President Biden met with China’s top diplomat on Friday to prepare for Mr. Biden’s planned meeting with President Xi Jinping next month, as relations remain strained between Washington and Beijing.
Amid cordial talks on cooperation between the United States and China, official Wang Yi concluded a visit to Washington. During the three-day trip, the diplomat also met twice with Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken and with Mr. Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan. In all, the meetings lasted about 10 hours, US officials said.
The journey of Mr. Wang was a reminder that even as the Biden administration struggles to manage a new crisis in the Middle East, its top officials remain focused on their top long-term foreign policy priority: managing relations with China.
Those relations have recently been defined by tensions over issues such as Chinese espionage and US restrictions on technology exports to China. And they were severely tested in February when a Chinese spy balloon flew over the United States before being shot down by a US fighter jet off the coast of North Carolina.
But officials in the Biden administration say cooperation with China remains vital on issues such as climate change and artificial intelligence, and that dialogue can reduce the risk of conflict over China’s territorial claims on the democratic island of Taiwan.
To that end, a parade of top American officials have traveled to China in recent months, including Mr. Blinken, Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellin and Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo. Mr. Sullivan met with Mr. Wangom twice before in the last few months.
A brief statement released by the White House on Friday highlighted the themes of cooperation. It said Mr. Biden told Mr. Wang that their countries “need to responsibly manage competitive relations and maintain open lines of communication” and “work together to address global challenges.”
Not everything was about cooperation: a senior US official, who spoke on condition of anonymity about sensitive diplomacy, said that Mr. Blinken pressed Mr. Wang on issues including human rights in China’s Xinjiang province, Chinese military activity in China. South China and East China Seas, and Americans detained in China.
A summary of Mr Sullivan’s three-hour meeting said the two officials also held “frank, constructive and substantive discussions” on issues such as the Israel-Hamas conflict, Ukraine and Taiwan.
The meetings come just two weeks before Mr Biden and Mr Xi are expected to meet on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in San Francisco in mid-November. The two last met in November last year on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit in Bali, Indonesia.
Ryan Hass, former National Security Council director for China affairs in the Obama White House, said Mr. Wang’s visit would help shape the agenda for an expected meeting between Mr. Biden and Mr. Xi next month.
“Restoring diplomatic engagement will reduce the risk of miscalculations, build space to manage relationship stress and ensure that Xi is forced to confront the US’s articulation of his goals and priorities when forming his views on US intentions towards the relationship,” Mr Hass said.
Although U.S. officials say they are preparing for a meeting between Mr. Xi and Mr. Biden, Beijing has not confirmed Mr. Xi’s attendance at the November summit — perhaps in part to avoid embarrassment if another upheaval in U.S.-China relations forces a cancellation, said Yun Sun, a senior fellow at the Stimson Center. Chinese officials were angry when Mr. Blinken scrapped a planned visit to Beijing at the last minute after the spy bubble sparked national outrage. (Mr. Biden said the balloon “went off course” and that Mr. Xi was unaware of its flight path. Mr. Blinken eventually traveled in June.)
Despite the shyness, Ms. Sun said Mr. Xi was likely eager for the meeting, hoping to show his people that he is a world leader of the highest order — even if Beijing’s expectations are low for resolving conflicts such as lifting U.S. restrictions on semiconductor chip exports to China, to help maintain America’s edge in artificial intelligence and other advanced technologies.
Biden officials, for their part, are hoping for a stable relationship heading into the 2024 election. They are also eager for Beijing’s help in curbing exports of chemicals used to make fentanyl to Mexico and in reining in Russia’s pursuit of the war in Ukraine, among other things.
Mr. Wang did not answer questions from reporters during his visit. In brief remarks before his meeting with Mr. Blinken, he said the goal of his talks in Washington was to “stabilize China-US relations.”
He appeared to suggest the relationship had been marred by outspoken China hawks, saying “there will be some disturbing voices from time to time”.
When that happens, he added, “China treats it calmly because we believe that what is right and what is wrong is not determined by who has the stronger hand or the louder voice.”
Mr. Wang was appointed director of the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Committee on Foreign Affairs in January. His title was expanded to foreign minister in July, following the mysterious disappearance of his predecessor in the job, Qin Gang, who had held the post for just a few months before being sacked without explanation.
Despite the flurry of high-level diplomacy, Ms. Sun said relations between the United States and China remained strained. “The question is how long this will last. That is not called ‘improving’ the relationship,” she said. “The word you hear is stabilization – you don’t hear ‘improvement’ from anyone.”
That view was echoed by The Global Times, a nationalist Communist Party tabloid, which published article about the trip of Mr. Wang said that although “the current interactions can be seen as a positive signal for China-US relations”, US policy towards China remains focused on “containment and containment”.