US national security adviser Jake Sullivan and China’s top diplomat Wang Yi have held talks in Vienna in an attempt to stabilise relations between the countries, which have hit their lowest level since diplomatic ties were normalised in 1979.
The White House said they held two days of “candid, substantive and constructive” discussions on issues that included the US-China relationship, global security matters, Russia’s war against Ukraine and Taiwan.
“The two sides agreed to maintain this important strategic channel of communication to advance these objectives, building on the engagement between President Joe Biden and President Xi in Bali, Indonesia, in November 2022,” the White House said.
In Bali, on the sidelines of a G20 summit, the two leaders agreed that they needed to set a “floor” under the relationship and to ensure competition between the powers did not “veer into conflict”, particularly as tensions remain high over Taiwan.
Early efforts to kick-start high-level dialogue in the wake of the Bali meeting were derailed after a suspected Chinese spy balloon flew over North America before being shot down by the US off the coast of South Carolina in early February. Secretary of state Antony Blinken cancelled a planned visit to China because of the episode.
Blinken met Wang at the Munich Security Conference in February but it was a tense and unproductive meeting.
He is now trying to reschedule his visit to China and Treasury secretary Janet Yellen and commerce secretary Gina Raimondo are also attempting to arrange trips to Beijing. But the two sides have so far failed to reach an agreement, unless Sullivan negotiated one with Wang in Vienna.
The Financial Times reported last month that China was reluctant to agree to a visit from Blinken because it was concerned that the FBI planned to release a report about the Chinese balloon following its analysis of the debris salvaged off the coast of South Carolina.
The FT reported on Thursday that Beijing told Washington it was unwilling to schedule a meeting between Li Shangfu, its defence minister, and his US counterpart Lloyd Austin when the two officials attend the Shangri-La Dialogue security forum in Singapore in June. China wants the US to remove sanctions placed on Li in 2018 as a precondition to any meeting.
The US has told Beijing that the curbs, imposed in connection with the Chinese purchase of Russian fighter jets and missiles, did not preclude a meeting in a third country. But Beijing believes it would be inappropriate to agree to the talks while their defence minister remains under sanctions. Several people familiar with the debate in the Biden administration said there was no intention to lift the Trump-era restrictions on Li.
Biden has also been trying to schedule a call with Xi to try to break the stalemate in relations. In the first two years of the administration, Sullivan met his then counterpart, Yang Jiechi, on several occasions in third countries, for talks that often paved the way for a call, video meeting, or in-person meeting of the leaders.
In another sign that relations may be marginally improving, China’s foreign minister Qin Gang this week met US ambassador Nicholas Burns in Beijing. US trade representative Katherine Tai is also expected to meet the Chinese commerce minister Wang Wentao at an Apec trade meeting in Detroit this month.
Several people familiar with the situation said Xie Feng, the incoming Chinese ambassador to the US, would arrive soon, and possibly this month. The position has been vacant for months after Qin, his predecessor, departed Washington to become China’s foreign minister.