Washington — CIA Director William Burns traveled secretly to Beijing last month, becoming the most senior U.S. official to visit China since relations were soured by the military shootdown in February of a Chinese surveillance balloon that had traversed American territory.
“Last month Director Burns traveled to Beijing where he met with Chinese intelligence counterparts and emphasized the importance of maintaining open lines of communication in intelligence channels,” a U.S. official confirmed to CBS News on Friday.
The Financial Times first reported Burns’ travel to the Chinese capital.
News of the meeting adds to a growing list of carefully orchestrated interactions the administration has arranged since the balloon incident scuttled a previously scheduled trip by Secretary of State Antony Blinken to Beijing, where he had been expected to meet with President Xi Jinping. Neither that trip nor a phone call between the Xi and President Biden has been scheduled.
The Biden administration has acknowledged that other engagements have been intended to reestablish dialogue that had gone dormant on pressing bilateral issues. National security adviser Jake Sullivan also met with China’s top foreign policy official, Wang Yi, in Vienna last month for what the White House described as “candid, substantive, and constructive discussions.”
Last week, Chinese Commerce Minister Wang Wentao met with U.S. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo in Washington, and U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai in Detroit.
And on Friday, the Pentagon announced that Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin met his counterpart, Defense Minister Li Shangfu, at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore. While the two “spoke briefly” and shook hands, there was no “substantive exchange,” according to Pentagon press secretary Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder. The Chinese had previously rebuffed U.S. requests for a meeting, noting Li has been under U.S. sanctions since 2018.
The May visit is Burns’ first to China as CIA director. He and other senior administration officials have previously issued public warnings to Beijing against providing lethal aid to Russia, which U.S. intelligence indicated Chinese leadership was weighing earlier this year.
The CIA declined to comment on the director’s travel, which is kept classified.
A former career diplomat, Burns has been dispatched previously by the administration to sensitive posts in secret. He traveled to Moscow in November 2021 to warn Russian President Vladimir Putin against invading Ukraine. In August of that year, as the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan loomed, Burns also traveled to Kabul to meet with the Taliban’s then-de facto leader, Abdul Ghani Baradar.
Ellee Watson contributed reporting.
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