Wang-Sullivan meeting opens window for breaking China-US diplomatic stalemate but Washington's sincerity essential for meaningful progress
Published: May 12, 2023 01:27 PM Updated: May 12, 2023 08:54 PM
Photo: China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs

Photo: China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs

The meeting between China's top diplomat Wang Yi and US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan in Vienna opens a window for the two countries to remove obstacles and ease tensions amid a diplomatic stalemate after the balloon incident, but whether the bilateral relations can be fixed remains to be seen given US' problematic China policy and its inconsistent words and actions, analysts said. 

Wang Yi, director of the Office of the Foreign Affairs Commission of the Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee and also a member of the Political Bureau of the CPC Central Committee, and Sullivan had candid, in-depth, substantive and constructive discussions on bilateral ties in Vienna on Wednesday and Thursday. 

The two sides held discussions in Vienna on ways to remove obstacles in and stabilize China-US relations, according to a release from the Chinese side on Thursday. 

A senior Chinese official who is familiar with the meeting but asked for anonymity, unveiled more details to the Global Times on Friday and noted that Wang and Sullivan's meeting lasted for more than 10 hours and the two sides exchanged views on major topics, including on bilateral relations, the Taiwan question, Asia-Pacific situation, and the Ukraine crisis. 

The Chinese side emphasized that the Bali meeting between the Chinese and US top leaders was successful and constructive, and pointed out the direction for the development of China-US relations. However, the US side overreacted and abused force in the unmanned civilian airship incident and lessons must be learned from the incident, the source told the Global Times on Friday. 

During the meeting, the Chinese side also noted that the correct way for China and the US to get along is mutual respect, peaceful coexistence, and win-win cooperation. The overall China-US relationship cannot be simply defined by "competition" and the US cannot ask for communication and dialogue while harming China's interests, according to the senior official.

The anonymous senior official also unveiled that China also required the US to remove unreasonable restrictions and obstruction on China-US people-to-people and cultural exchanges, and to work with China to carry out more exchanges between various sectors of the two countries and enhance mutual understanding between the peoples. 

The two-day meeting between Wang and Sullivan in Vienna is a major high-level meeting of senior officials from China and the US after the US shot down a Chinese deviated balloon in February, bringing "China threat" hype to a new level and further straining bilateral relations, analysts said. 

The meeting opens a window for the two countries to stabilize the downward bilateral relations and it is a signal for easing tensions. But whether the trend can continue depends on the US - whether it can honor its promises to China, regain rationality in its China policy and stop provocations and respect China's core interests, Li Haidong, a professor at the Institute of International Relations at the China Foreign Affairs University, told the Global Times. 

Sincerity needed 

The Wang-Sullivan meeting took place against the backdrop of frozen China-US relations continuing to decline, with confrontations raised to a level that is rarely seen. How to stabilize the complicated bilateral relations amid various disputes has become an urgent mission for senior officials from China and the US, Yang Xiyu, a senior research fellow at the China Institute of International Studies, told the Global Times. 

The Vienna meeting is helpful in pushing China and the US to put bilateral relations onto the track of dialogue and negotiations and to restore engagement, said Yang.  

One feature of Wang and Sullivan's meeting is that the wordings of the two releases from both sides are similar, highlighting their willingness to communicate, Zhang Jiadong, a professor at the Center for American Studies, Fudan University, told the Global Times on Friday. 

The readout released by the White House on Thursday also used the words "candid," "substantive" and "constructive" to describe the discussions. And it mentioned that "this meeting was part of ongoing efforts to maintain open lines of communication and responsibly manage competition." 

The release from the Chinese side also noted that both sides agreed to continue to make good use of this channel of strategic communication. 

The meeting in Vienna is significant as it also happened while the Russia-Ukraine conflict continues and is about to reach the tipping point and the cross-Straits situation is escalating with more fierce competition between China and the US. The meeting is also a way for China and the US to manage crisis, said Zhang. 

The US has seemed eager to seek dialogue with China while US media hyped complaints from Washington about China's refusal to reschedule US Secretary of State Antony Blinken's visit; they also hyped the story earlier that the Chinese Ministry of Defense declined request for a call from the US Department of Defense.

Although some Western media said that the US President Joe Biden is pressing for China contact despite the risk of losing clout, Chinese analysts noted that it is the US' common tactics to press China for dialogues when it needs China's cooperation in dealing with some global concerns.  

Some observers also noted that the US' "eagerness" to seek dialogue with China seems more like opportunism, adding that US' sincerity remains questionable as it still continues the game of saying one thing but doing another.

The US sent signals for communications with China out of its own interests, as deteriorating China-US relations bring no good to US national interests, Yang said, noting that the US has adopted two strategies toward China - reinforcing competition with the country and preventing its oppression of China from going out of control. 

Due to the US' bankrupt credibility and previous flip-flopping attitude, public opinion in China has taken a questioning attitude of the US' sincerity, said the expert.  

The US is eager to communicate with China as it is facing problems domestically and internationally, Li said, noting that the US government could default on its payment obligation as soon as in early June, which will severely destabilize the global financial system, destroy the US credit and strike huge blow to the US' leading position in the global economy. 

The US also expects China's cooperation on some global concerns, including on the Russia-Ukraine conflict. But China has warned the US many times that it cannot expect China to cooperate with the US or help it clean the mess it made while it continues oppressing China with a new Cold War approach, said Li.

Aside from the balloon incident in February, the US' hyping of Taiwan question in recent months also further affected the bilateral relations, including US House Speaker Kevin McCarthy's meeting with the Taiwan regional leader Tsai Ing-wen in Los Angeles in April.

The Taiwan question was also one topic for Wang and Sullivan's meeting in Vienna, during which Wang elaborated on China's solemn position on the Taiwan question in a comprehensive way. The release from the White House mentioned this topic as "cross-Straits issues." 

To regain China's trust, the US needs to respect China's core interests and correct its wrong doings, including strategic containment, high-tech decoupling and hurting China's core interests by playing the Taiwan card, otherwise, it is not easy to improve the strained bilateral relations, analysts said.  

China has reiterated its stance for many times at different occasions that the Taiwan question is the core of China's core interests, the bedrock of the political foundation of bilateral ties and the first redline that must not be crossed in China-US relations. The US should get a clear understanding of this and stop further provocations, said analysts. 

But given Washington's problematic China policy and the influence of US domestic politics, it remains to be seen whether the thawing of bilateral relations can be really pushed forward, said Li.

Aside from Wang and Sullivan's meeting in Vienna, China's Commerce Minister Wang Wentao met Nicholas Burns, the US ambassador to China, on Thursday and discussed trade relations and economic issues of respective concern, in an engagement which analysts described as a signal that the two sides are touching on some "pragmatic things" that may bear fruit. 

Also on May 8, Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Qin Gang met with Burns in Beijing, during which Qin said that the top priority now is to stabilize China-US relations and prevent unexpected accidents between the two major countries. 

The recent interactions between Chinese and US officials showed that there is broader space for cooperation between the two countries, and the international community also expects the world's first and second largest economies to properly manage their disputes. But the key to improving relations lies in whether the US will take concrete measures in correcting its wrong deeds instead of continuing to say one thing but doing another, analysts said.