The top diplomats from the US and China met on Saturday in a new effort to try to rein in or at least manage rampant hostility that has come to define recent relations between Washington and Beijing.
The US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, and China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, were holding talks on the Indonesian island of Bali, a day after they both attended a gathering of top diplomats from the Group of 20 wealthy and large developing countries which failed to reach consensus over Russia’s war in Ukraine and how to deal with its impacts.
Wang and Blinken were to discuss a range of contentious issues from tariffs and trade and human rights to Taiwan and disputes in the South China Sea. Just two days earlier, the US and China’s top military officers met over Taiwan during a virtual meeting.
Blinken said as the pair headed into the closed-door meeting: “In a relationship as complex and consequential as the one between the United States and China, there is a lot to talk about and I’m very much looking forward to a productive, constructive conversation.”
Wang said that “it is necessary for the two countries to maintain normal exchanges” and “to work together to ensure that this relationship will continue to move forward along the right track”.
He echoed frequent Chinese lines about remaining committed to the principles of “mutual respect”, “peaceful coexistence” and “win-win cooperation”. That, he said, “serves the interests of the two countries and two peoples. It is also the shared aspiration of the international community.”
Blinken was expected to repeat warnings to China not to support Russia’s war in Ukraine and the two sides would address contentious issues that include Taiwan, China’s extensive South China Sea claims, its expansion of influence in the Pacific, human rights and trade tariffs.
US officials said ahead of time they did not expect any breakthroughs from Blinken’s talks with Wang. But they said they were hopeful the conversation could help keep lines of communications open and create “guardrails” to guide the world’s two largest economies as they navigated increasingly complex and potentially explosive matters.
Daniel Russel, a top US diplomat for East Asia under former president Barack Obama who has close contact with Biden administration officials, said he believed a key aim for the meeting would be to explore the possibility of an in-person meeting between the US president, Joe Biden, and Xi – their first as leaders, possibly on the sidelines of a G20 summit in Bali in November.
The US and China have staked out increasingly confrontational positions, including on Ukraine, that some fear could lead to miscalculation and conflict. The US has watched warily as China has refused to criticise the Russian invasion, while condemning western sanctions against Russia and accusing the US and Nato of provoking the conflict.
The Biden administration had hoped that China, with its long history of opposing what it sees as interference in its own internal affairs, would take a similar position with Ukraine. But it has not, choosing instead what US officials see as a hybrid position that is damaging the international rules-based order.
At the G20 meeting, Wang made an oblique reference to China’s policy on global stability, saying: “To place one’s own security above the security of others and intensify military blocs will only split the international community and make oneself less secure,” according to the Chinese foreign ministry.
On Thursday, China’s joint chiefs of staff chairman, General Li Zuocheng, upbraided his US counterpart, General Mark Milley, over Washington’s support for Taiwan, which Beijing regards as a renegade province.
Li demanded that the US cease military “collusion” with Taiwan, saying China has “no room for compromise” on issues affecting its “core interests”, which include self-governing Taiwan. Beijing claims it as its own territory, to be annexed by force if necessary.
“China demands the US … cease reversing history, cease US-Taiwan military collusion and avoid impacting China-US ties and stability in the Taiwan Strait,” Li said.
At the same time, Li was also quoted in a defence ministry news release as saying China hoped to “further strengthen dialogue, handle risks and promote cooperation, rather than deliberately creating confrontation, provoking incidents and becoming mutually exclusive”.
China routinely flies warplanes near Taiwan to advertise its threat to attack, and the island’s defence ministry said Chinese air force aircraft crossed the middle line of the Taiwan Strait dividing the two sides on Friday morning.
The meeting between Li and Milley followed fiery comments by China’s defence minister, Wei Fenghe, at a regional security conference last month that was also attended by the US defence secretary, Lloyd Austin.
Wei accused the US of trying to “hijack” the support of countries in the Asia-Pacific region to turn them against Beijing, saying Washington was seeking to advance its own interests “under the guise of multilateralism”.
At the same meeting in Singapore, Austin said China was causing instability with its claim to Taiwan and its increased military activity in the area.
In May, Blinken incurred Chinese wrath by calling the country the “most serious long-term challenge to the international order” for the US, with its claims to Taiwan and efforts to dominate the strategic South China Sea.
The US and its allies have responded with what they term “freedom of navigation” patrols in the South China Sea, prompting angry responses from Beijing.