January 26, 2024

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Jake Sullivan and China’s top diplomat to hold back-channel talks

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US national security adviser Jake Sullivan will hold a private meeting with Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi in the coming days, as the pair resume communications through a back channel that has been critical to stabilising relations.

Sullivan will meet Wang in Thailand for what will be their first such contact since President Joe Biden met his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping in San Francisco in November, according to two people familiar with the plan.

US and Chinese officials last year restarted high-level engagements that were aimed at easing tensions over issues including Taiwan’s status and a suspected Chinese spy balloon that sent relations to their lowest ebb since the countries established diplomatic ties in 1979.

But in contrast to the meetings between US cabinet secretaries and their Chinese counterparts, which were announced in advance, Sullivan and Wang last year held two secret meetings — in Vienna and Malta — that were critical in paving the way for Biden and Xi to meet in November.

US officials said the Sullivan-Wang channel had been effective because the meetings occurred in private, without media attention.

The White House confirmed that the two would meet on Friday and Saturday, adding that it “continues the commitment by both sides at the November 2023 Woodside Summit between President Biden and President Xi to maintain strategic communication and responsibly manage the relationship”.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin on Friday also confirmed the meeting, saying Wang Yi would be in Thailand from Friday to Monday.

The upcoming meeting comes after Washington pressed Beijing to urge Tehran to rein in Yemen-based Houthi rebels. The Iran-backed group has been attacking ships in the Red Sea in recent months.

Sullivan recently raised the issue in Washington with Liu Jianchao, head of the Communist party’s international department, who some believe will succeed Wang as foreign minister.

Wang has been serving as both the top Chinese foreign policy official and in the less influential role of foreign minister since July, after China removed Qin Gang as foreign minister.

The Sullivan-Wang meeting also comes one month after Lai Ching-te won the presidential election in Taiwan. China views Lai, who will be inaugurated in May, as a dangerous separatist.

The US has raised concerns about assertive Chinese military activity around the Taiwan, which remains one of the most contentious issues in the US-China relationship. China, which views Taiwan as its sovereign territory, accuses the US of intervening in its internal affairs, including with the sale of defensive weapons to Taipei.

Relations between Washington and Beijing have shown signs of stabilising in the months since the Biden-Xi meeting. The two sides this month held their first formal military talks since 2021, and Admiral John Aquilino, head of US Indo-Pacific Command, last month said China had not conducted any dangerous intercepts of US aircraft since the summit.

China has criticised the US for flying surveillance aircraft in international airspace near its coast, and the Pentagon in October accused Beijing of having conducted 180 “risky and coercive” intercepts — where Chinese fighter jets fly dangerously close to US aircraft — over the previous two years. It said China had conducted another 100 against aircraft flown by US allies.

The US and China are expected to hold more top-level meetings this year. Janet Yellen will travel to China following her first visit to Beijing as Treasury secretary last year. People familiar with situation said secretary of state Antony Blinken was also discussing a possible trip, but there were no concrete details.

Additional reporting by Wang Xueqiao in Shanghai

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