Top U.S., China diplomats to hold first in-person talks of Biden presidency

Michael Martina and David Brunnstrom
·4-min read
FILE PHOTO: U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks at the State Department in Washington

By Michael Martina and David Brunnstrom

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken will meet with top Chinese officials on March 18 in Alaska, the White House said on Wednesday, the first high-level in-person contact between the two sparring countries under the Biden administration.

The meeting, taking place on Blinken's return from his first overseas trip to key U.S. allies Japan and South Korea, will come amid what is shaping up to be a major U.S. diplomatic push to solidify alliances in Asia and Europe to counter China.

National security adviser Jake Sullivan will join the meeting in Anchorage with China's top diplomat, Yang Jiechi, and State Councillor Wang Yi, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said, adding the administration would approach its relations with China "in lockstep" with its partners.

"It was important to us that this administration's first meeting with Chinese officials be held on American soil, and occur after we have met and consulted closely with partners and allies in both Asia and Europe," Psaki told a news briefing.

She said the meeting would be "an opportunity to address a wide range of issues, including ones where we have deep disagreements."

China's foreign ministry on Thursday confirmed the meeting.

Commenting on the talks, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said China hopes the United States can move relations back onto a "healthy and stable" track, view relations objectively and rationally, forsake the Cold War mentality and zero-sum mindset, and to respect China's sovereignty, security and interests.

Zhao also urged the United States to stop interfering in China's internal affairs and to manage differences between both countries.

President Joe Biden's administration has committed to reviewing elements of U.S. policies toward China, as the world's two largest economies navigate frosty relations that sank to their lowest depths in decades during Donald Trump's presidency.

Biden and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, held their first phone call as leaders last month and appeared at odds on most issues, even as Xi warned that confrontation would be a "disaster" for both nations.

Testifying before the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee on Wednesday, Blinken signaled next week's meeting would not be a return to regular senior-level dialogues used under past U.S. administrations, which had been increasingly criticized in Washington for yielding little progress on U.S. grievances with Beijing.

"There's no intent at this point for a series of follow-on engagements. Those engagements, if they are to follow, really have to be based on the proposition that we're seeing tangible progress and tangible outcomes on the issues of concern to us with China," Blinken said.

U.S. DIPLOMATIC PUSH

Blinken also said that if China insists it is not violating the human rights of Uighur Muslims in its Xinjiang region, it should provide the world access to the area.

U.N. experts and rights groups say China has detained more than a million Uighurs and other minorities there, actions the United States has deemed a genocide. Beijing denies abuses, saying facilities in the region are for vocational training to counter the threat of terrorism.

The talks will follow the visit by Blinken and U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to Japan and South Korea next week, as well as an online summit on Friday between Biden and the leaders of Japan, India and Australia.

That will be the first leader-level meeting of the four-country group, known as the Quad, seen as part of U.S. efforts to boost its diplomacy in Asia to balance China's growing military and economic power.

Bonnie Glaser, an Asia expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the timing of the meeting sends the message to Beijing that U.S. alliances are strong.

Discussions are likely to focus on China's policies toward Hong Kong, its pressure on Taiwan, its treatment of Uighurs, and what Washington sees as economic coercion against Australia, she said.

"If the Chinese repeat their messages contained in recent speeches that the U.S. is to blame for the problems in the U.S.-China relationship and therefore the ball is in the U.S. court, then nothing positive will come of this meeting," Glaser said.

(Reporting by Michael Martina, David Brunnstrom, Andrea Shalal, Patricia Zengerle, Humeyra Pamuk, and Doina Chiacu; Editing by Mary Milliken, Marguerita Choy and Lincoln Feast.)