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US-China engagement tipped to pick up: Biden-Xi summit eyed

Biden Xi
The US and Chinese Presidents, Joe Biden and Xi Jinping, have already agreed on some issues of concern, according to a report by the South China Morning Post and other major news outlets. File 2011 pic by AFP.

It is unclear whether US Secretary of State Antony Blinken will meet China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi at the G20 foreign ministers’ meeting in Italy on Tuesday, but the US appears to be contemplating the possibility of a leaders’ summit in Rome in late October


(AF) Contact between senior US and Chinese officials has been limited this year, partly because of the pandemic, but also because of the deterioration in bilateral ties over the past couple of years. That tension was plain for all to see after a fiery exchange in Alaska in March at the Biden Administration’s first high-level meeting with their Chinese counterparts.

The White House has reportedly held preliminary internal discussions about sending Secretary of State Blinken or national security adviser Jake Sullivan to China later this year, according to the Financial Times in London, which suggested such a visit could set the stage for President Biden to meet Chinese leader Xi Jinping on the margins of the G20 leaders meeting in Rome at the end of October.

Asked about the report, a State Department official said on Wednesday: “There is no meeting planned between Secretary Blinken and Foreign Minister Wang at the upcoming G20 ministerial.”

China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian was asked at a regular news briefing about a possible meeting between Blinken and Chinese officials at the G20 foreign ministers get together on Tuesday and replied: “I have no information to offer you at present.” 

Blinken held a call with China’s top diplomat Yang Jiechi earlier this month and stressed the need for cooperation and transparency over the origins of Covid-19 and raised other contentious topics, including China’s treatment of Uighur Muslims, Hong Kong and Taiwan.

US-China relations deteriorated sharply under former president Donald Trump, and the Biden administration has maintained his tough approach, while stressing its interest in cooperation on areas of shared concern like climate change.

Bonnie Glaser, an Asia expert at the German Marshall Fund, who was cited by the FT, said she had heard from sources that after a Blinken-Wang Yi meeting there might be a phone call between Biden and Xi and then a visit by a State Department official to China over the summer.

Some analysts believe Blinken will meet with Wang Yi on in Italy on June 29 and have suggested that the G20 summit in Italy would be a logical place for Biden’s first meeting as president with Xi. Both Trump and former president Barack Obama met their Chinese counterparts in-person in April of their first terms and later paid November visits to China.

Frustrated with weak results from previous administrations’ regular dialogue mechanisms with Beijing, Biden administration officials have welcomed engagement with China but said meetings would be on a case-by-case basis, not as part of a formalized structure.

Cordial calls

“The March meeting in Alaska between foreign ministers was a debacle, at least in public. Economic officials have held a series of more cordial calls in recent weeks as they establish working relationships, but President Joe Biden’s ongoing China policy review continues to limit the substance of these conversations given a lack of fully aligned policy guidance. The number of high-level engagements will pick up in the coming weeks owing in large part to the calendar of G20 meetings during Italy’s host year,” Eurasia Group said in a commentary on Friday.

Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen will also have the opportunity to meet senior finance ministers and central bank governors when she attends a G20 meeting with her G20 counterparts on July 9 and 10.

“The likelihood of a meeting between Biden and Xi at the G20 leaders’ summit in Rome on 30-31 October will generate diplomatic energy and intense speculation as to potential outcomes,” the commentary said, but it warned that “expectations should be modest” because of a range of sensitive issues and the fact “neither side is investing in improving bilateral ties”.

“As they each vie for global leadership, Washington and Beijing are more focused on shaping the behavior of third countries and gaining the edge in tech and other areas of strategic competition. Moreover, the relationship is increasingly defined by the clash over sensitive foreign policy and values issues — including human rights, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic — which are inflamed by domestic politics and provide little room for compromise.”

On Wednesday, the US added five Chinese solar energy companies to the Commerce Department’s Entity List and imposed an effective ban on imports from one of the companies, Hoshine Silicon because of concerns over forced labour of Uighurs in Xinjiang. The Biden administration had been under political pressure to impose a broader ban on solar equipment from the western Chinese province, but Eurasia Group described the announcement on June 23 as a “more targeted move” that provided “some temporary breathing room” for the administration and for US importers, noting that it “will hardly be the last US action taken over the Uighurs, particularly in the lead-up to the Beijing Winter Olympics in February”.

On Thursday, Biden issued a statement criticizing Beijing’s “intensifying repression” in Hong Kong after the arrests of editors at the Apple Daily newspaper. “Xi, who celebrates the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party on 1 July, has no inclination to respond to US pressure by moderating key policies,” it said.

President Xi is expected to give an important speech during celebrations of the CCP’s centenary this coming Thursday, but it was clear “the party is increasingly confident not only in its own political legitimacy but also in its policy track record compared to the West.”

With reporting by Reuters



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Jim Pollard

Jim Pollard is an Australian journalist based in Thailand since 1999. He worked for News Ltd papers in Sydney, Perth, London and Melbourne before travelling through SE Asia in the late 90s. He was a senior editor at The Nation for 17+ years.


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