National security adviser Jake Sullivan met with top Chinese official Wang Yi in Vienna for “candid” and “constructive” talks, the White House announced Thursday.
The previously undisclosed meeting is among the highest-level engagements between US and Chinese officials since the spy balloon incident earlier this year, which caused Secretary of State Antony Blinken to postpone a planned trip to Beijing, and it comes amid what has been an incredibly tumultuous year in relations between the two nations.
“This meeting was part of ongoing efforts to maintain open lines of communication and responsibly manage competition,” a White House readout of Wednesday and Thursday’s meeting said.
“The two sides had candid, substantive, and constructive discussions on key issues in the U.S.-China bilateral relationship, global and regional security issues, Russia’s war against Ukraine, and cross-Strait issues, among other topics,” the readout said.
A US senior administration official said the meeting was an attempt to put communications back on track after the spy balloon incident.
“I think both sides recognized that that unfortunate incident led to a bit of a pause in engagement. We’re seeking now to move beyond that and reestablish just a standard normal channel of communications,” the official said on a call with reporters after the meeting.
“We made clear where we stand in terms of the breach of sovereignty, we’ve been clear on that from the very get go. But again, trying to look forward from here on,” the official added, noting they focused on “how do we manage the other issues that are ongoing right now and manage the tension in the relationship that exists.”
The official said that Chinese officials saw the importance of engaging with the US to try to manage the relationship, which the official said was a “departure” from the Chinese statements out of previous US-China engagements.
“I think both sides thought it would be useful try to do another conversation of this national security adviser director level,” they said. The last time that officials met at that level was last June.
“I think both sides see the value in sort of this low profile channel to handle some of the more complex issues in the bilateral relationships,” the official added.
The meeting came together “fairly quickly,” the official said, and lasted eight hours over the course of two days in Vienna. It was one of the more constructive meetings they had participated in, the official told reporters.
Sullivan told Wang that the US and China are competitors but that the US “does not seek conflict or confrontation.”
He raised the cases of three wrongfully detained American citizens – Mark Swidan, Kai Li, and David Lin. The two sides also discussed the issue of counternarcotics.
The official said they did not get into specifics about rescheduling Blinken’s trip to Beijing, but they “do anticipate there’ll be engagements … in both directions over the coming months.”
They also did not get into specifics about scheduling for a call between Presidents Joe Biden and Xi Jinping, “but I think both sides recognize the importance of leader level communication,” the official said.
Blinken was due to travel to China in early February, but the trip was postponed in response to the Chinese surveillance balloon traversing the United States.
The top US diplomat said that balloon’s presence over the US “created the conditions that undermine the purpose of the trip.”
In February, weeks after the balloon incident, Blinken met with Wang on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference.
In that meeting, Blinken “directly spoke to the unacceptable violation of US sovereignty and international law” and said incidents like the balloon, which hovered over US airspace for days before the US shot it down off the coast of South Carolina, “must never occur again,” former State Department spokesperson Ned Price said in a statement.
Blinken, who a senior State Department official characterized as “very direct and candid throughout,” began the hour long meeting by stating “how unacceptable and irresponsible” it was that China had flown the balloon into US airspace. The secretary later expressed disappointment that Beijing had not engaged in military-to-military dialogue when the Chinese balloon incident occurred, the senior official told reporters.
“He stated, candidly stated, our disappointment that in this recent period that our Chinese military counterparts had refused to pick up the phone. We think that’s unfortunate. And that is not the way that our two sides ought to be conducting business,” the official said.
In an event in early May, US Ambassador to China Nicholas Burns said the US was “ready to talk” to China, and expressed hope that Beijing would “meet us halfway on this.”
He said the US was ready for “a more broad-based engagement at the cabinet level,” adding, “we have never supported an icing of this relationship.”