New U.S. secretary of state favors cooperation with China despite genocide of Uighurs

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Wednesday, his first full day in the job, that he favored cooperation with China on climate change and other issues of shared concern, even as he reiterated that genocide had been committed against Uighur Muslims in its Xinjiang region.

Newly confirmed U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken concludes his first press briefing at the State Department in Washington, U.S., January 27, 2021. REUTERS/Carlos Barria/Pool

The U.S.-China relationship was “arguably the most important relationship that we have in the world,” he told reporters.

“Increasingly, that relationship has some adversarial aspects to it. It has competitive ones. And it also still has cooperative ones,” he said, adding that battling climate change was in the interest of both countries.

“I think, and hope, that we’ll be able to pursue that, but that fits within the larger context of, of our foreign policy, and of many issues of concern that we have with China; issues that we need to need to work through.”

Blinken was asked how it would be possible to cooperate with China after his predecessor, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, said last week that China had committed genocide against Muslims in Xinjiang. Blinken endorsed that determination at his confirmation hearing last week.

“My judgment remains that genocide was committed against the Uighurs and that hasn’t changed,” Blinken said on Wednesday when asked about comments earlier in the day by President Joe Biden’s pick to be U.N. ambassador, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, that the State Department was reviewing the determination “because all of the procedures were not followed.”

“I haven’t actually seen what Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield said, so I can’t comment on it,” Blinken said.

Blinken was greeted at the State Department in the morning by employees wearing masks and keeping their distance as a coronavirus precaution.

Addressing them, he promised to repair ties with global partners and show the world America can lead, adding that conversations he had had already showed a “very, very strong desire for the United States to be back in the room.”

Past President Donald Trump’s “America First” policies frayed Washington’s traditional alliances and a Jan. 6 storming of the U.S. Capitol by a pro-Trump mob further marred America’s global standing.

The Biden administration has vowed a tough approach to “out-compete” China, but backers of a hardline policy towards Beijing have raised concerns that it may be forced to compromise on this to make progress on issues such as climate and North Korea.

The White House special presidential envoy for climate, John Kerry, told a White House briefing earlier that no issues Washington has with China would be “traded” for climate.

Separately, Blinken said he had asked Zalmay Khalilzad to stay on as the U.S. special representative to Afghanistan peace moves, calling his work “vital.”

Khalilzad negotiated a February 2020 agreement with the Taliban for a U.S. troop withdrawal from America’s longest war in return for security guarantees from the insurgents.

Blinken said the Biden administration was reviewing the agreement “to make sure that we totally understand the commitments that the Taliban have made as well as any commitments that we’ve made.”

Reporting by Humeyra Pamuk, Simon Lewis, David Brunnstrom, Jonathan Landay and Doina Chiacu; Writing by David Brunnstrom; Editing by Leslie Adler and Howard Goller