Biden’s national security adviser secretly meets China’s foreign minister in bid to ease strained ties

President Joe Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, secretly met in Europe this weekend with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, according to two U.S. officials, a significant step in U.S. efforts to repair deeply strained relations with China.

Sullivan and Wang Yi held discussions Saturday and Sunday in Malta as “part of ongoing efforts to maintain open lines of communication and responsibly managing the relationship,” one of the officials said.

Their talks could lay the groundwork for a much-anticipated meeting between Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping this fall aimed at easing tensions between the world’s two largest economies in the wake of the surveillance balloon saga and China’s support for Russia’s war in Ukraine.

Administration officials have been preparing for a possible meeting in November around the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, or APEC, summit in San Francisco.

A meeting between the two leaders would come at a critical moment in the U.S.-China relations. A variety of economic and security issues are at stake, including export controls, the war in Ukraine and concerns in the U.S. that China could move on Taiwan.

INDONESIA-US-CHINA-G20-SUMMIT (Saul Loeb / AFP via Getty Images file)

The Biden administration has worried that a lack of communication between the two countries could lead to an unintentional confrontation and has sought in recent months to get relations back on track after they hit a new low in February when the Pentagon shot down the Chinese spy balloon that flew over the U.S.

Biden and Xi have not spoken in nearly a year.

They last met in November last year on the sidelines of a summit of world leaders in Bali, Indonesia. Despite Biden saying earlier this year, after his administration shot down the spy balloon, that he expected to speak with Xi, a phone call between the two leaders never materialized. At a fundraising event in June, Biden referred to Xi as a “dictator” — a term sure to irritate Chinese officials.

Biden said he was “disappointed” that Xi did not attend a summit this month for the Group of 20 leading world economies in India. When asked after the summit when he expected to meet again with Xi, Biden said, “I hope I get to see Mr. Xi sooner than later.”

Sullivan’s meeting follows a series of high-level talks between U.S. and Chinese officials in recent months. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo visited China last month. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen traveled to Beijing in July.

In the first visit to China by a U.S. secretary of state since 2018, Antony Blinken met in June with Xi in Beijing, and he met in July with Wang Yi — a discussion the administration also described at the time as “part of ongoing efforts to maintain open channels of communication” between the two countries.

State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said last week that the administration expects Blinken and Wang Yi to meet sometime this year in the U.S., potentially on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York this week.

Chinese Vice President Han Zheng will be attending the assembly, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning said in a news conference Friday, suggesting the country’s top diplomat, Wang, might skip the meeting.

Sullivan, speaking to reporters on Friday, didn’t rule out a possible meeting between a top U.S. official and China’s vice president, who is expected to attend the U.N. General Assembly in the absence of Xi.

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