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US, Chinese officials meet in Malta in bid to keep channels open

National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan speaks at a press briefing at the White House in Washington, D.C. on Sept. 5, 2023. (Yuri Gripas/Abaca Press/TNS)
September 18, 2023

U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi discussed a possible meeting of their leaders and communication channels between the world’s biggest economies during two days of talks that ended Sunday.

While the meeting in Malta came at a critical time in U.S.-China relations, Wang is scheduled to visit Moscow for talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov this week. Other world leaders and their aides are heading to New York for the United Nations General Assembly, which Wang and Chinese President Xi Jinping are skipping.

The meetings aimed to make sure that Xi and President Joe Biden were positioned to meet at the APEC summit in San Francisco in November, according to people familiar with China’s preparations for the meeting. The people said that both sides have an interest in stabilizing ties at the moment: China’s leaders are focused on the country’s economic downturn, while U.S. leaders may hope for stabilized ties ahead of the 2024 presidential election.

Still, the chances for any fundamental improvement in ties is slim, the people said, adding that the overall state of U.S.-China relations remains tense.

Wang took over as foreign minister — a post he previously held — after Xi unexpectedly ousted his predecessor, Qin Gang, who hasn’t been seen in public since June 25.

The disappearances of Qin and Chinese Defense Minister Li Shangfu, who the U.S. believes was removed from his post, didn’t come up during the discussion and Sullivan didn’t raise the matter, a senior administration official said.

Sullivan and Wang discussed high-level engagements and committed to consultations on political and security developments in the Asia-Pacific, as well as maritime and arms-control issues and a policy planning consultation. The discussions will take place in the coming months, the official said. A Chinese Foreign Ministry statement gave a similar readout.

Wang reiterated that China considers Taiwan a red line in the relationship, according to the statement.

The two sides appeared to have made their usual points on Taiwan, though Sullivan emphasized that the provision of arms or foreign military assistance to Taipei doesn’t mean the U.S. supports Taiwanese independence or views the island as a sovereign nation, according to the administration official.

“This meeting was part of ongoing efforts to maintain open lines of communication and responsibly manage the relationship,” the White House said in a statement. “The United States noted the importance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait.”

Sullivan and Wang last met in May for two days of talks in Vienna, Austria. They discussed regional issues as well as Russia’s war against Ukraine and matters relating to the Taiwan Strait, which have been a persistent flashpoint in the relationship.

During the weekend meetings, Sullivan raised longstanding U.S. concerns with China’s support for Russia’s war and about Wang’s trip to Moscow, the official said. The U.S. hopes those concerns will make an impression before Wang lands in Moscow, the official added.

The White House has called out China for its increasingly risky military maneuvers in the South China Sea. China maintains that Taiwan is part of the mainland and must be reunified with it, by force if necessary.

China has tried to take a neutral stance on the war in Ukraine, but the U.S. unveiled intelligence this year as part of its accusation that Beijing is providing non-lethal aid to Moscow. The White House warned Beijing not to cross a line with lethal assistance, which U.S. officials at the time said China was considering providing but hasn’t followed through on.

Biden hasn’t spoken to Xi since last year’s Group of 20 summit in Bali, Indonesia. Earlier this year, he predicted a thaw in the relationship and Biden has since dispatched five cabinet members to Beijing for talks with their counterparts.


© 2023 Bloomberg News

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