US, China renew high-level engagement; Blinken may visit Beijing
US national security adviser Jake Sullivan met Chinese Communist Party Politburo Member and Director of the Office of the Foreign Affairs Commission Wang Yi in Vienna.
Washington: The United States and China have renewed their high-level engagement with American national security adviser (NSA) Jake Sullivan meeting Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Politburo Member and Director of the Office of the Foreign Affairs Commission Wang Yi on Wednesday and Thursday in Vienna.
The two officials, according to a statement by the White House, had “candid, substantive, and constructive discussions” on key issues in the bilateral relationship, global and regional security issues, Russia’s war against Ukraine, and cross-Strait issues, among other topics.
“This meeting was part of ongoing efforts to maintain open lines of communication and responsibly manage competition. The two sides agreed to maintain this important strategic channel of communication to advance these objectives, building on the engagement between President Biden and President Xi in Bali, Indonesia, in November 2022,” the statement read.
When President Joe Biden and Xi Jinping met in Bali, Biden, according to a White House readout, had told the Chinese leader that while the US will continue to “compete vigorously” with China, this competition must not “veer into conflict”. This required both sides to maintain open channels of communication. They then agreed that Secretary of State Antony J Blinken would travel to Beijing to follow-up on the leader-level discussion.
In early February, just days before Blinken was scheduled to visit Beijing, the US discovered a Chinese surveillance balloon traversing across its continental territory and subsequently shot down the balloon. The US Congress, and wider American public opinion, turned even more sharply against China and Blinken rescheduled his visit for a later date. China rejected the allegation that it was a surveillance balloon, asserted it was meant for meteorological purposes that had veered off course, and claimed that the US overreacted. Washington however said that this was a part of a wider pattern of Chinese surveillance balloons dispatched to dozens of countries across the world.
Subsequently, on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference, Blinken met and warned Wang Yi against China providing lethal arms to Russia to aid its aggression against Ukraine. The US had intelligence inputs that China was considering providing such aid, but had not done so yet.
While the relationship went in deep freeze for a few weeks, American policymakers have recently been emphasising that they do not seek a decoupling with Chinese economy and reiterated the need to maintain channels of communication. Earlier this week, US ambassador to China R Nicholas Burns met Chinese foreign minister Qin Gang, who had until recently had served as China’s ambassador in Washington DC.
When asked about the meeting, and whether it meant that he would now reschedule his visit to China, Blinken, at a press appearance on Tuesday, said that he would not go into the details of the ambassador’s conversations.
“What I can say is this. What we have communicated to our colleagues in the government in Beijing is the importance from our perspective in engagement, precisely because we have a deeply complicated and also consequential relationship that is important to people in the United States and China, but beyond that around the world; that our two presidents agreed when they met in Bali at the end of last year that it would be important to establish and strengthen our lines of communication; and that we believe that that’s in our interests and also something that the rest of the world expects us to do because there’s an expectation that we will responsibly manage the relationship.”
Blinken added that it was precisely because they had “profound differences”, the two countries had some responsibility not only to manage those differences so that the competition didn’t veer into conflict, but also explore areas of cooperation where it was in mutual interest and to respond to global needs. “Engagement is the way that we try to pursue both of those responsibilities. So that’s the nature of the conversation that we’re having with China in this moment, and we’ll see where that goes.”
A person familiar with the US system’s thinking on China pointed out that efforts at engagement should not be read as a dilution of the American commitment to compete with China in any way. He said that both the US national security and national defence strategy had already recognised China as the primary challenge; the US had imposed severe technology restrictions on China; Washington was committed to Quad (which includes US, Japan, Australia and India) and AUKUS (the nuclear submarine pact between Australia, United Kingdom and the US); and that the US had worked closely with Japan, South Korea and Philippines in recent months, all of which have concerns about China.
“Given the larger strategic environment, as well as domestic political mood in the US with the Congress keeping a vigilant eye on China, there is no possibility of a reset with Beijing. What Washington hopes for is finding a way to calm tempers. It also shows to the rest of the region which doesn’t want to get caught in a Washington-Beijing conflict that US is open to engagement. Diplomacy involves talking. And talking doesn’t mean agreement,” the person added.
While Sullivan had been primarily engaging, till last year, with Yang Jiechi, a reshuffle in Chinese political ranks saw Wang Yi move on from being foreign minister to taking on Yang Jiechi’s role as director of the Office of the Central Foreign Affairs Commission this January. The Sullivan-Wang Yi channel appears to have now set the stage for the US Secretary of State’s visit to Beijing in the coming weeks.