US and China officials meet in Malta ahead of possible Biden-Xi summit


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White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan met Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi in Malta in the latest effort to stabilise US-China relations ahead of a possible meeting between Joe Biden and Xi Jinping in November.

The White House said Sullivan and Wang met on Saturday and Sunday. The previously unannounced meeting comes four months after the pair held a secret meeting in Vienna that was aimed at resurrecting high-level diplomacy that had stalled after a suspected Chinese spy balloon flew over North America before being shot down by the US.

“This meeting was part of ongoing efforts to maintain open lines of communication and responsibly manage the relationship,” the White House said. “The two sides discussed key issues in the US-China bilateral relationship, global and regional security issues, Russia’s war against Ukraine, and cross-[Taiwan] Strait issues, among other topics.” 

The talks come as US and Chinese officials discuss a possible meeting between Biden and Xi if the Chinese leader attends the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in San Francisco in November. The two heads of state held their only in-person meeting as leaders at the G20 summit in Bali, Indonesia, last November.

Experts are watching closely for signs that Xi will decide not to attend Apec, after he skipped the recent G20 summit in India. Xi attended the Brics — Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa — summit in South Africa last month, but unexpectedly did not give a planned speech at the forum, sparking speculation about a possible domestic crisis.

The Malta meeting comes during a period of turmoil at the top of China’s government. Wang is serving as both China’s top foreign policy official and its foreign minister after Qin Gang was removed as foreign minister with no explanation in July.

Chinese defence minister Li Shangfu has also disappeared from public sight. US officials this week told the Financial Times that Li is being investigated for corruption and has been removed.

China has not explained the ousting of Qin or the disappearance of Li, who were both appointed by Xi. Over the summer, Xi, who is also chair of the Central Military Commission, fired the two generals who ran the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force, an elite command that overseas China’s nuclear weapons and long-range missiles.

Wang is expected to travel to Washington next month, in what would be the highest-level visit to the US capital by a Chinese official since before the Covid-19 pandemic broke out in 2020.

The Sullivan-Wang meeting also comes at a critical time for US-China relations, which remain tense despite several visits from US cabinet officials to Beijing in recent months. Commerce secretary Gina Raimondo went to China last month, in the wake of Treasury secretary Janet Yellen and Antony Blinken, secretary of state.

The White House said Sullivan and Wang held “candid, substantive, and constructive discussions” and had agreed to continue their “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”.

The White House said Sullivan also noted the “importance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait”, as the situation over Taiwan remains the most serious contentious issue between the countries. China has been conducting increasingly assertive military activity around Taiwan, which will hold a presidential election in January