CIA Director William Burns' trip to Beijing has been the highest-level visit by any member of Biden's administration since both nations became entangled over the Chinese spy balloon's flight across the U.S. earlier this year.
It also comes as China and the U.S. grow increasingly at odds with each other over issues such as the South China Sea, the future of the democratic and self-governing island of Taiwan and the Russian special military operation in Ukraine. (Related: Chinese fighter jet flies too close to US recon plane flying over South China Sea.)
Information regarding Burns' trip to China comes from at least five people familiar with the situation who spoke anonymously with the Financial Times, including a former top diplomat frequently entrusted with delicate overseas missions.
"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," said one U.S. official.
Another official claimed that Burns was not able to meet with any Chinese diplomats and instead only engaged with intelligence officials.
The results of Burns' meetings with Chinese officials are not yet known. But the revelation that he secretly engaged with Beijing comes as China has repeatedly and publicly rebuffed American requests for high-level meetings between Chinese and American officials.
Last week, China rejected a request for Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin to meet with his newly-inaugurated Chinese counterpart, Minister Li Shangfu, on the sidelines of a security conference in Singapore later this year.
The White House has also been trying to resurrect a trip to China that Secretary of State Antony Blinken canceled over the Chinese spy balloon incident, but the Chinese Communist Party has so far refused to assent to his visit.
Biden has repeatedly used Burns as his proxy to conduct delicate diplomatic missions that he himself can't be seen at.
The CIA director reportedly traveled to Moscow in November 2021 to warn the Kremlin not to invade Ukraine. He also reportedly traveled to Capitol Hill in late July 2022 to try and convince then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi not to travel to Taiwan.
"As both an experienced diplomat and a senior intelligence official, Burns is uniquely placed to engage in a dialogue that can potentially contribute to the Biden administration's objective of stabilizing ties and putting a floor under the relationship," said Bonnie Glaser, a China expert at public policy think tank German Marshall Fund.
"[Chinese officials] know him as a trusted interlocutor. They would welcome the opportunity to engage with him quietly behind the scenes," said Paul Haenle, a former China director for the White House's National Security Council under former Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. "They will see a quiet, discreet engagement with Burns as a perfect opportunity."
This also continues a long tradition of White House administrations using CIA directors for sensitive diplomatic missions.
Learn more about the threat China poses to the U.S. at CommunistChina.news.
Watch this clip from Fox News as former national security advisor to former President Donald Trump Robert O'Brien warns about China's rapidly growing global influence.