White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan spoke with China’s top diplomat Wang Yi on Friday, people familiar with the matter said, as the two sides look to ease tensions that have continued to build in recent months.
Sullivan’s previously unreported call took place days before Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen is scheduled to stop in the U.S. en route to Central America, a trip that’s likely to further inflame Beijing’s ire. In a sign of the fraught state of U.S.-China ties, neither side opted to publicize the call between Sullivan and Wang.
Spokespeople for the White House and the Chinese Embassy didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment. The people who confirmed the call asked not to be identified discussing private conversations.
The official contact also comes as the Biden administration is looking to arrange a phone call between President Joe Biden and China’s President Xi Jinping. U.S. officials had hoped that would have taken place by now, but China has so far rebuffed efforts to arrange a conversation and the Biden administration now expects it won’t occur until Tsai returns home early next month.
In recent years, relations between the two countries have deteriorated as the the U.S. and China have clashed over everything from trade to technology and the South China Sea.
Those strains have played out across the relationship, making meetings at almost every level either politically impossible or far more fraught. Secretary of State Antony Blinken canceled a trip to China after the U.S. revealed that an alleged Chinese spy balloon was crossing U.S. territory.
Days later, China rebuffed Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin’s effort to speak with his Chinese counterpart after the U.S. shot down the balloon.
Even lower-level ties are fraying. China’s defense attaché in Washington recently declined a request for a lunch meeting with Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Michael Chase after Chase visited Taiwan, people familiar with the matter said.
The State Department has maintained limited working-level contacts. The head of the State Department’s new “China House,” Rick Waters, traveled to Beijing last week to assess the chances of further bilateral exchanges between the two countries, according to people familiar with the trip.
Tsai’s stop in the U.S. is the latest irritant. She’s expected to visit New York on March 29 and 30 and then stop a week later in Los Angeles, where she’s expected to meet House of Representatives Speaker Kevin McCarthy.
Such stopovers are normally routine but will draw new scrutiny given the strained state of U.S.-China ties. China also views the McCarthy meeting as inflammatory because it would be a rare such encounter on U.S. soil.
Ties plunged to a new low last August, when then House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan. That led China to cut off some contacts between the two countries’ militaries.
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