US, Chinese diplomats’ meeting in Zurich paves way for continued talks

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The latest round of talks between top national security officials from Washington and Beijing finished in Zurich with a commitment to continue speaking at a senior level.

Six months after tempers flared at their dramatic first meeting in Alaska, US national security adviser Jake Sullivan and China’s top diplomat Yang Jiechi met again on Wednesday to discuss the nations’ long-standing grievances, as well as potential areas of cooperation, just as they did when they met in March.

“Mr. Sullivan also raised areas where the United States and the PRC have an interest in working together to address vital transnational challenges, and ways to manage risks in our relationship,” the White House said after the meeting. The Chinese foreign ministry said the two had discussed climate change and “regional issues of mutual concern”.

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After the meeting, Bloomberg and The Wall Street Journal reported that US President Joe Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping were planning to meet virtually before the end of the year, in what would be their third conversation this year.

Senior Chinese foreign policy adviser Yang Jiechi (foreground) and his delegation leave their hotel in Zurich on Wednesday. Photo: Keystone
Senior Chinese foreign policy adviser Yang Jiechi (foreground) and his delegation leave their hotel in Zurich on Wednesday. Photo: Keystone

According to the White House, Sullivan also “raised a number of areas where we have concern with the PRC’s actions, including actions related to human rights, Xinjiang, Hong Kong, the South China Sea and Taiwan”.

According to the Chinese foreign ministry, Yang told Sullivan to stop using those issues to “interfere in China’s internal affairs”.

Yang also said the word “competition” should not be used to define the countries’ relationship, and demanded that the US respect China’s “sovereignty, security and development interests”, the foreign ministry said.

The US-China relationship has plummeted in recent years over disagreements on human rights, trade policy and Beijing’s sabre-rattling towards its neighbours, with few signs of improvement, and the nations’ leaders have yet to meet in person as heads of state.

Jake Sullivan (far left) meets with top Chinese diplomat Yang Jiechi (right) in Zurich on Wednesday. Photo: Chinese Foreign Ministry
Jake Sullivan (far left) meets with top Chinese diplomat Yang Jiechi (right) in Zurich on Wednesday. Photo: Chinese Foreign Ministry

Biden and Xi spoke on the phone last month, and Washington and Beijing had both said that Wednesday’s meeting was meant to follow up on that call.

The White House said that Sullivan told Yang that the US would “continue to engage with the PRC at a senior level to ensure responsible competition”.

Biden and Xi were thought to be considering an in-person meeting at the G20 summit in Italy later this month, but Chinese officials said this week that Xi would not travel there because of coronavirus precautions.

Joe Biden says he and China’s Xi Jinping agreed to abide by Taiwan agreement

Other reports have swirled in Washington that Biden asked Xi to meet with him during their phone call last month but that Xi rejected the offer unless the US changed its tone towards Beijing. Biden said those reports were not true.

Even with an apparent change in tone between Washington and Beijing’s diplomats, and a potential meeting between the two national leaders still in the works, none of that should be confused for a suddenly warm US-China relationship, said Yun Sun, senior fellow and co-director of the East Asia programme and director of the China programme at the Stimson Centre think tank in Washington.

“It doesn’t mean things are all good from now on,” she said.

But she added that it was at least a sign that the US and China, despite soaring tensions, could hear each other out.

“Back in Anchorage, the initial engagement between the two sides were aimed at probing each other’s positions, hence the pulling and hauling was more dramatic,” she said. “Now the two sides have a better understanding of each other’s bottom lines, it is more feasible for them to sit down and talk substantively and realistically.”

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