U.S. envoy Sullivan to meet China’s top diplomat Yang amid tensions

U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan holds a news briefing about the situation in Afghanistan
FILE PHOTO: U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan holds a news briefing about the situation in Afghanistan at the White House in Washington, U.S., August 17, 2021. REUTERS/Leah Millis

October 5, 2021

By Steve Holland, David Brunnstrom and Michael Martina

WASHINGTON/BEIJING (Reuters) -U.S. President Joe Biden’s national security adviser will hold talks with China’s top diplomat Yang Jiechi in Switzerland this week, the White House said on Tuesday, upholding a pledge by both countries’ leaders for officials to boost communication.

The meeting, in Zurich, will come at a time of heightened tensions between the world’s two largest economies over a broad range of issues, including Taiwan.

“They will follow up on President Biden’s September 9 call with President Xi as we continue to seek to responsibly manage the competition between the United States and the People’s Republic of China,” the White House said in a statement.

It will be Sullivan’s first face-to-face meeting with Yang since acrimonious exchanges between the two in Alaska in March, which also involved U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

Blinken, currently on a visit to Paris, held a call with Yang in June and stressed the need for cooperation and transparency over the origins of COVID-19 and raised other contentious topics, including China’s treatment of Uyghur Muslims, Hong Kong and Taiwan.

The White House said Sullivan would also visit Brussels for meetings with NATO and European Union officials, as well as Paris, and would brief European allies and partners on his meeting with Yang.

It said that in Brussels he will discuss with NATO counterparts the implementation of a decision at the June NATO summit to modernize the alliance and address strategic challenges. He will be joined by U.S. Deputy National Security Advisor Daleep Singh in meetings with the EU on trade, technology and global economic issues, it said.

Earlier, Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post newspaper quoted an official familiar with the arrangements for the Zurich meeting as saying that Sullivan and Yang would meet on Tuesday and Wednesday and that the objective was “to rebuild communication channels and implement consensus reached between presidents Xi Jinping and Joe Biden.”

Biden’s Sept. 9 call with Xi ended a nearly seven-month gap in direct communication between the leaders, and they discussed the need to ensure that competition does not veer into conflict.

With trade tensions also at the top of the U.S.-China agenda, U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai, who was in Paris on Tuesday to participate in Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development meetings, has said she hopes to hold discussions with Chinese counterparts soon.


On Monday, Tai unveiled the results of a months-long “top-to-bottom” review of China trade policy, pledging to hold “frank” talks with Beijing about its failure to keep promises made in former President Donald Trump’s trade deal and end harmful industrial policies.

The Global Times, a Chinese tabloid published by the ruling Communist Party’s official People’s Daily, said Beijing was willing to build mutually beneficial trade with Washington but would not make concessions on principle and was not afraid of a drawn-out contest.

“The China-U.S. trade war has lasted for more than three-and-a-half years. Instead of being weakened, China’s economy has taken a step forward in comparison with the scale of the U.S.,” the Global Times said.

The series of talks between officials from the two powers since Biden took office in January have shown little in the way of concrete progress.

U.S. officials said the Biden-Xi call was a test of whether direct top-level engagement could end what had become a stalemate in ties, which are at the worst level in decades.

After that call, Biden denied on Tuesday a media report that Xi turned down an offer from Biden for a first face-to-face meeting as leaders.

“It’s not a thaw. It’s not a re-embrace of engagement. It’s about getting serious and systematic about competition,” Evan Medeiros, an Asia specialist in the Obama administration who teaches at Georgetown University, said of the Zurich meeting.

“That means being very clear about boundaries, our perceptions of their behaviour, particularly the recent number of air force strike packages around Taiwan.”

China has blamed Washington for increased tensions over the democratically governed island claimed by Beijing, even as it has conducted an unprecedented number of incursions by its air force into Taiwan’s air defence zone.

But analysts say increased communication between senior U.S. and Chinese officials could allow progress in some aspects of ties – for example, allowing more journalists to return to each other’s countries and reopening shuttered consulates in Houston and Chengdu.

The G20 summit in Italy at the end of this month has been talked about as a possible venue for a face-to-face Biden-Xi meeting, but Xi has not left China since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic early last year.

“I think the hope is that it will lead to a Biden-Xi Jinping meeting, which may have to be virtual,” said Bonnie Glaser, an Asia expert at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

(Reporting by Ryan Woo in Beijing and Aakriti Bhalla in Bengaluru and Steve Holland, David Brunnstrom and Michael Martina in Washington; Editing by Heather Timmons, Alistair Bell and Mark Heinrich)

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