China] would welcome the opportunity to engage him quietly behind the scenes,” said Mr Haenle, now director of the Carnegie China think-tank. “They will see a quiet discreet engagement with Burns as a perfect opportunity.”
Mr Burns has previously been sent on delicate diplomat endeavours. He travelled to Moscow in November 2021 to warn Russian officials not to invade Ukraine, and was sent to Capitol Hill to persuade Nancy Pelosi, then House Speaker not to travel to Taiwan.
The White House has been re-establishing lines of communication with China after a rocky patch, precipitated by a hostile exchange in February when a suspected Chinese spy balloon flew over North America.
The US secretary of state Antony Blinken’s planned trip to China was swiftly scrapped because of the balloon, and has not been re-organised.
The incident soured interactions between US president Joe Biden and China’s Xi Jinping, despite agreements about improving communication made at the G20 in Bali in November.
Ahead of this weekend, Chinese defence minister Li Shangfu has refused to meet Lloyd Austin, the US defence secretary in Singapore, because Washington has sanctions against him.
The Pentagon said the politicians spoke “briefly” at the opening dinner.
“The two leaders shook hands, but did not have a substantive exchange,” a statement said.