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Biden’s national security adviser holds two days of talks in Malta with China’s foreign minister

The White House said in a statement that Jake Sullivan and Chinese envoy Wang Yi had “candid, substantive and constructive discussions”. The two officials spent about 12 hours together over two days in Malta

White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan speaks during a press briefing at the White House in Washington, D.C., U.S., September 15, 2023.
White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan speaks during a press briefing at the White House in Washington, D.C., U.S., September 15, 2023.SARAH SILBIGER (REUTERS)

President Joe Biden’s national security adviser met with China’s foreign minister over the past two days on the Mediterranean island nation of Malta in an effort that the White House said Sunday was intended to “responsibly maintain the relationship” at a time of strained ties and mutual suspicion between the rival powers.

The White House said in a statement that Jake Sullivan and Chinese envoy Wang Yi had “candid, substantive and constructive discussions” as the world’s two largest economies try “to maintain open lines of communication.” Sullivan and Wang last met in May in Vienna f or talks. The two officials spent about 12 hours together over two days in Malta.

Washington and Beijing see themselves as competitors despite an extensive trade partnership. President Joe Biden recently spoke with Chinese Premier Li Qiang while in India at the Group of 20 summit and told reporters afterward that they had talked about “stability” and “it wasn’t confrontational at all.”

Biden has worked to strengthen relations with Japan, South Korea, India, Vietnam and others to counterbalance China’s influence across the Pacific Region. Yet Biden said last Sunday at a news conference in the Vietnamese capital of Hanoi that those alliances are not about a “cold war” with China.

“It’s not about containing China,” he said. “It’s about having a stable base” for global economic growth.

Yet the relationship is full of competing pressures.

The Biden administration shot down a Chinese spy balloon that traversed the continental U.S. earlier this year. The Chinese government hacked the emails of Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo. The U.S. government has restricted the exporting of advanced computer chips to China. And after Chinese President Xi Jinping centralized his power, the Chinese economy has not rebounded as expected after ending its pandemic lockdowns.

The White House said Sullivan and Wang discussed the relationship between the two countries, global and regional security issues, Russia’s war in Ukraine and the Taiwan Strait. They also discussed artificial intelligence, counternarcotic efforts and the status of detained U.S. citizens in China.

“The United States noted the importance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait. The two sides committed to maintain this strategic channel of communication and to pursue additional high-level engagement and consultations in key areas between the United States and the People’s Republic of China in the coming months,” according to the statement.

A senior Biden administration official who briefed reporters on the talks said the two sides did not discuss the whereabouts of Chinese Defense Minister Li Shangfu, who has not been seen in public since Aug. 29

Speculation about Li’s standing comes after Qin Gang was abruptly removed in July as foreign minister, a change announced weeks after he had disappeared from public view earlier in the summer.

Biden’s ambassador to Japan, Rahm Emanuel, used a social media posting last week to take note of Li’s situation. “As Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet, “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark,” Emanuel wrote on X, formerly Twitter.

Asked why Sullivan did not raise the issue with Wang, the administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the closed-door meeting, said the talks were focused on the bilateral relationship.

The Sullivan-Wang meeting comes as Biden and other world leaders are set to take part in the annual gathering of the U.N. General Assembly. Biden is scheduled to address the world body on Tuesday and meet with leaders of five Central Asian nations -- Kazakhstan, the Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.

Xi has stepped up his own courting of those countries. During his own summit in May with the Central Asian leaders, Xi promised to build more railway and other trade links with the region and proposed jointly developing oil and gas sources

Sullivan told reporters last week that Biden’s meeting with those leaders should not be seen as an effort to counterbalance Chinese influence in the region.

“Look, this summit is not against any country,” Sullivan said, previewing the meeting. “It is for a positive agenda that we want to work through with these countries.”

Xi did not attend last weekend’s G20 summit in New Delhi and is not expected to be in New York for the General Assembly. Biden has said he hopes to soon meet with Xi. The two leaders have not spoken since the they met for talks last November in Indonesia, according to the White House.

Sullivan also met with Malta’s prime minister, Robert Abela. They talked about the Mediterranean region’s role in helping to provide “global peace and security,” according to a statement by the Maltese government.

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