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White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan met Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi in the latest effort to stabilise US-China relations ahead of a possible meeting between Joe Biden and Xi Jinping in November.
The White House said Sullivan and Wang met in Malta on Saturday and Sunday. The previously unannounced meeting comes four months after the pair held a secret meeting in Vienna that was aimed at resurrecting high-level diplomacy that had stalled after a suspected Chinese spy balloon flew over North America before being shot down by the US.
“This meeting was part of ongoing efforts to maintain open lines of communication and responsibly manage the relationship,” the White House said. “The two sides discussed key issues in the US-China bilateral relationship, global and regional security issues, Russia’s war against Ukraine, and cross-[Taiwan] Strait issues, among other topics.”
The White House and Chinese foreign ministry said in separate statements that the officials held “candid, substantive and constructive” discussions.
The talks come as the US and China discuss a possible meeting between Biden and Xi if the Chinese leader attends the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in San Francisco in November. The two heads of state held their only in-person meeting as leaders at the G20 summit in Bali, Indonesia, last November.
In a briefing, a US official declined to discuss the likelihood of a summit this year. But she said the talks in Malta had been “constructive”, and noted that Biden has said he hopes to meet Xi in the near future.
Experts are watching closely for signs that Xi will decide not to attend Apec, after he skipped the recent G20 summit in India. Xi did go to the Brics — Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa — summit in South Africa last month, but unexpectedly did not give a planned speech at the forum, sparking speculation about a possible domestic crisis.
The Malta meeting took place during a period of turmoil at the top of China’s government. Wang is serving as both China’s top foreign policy official and its foreign minister after Qin Gang was removed from the position with no explanation in July. Chinese defence minister Li Shangfu has also disappeared from public sight. US officials this week told the Financial Times that Li is being investigated for corruption and has been removed.
The US official said Wang did not explain what had happened to Qin or Li, and Sullivan did not raise the issue over the two days of discussions.
China has not explained the ousting of Qin or the disappearance of Li, who were both appointed by Xi. Over the summer, Xi, who also chairs the Central Military Commission, fired the two generals who ran the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force, an elite command that overseas China’s nuclear weapons and long-range missiles.
The US official said both sides had agreed to hold talks covering several areas, including political and security developments in the Asia-Pacific, maritime issues, arms control, and policy planning. The Chinese foreign ministry statement did not mention arms control, which has been an area Beijing has previously refused to include in bilateral discussions.
The US official said China had recently also given “limited indications” that it was interested in resurrecting some of the military-to-military channels it shut down after then US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan last year.
China said Wang had stressed that the issue of Taiwan was a “red line” that should not be crossed. The US official said Sullivan raised concern about Chinese military activity, including flights across the median line in the Taiwan Strait that previously served as a buffer.
The FT reported last month that the two sides would create new communication lines to discuss Asia-Pacific and maritime issues following a visit to Washington by Yang Tao, a top Chinese official.
Wang is expected to travel to Washington next month, in what would be the highest-level visit to the US capital by a Chinese official since before the Covid-19 pandemic broke out in 2020.