US and China lay groundwork for first high-level meeting under Biden

Washington and Beijing are hammering out the details of the first high-level meeting between the rival powers since President Joe Biden took office, according to four people familiar with the talks.

The terms of the high-level engagement are still being negotiated but if successful could lead to Antony Blinken, secretary of state, and Jake Sullivan, national security adviser, meeting their Chinese counterparts.

One option would involve Blinken and Sullivan talking to Wang Yi, the Chinese foreign minister, and Yang Jiechi, the top Chinese foreign policy official, in Alaska, according to two of the people.

The state is being eyed as a possible location because Blinken could return to Washington via Anchorage from his upcoming trip to Japan and South Korea. The US is also considering options that would include only one of the two officials meeting their Chinese counterpart.

One person familiar with the situation stressed that the talks were continuing and that no decision had been made about timing or location.

Any meeting would be a significant development after Biden adopted a tough stance towards Beijing and signalled that he would hold China to account for any “abuses”. These include China’s repression of Muslim Uighurs in Xinjiang, the crackdown on the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong and assertive actions towards Taiwan.

Biden raised those issues in his first call with President Xi Jinping, even though Yang had warned the US not to cross such “red lines”. Sullivan has also said the US would impose costs for any egregious behaviour. In his first call with Yang, Blinken said Washington would hold Beijing “accountable for its abuses of the international system”.

If Sullivan and Blinken meet Yang and Wang, it would be the first time a US national security adviser and secretary of state met jointly with Chinese officials. The White House and state department did not comment. The Chinese embassy in Washington did not immediately comment. The South China Morning Post first reported that the two sides were holding talks over a potential meeting.

The decision to embrace a meeting with China comes as Biden prepares to convene a summit with the other members of the Quad — Japan, India and Australia — on Friday. The four nations are trying to work together more closely to counter China but without creating an overtly anti-Beijing partnership.

Blinken and Lloyd Austin, defence secretary, are preparing to visit Tokyo and Seoul next week. Austin will also visit India.

Two people familiar with the situation said Washington wanted to ensure it was not sidelining China completely while it urged allies to work with the US to adopt a tougher stance towards Beijing.

Tensions remain high between the rivals and the US has warned that China has closed the military gap in the Indo-Pacific.

Admiral Philip Davidson, head of Indo-Pacific command, said on Tuesday the American military was losing its edge as China continued to erode decades of US-led deterrence in Asia.

“We are accumulating risk that may embolden China to unilaterally change the status quo before our forces may be able to deliver an effective response,” Davidson told the Senate armed services panel.

Follow Demetri Sevastopulo on Twitter

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