President Biden met with China’s top diplomat on Friday to prepare for Mr. Biden’s planned meeting with President Xi Jinping next month as relations remain strained between Washington and Beijing.
Amid cordial talk of cooperation between the United States and China, the official, Wang Yi, wrapped up a visit to Washington. During the three-day trip, the diplomat also met twice with Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken and with Mr. Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan. In all, the meetings lasted about 10 hours, U.S. officials said.
Mr. Wang’s trip was a reminder that even as the Biden administration scrambles to manage a new crisis in the Middle East, its top officials remain focused on their top long-term foreign policy priority: managing relations with China.
Those relations have recently been defined by tensions over matters like Chinese espionage and American restrictions on technology exports to China. And they were severely tested in February when a Chinese spy balloon crossed over the United States before a U.S. fighter jet downed it off the coast of North Carolina.
But officials in the Biden administration say that cooperation with China remains vital on issues like climate change and artificial intelligence and that dialogue can minimize the risk of conflict over China’s territorial claim to the democratic island of Taiwan.
To that end, a parade of top U.S. officials has traveled to China in recent months, including Mr. Blinken, Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellin and Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo. Mr. Sullivan has met with Mr. Wang twice previously in recent months.
A brief statement released by the White House on Friday emphasized cooperative themes. It said that Mr. Biden had told Mr. Wang that their respective countries “need to manage competition in the relationship responsibly and maintain open lines of communication” and “work together to address global challenges.”
Not all the talk was about cooperation: A senior U.S. official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive diplomacy, said that Mr. Blinken had pressed Mr. Wang on matters including human rights in China’s Xinjiang province, Chinese military activity in the South China and East China Seas, and Americans detained in China.
A summary of Mr. Sullivan’s three-hour meeting said that the two officials also held “candid, constructive and substantive discussions” on issues such as the Israel-Hamas conflict, Ukraine and Taiwan.
The meetings come just two weeks before Mr. Biden and Mr. Xi are expected to meet on the sidelines of an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in San Francisco in mid-November. The two men last met in November last year on the sidelines of a Group of 20 summit in Bali, Indonesia.
Ryan Hass, a former National Security Council director for China affairs in the Obama White House, said that Mr. Wang’s visit would help shape the agenda for the expected meeting between Mr. Biden and Mr. Xi next month.
“Restoring diplomatic connectivity will shrink risk of miscalculation, build space for managing stresses in the relationship, and ensure that Xi is forced to confront America’s articulation of its goals and priorities when he forms his views of America’s intentions toward the relationship,” Mr. Hass said.
Although U.S. officials say they are preparing for a meeting between Mr. Xi and Mr. Biden, Beijing has not confirmed Mr. Xi’s attendance at the November summit — perhaps in part to avoid embarrassment should another blowup in U.S.-China relations force a cancellation, said Yun Sun, a senior fellow at the Stimson Center.
Chinese officials were angry when Mr. Blinken scratched a planned visit to Beijing at the last minute after the spy balloon caused a national furor. (Mr. Biden has said that the balloon was “blown off course” and that Mr. Xi was unaware of its flight path. Mr. Blinken eventually made the trip in June.)
Despite the coyness, Ms. Sun said that Mr. Xi is probably eager for the meeting, hoping to demonstrate to his people that he is a world leader of the highest stature — even if Beijing’s expectations are low for resolving conflicts like mounting U.S. limits on the export of semiconductor chips to China, to help maintain America’s edge on artificial intelligence and other advanced technologies.
Biden officials, for their part, hope for a stable relationship headed into the 2024 elections. They are also eager for Beijing’s help on limiting the export of chemicals used to make fentanyl to Mexico and in restraining Russia’s prosecution of the war in Ukraine, among other issues.
Mr. Wang did not take questions from reporters during his visit. In brief remarks before a meeting with Mr. Blinken, he said the goal of his talks in Washington was “to stabilize China-U.S. relations.”
He seemed to suggest that the relationship had been disrupted by outspoken China hawks, saying that “from time to time there will be some jarring voices.”
When that happens, he added, “China treats it calmly because we are of the view what is right and what is wrong is not determined by who has the stronger arm or a louder voice.”
Mr. Wang was named director of the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Foreign Affairs Commission in January. His title was expanded in July to include foreign minister, after the mysterious disappearance of his predecessor in that job, Qin Gang, who held the post for only a few months before his removal without explanation.
Despite the flurry of high-level diplomacy, Ms. Sun said relations between the United States and China remain fraught. “The question is how long is this going to last. This is not called an ‘improvement’ in relations,” she said. “The word you hear is stabilization — you don’t hear ‘improvement’ from anyone.”
That view was echoed by The Global Times, the nationalistic Communist Party tabloid, which said in an article about Mr. Wang’s trip that while “the current interactions can be seen as a positive signal for China-U.S. relations,” U.S. policy toward China remains focused on “containment and suppression.”