US and China lay groundwork for first high-level meeting under Biden

US and China lay groundwork for first high-level meeting under Biden

Alaska touted as venue for potential talks between rivals’ top foreign policy officials

Washington and Beijing are hammering out the details of the first high-level meeting between the rival powers since President Joe Biden took office, according to four people familiar with the talks.

The negotiations could lead to Antony Blinken, secretary of state, and Jake Sullivan, national security adviser, meeting their Chinese counterparts.

One option would involve Blinken and Sullivan holding talks with Wang Yi, Chinese foreign minister, and Yang Jiechi, the top Chinese foreign policy official, in Alaska, according to two of the people.

The US state is being considered as a possible location because Blinken could return to Washington via Anchorage from his upcoming trip to Japan and South Korea. The US is also weighing options that would involve only one of the two officials meeting their Chinese counterpart.

One person familiar with the situation stressed that negotiations were continuing and no decisions had been made about timing or location.

Any meeting would be a significant development after Biden adopted a tough stance towards China and signalled that he would hold it to account for “abuses”. These include China’s repression of Muslim Uighurs in Xinjiang, which the US has called “genocide”, the crackdown on the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong and assertive actions towards Taiwan.

Biden raised those issues in his first call with China’s president Xi Jinping, even though Yang had warned the US not to cross such “red lines”. Sullivan has also said the US would impose costs for any egregious behaviour. In his first call with Yang, Blinken said Washington would hold Beijing “accountable for its abuses of the international system”.

If Sullivan and Blinken meet Yang and Wang, it would be the first time a US secretary of state and national security adviser gathered jointly with Chinese officials. The White House and state department did not comment. The South China Morning Post first reported the talks.

The decision to embrace a meeting with China came as Biden prepared to convene a summit with the other members of the Quad — Japan, India and Australia — on Friday. The four nations are trying to work together more closely to counter China without creating an overtly anti-Beijing front.

Blinken and Lloyd Austin, defence secretary, are preparing to travel to Tokyo and Seoul next week. Austin will also visit India.

Two people familiar with the situation said Washington wanted to ensure it was not sidelining China completely while it urged allies to work with the US on adopting a more confrontational stance towards Beijing.

Wang said on Sunday that China was willing to engage with the Biden administration, but urged the US to “move in the same direction and remove all its unreasonable restrictions on bilateral co-operation”.

Wang Huiyao, president of the Center for China and Globalisation think-tank in Beijing, said a meeting would be “the first step on a thousand mile journey” as China tries to convince the US to shelve disputes over human rights in favour of areas of potential co-operation, such as climate change. 

“China has come to accept that the US perceives itself to be in competition with China,” he said. “China this time is not trying to dodge that.”

US officials, however, have said they will not ease up on the criticism. Washington was debating how to respond to Beijing’s plans to pass a sweeping election law this week that would effectively crush any hopes of greater democracy in Hong Kong.

Admiral Philip Davidson, head of US Indo-Pacific command, said on Tuesday that the US was losing its military edge as China continued to erode decades of American-led deterrence in Asia with a rapid military expansion.

“We are accumulating risk that may embolden China to unilaterally change the status quo before our forces may be able to deliver an effective response,” Davidson told the Senate armed services panel.

Additional reporting by Christian Shepherd in Beijing and Tom Mitchell in Singapore

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