When U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and China’s top diplomat, Yang Jiechi, first met in Anchorage, Alaska, the tension was palpable. The March meeting devolved into a public dressing-down from Yang, in front of the press. In a 20-minute tirade, Yang demanded that the U.S. “fully abandon the hegemonic practice of willfully interfering in China’s internal affairs” after his U.S. counterparts raised the issues of Hong Kong, Xinjiang, and Taiwan in their opening remarks.
Their second meeting, held in Zurich, Switzerland, between Yang and Sullivan was decidedly more standard diplomatic fare. There were no public spats in front of cameras, just boilerplate statements released from official channels.
Given the current state of China-U.S. relations, that return to standard diplomatic practice counts as progress. The mere fact of the meeting at all is notable, as in-person conclaves between top officials from the two sides have been few and far between. Aside from the March meeting, which also included U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, there have been two visits to China by the U.S. climate envoy, John Kerry, and a trip by Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman. No Chinese officials have traveled to the United States since the Anchorage talks.
According to the White House readout of the talks, the meeting between Sullivan and Yang “followed up on the September 9 phone call between President Biden and President Xi in which the leaders discussed the importance of maintaining open lines of communication to responsibly manage the competition” between China and the United States.
Notably, according to the readout Sullivan “raised areas where the United States and the PRC have an interest in working together to address vital transnational challenges,” meaning there was a focus on potential areas of cooperation rather than merely the two side’s now well-known disagreements. The latter were included too, of course: “Mr. Sullivan 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,” the readout said. But the overall takeaway was the commitment to more dialogue.
“Mr. Sullivan made clear that while we will continue to invest in our own national strength and work closely with our allies and partners, we will also continue to engage with the PRC at a senior level to ensure responsible competition,” the readout concluded.
The summary of the meeting from China’s Foreign Ministry also emphasized the commitment to “strengthen strategic communication” and “properly manage differences.” The Chinese readout called the talks “constructive and conducive to enhancing mutual understanding.” It included a similar list of topics discussed, from “Taiwan, Hong Kong, Xinjiang, Tibet” and maritime issues to areas for cooperation like “climate change and regional issues of common concern” (almost certainly including the new Taliban government in Afghanistan).
“China values President Biden’s recent positive statements on China-U.S. relations,” the statement summarized Yang as saying, noting especially Biden’s recent commitment not to engage in a “new cold war.”
The most important outcome was not included in either statement: a reported agreement to put together a virtual summit between U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping before the end of the year. It would be the first face-to-face talks between the two. To date, Biden and Xi have held two phone calls, one on February 10 and one on September 9.
Earlier, there had been speculation that Biden and Xi might meet in person on the sidelines of the upcoming G-20 summit, to be held in Rome at the end of October. But China has signaled that Xi will not attend in person, in keeping with his refusal to travel anywhere abroad since the COVID-19 pandemic began in earnest. Now there is the potential for Xi’s virtual attendance at the G-20 summit to include a bilateral talk with Biden.
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki told reporters on October 6, “We’re still working through what that would look like, when, and, of course, the final details.”
On the need for a Biden-Xi summit at all, she added that “leader-level engagement is an important part of our effort to responsibly manage the competition with China, especially given the coalescing of power in Chinese leadership.”
Meanwhile, despite the overall positive tone, the Sullivan-Yang meeting in Zurich came amid spiking tensions in the Taiwan Strait. China has sent record numbers of military aircraft into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone (ADIZ) since the beginning of October.
In an interview with Bloomberg on October 6, the same day as Sullivan and Yang’s meeting, Blinken called China’s actions “provocation and potentially destabilizing” and called for a halt.
“[T[here’s always the possibility of miscalculation, of miscommunication, and that’s dangerous,” Blinken said, adding, “…We need to see China stop these actions.”