Wang-Sullivan Bangkok meeting to continue high-level contact momentum
Third venue creates more pragmatic, solution-oriented environment to discuss thorny issues
Published: Jan 26, 2024 10:47 PM
China US Photo:VCG

China US Photo:VCG

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi will hold talks with US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan in Bangkok during their visit in Thailand, the Chinese Foreign Ministry announced on Friday, as the two countries continue their momentum of engagement and communication despite multiple issues on which they are at odds.  

The high-level contact between Wang and Sullivan, scheduled for January 26-27, according to the White House, is one of the most authoritative communication mechanisms between China and the US. Issues of urgent mutual concern, such as the Ukraine crisis, Red Sea tensions, the Taiwan question and the South China Sea disputes, are expected to be discussed.  

Chinese experts believe that a meeting in Thailand would help create a calm and pragmatic atmosphere for dialogue, as it is consistent with the two sides' choice of a third venue, such as Vienna and Malta in 2023. The meeting of senior diplomats is also likely to set the stage for possible interactions between the two countries' heads of state in the future.

They noted that the continuation of high-level interactions between the two sides will, to some extent, offset the negative impact of the US 2024 presidential election on bilateral relations, which are expected to remain stable and moderate, but in general, the Biden administration's sincerity is still limited, and it has yet to abandon its approach of defining China-US relations through competition, which means the risk of conflict remains.

Hotspot issues 

According to Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin, Wang Yi, also Member of the Political Bureau of the Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee, will visit Thailand from January 26 to 29, at the invitation of Thailand's deputy prime minister Parnpree Bahiddha-Nukara. 

Maintaining strategic communication between Wang Yi and Sullivan is an important consensus reached by the heads of state of China and the US. During the new round of meetings, Wang Yi will state China's position on China-US relations and the Taiwan question, and exchange views with the US side on international and regional issues of common interest, Wang Wenbin said at a press briefing on Friday afternoon. 

Citing US officials, the Wall Street Journal said Sullivan is expected to discuss Houthi attacks in the Red Sea along with a range of other issues. The Biden administration, according to media reports, wants China to halt Iran's military and financial backing of the Houthi militants, which are attacking ships in the Red Sea linked to Israel. 

The US hopes that China will cooperate with the US on the Red Sea crisis and exert pressure through the media, but we know that the China-US relationship goes far beyond that, Lü Xiang, a research fellow at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, told the Global Times on Friday. 

China is not involved in escalating tensions in the Red Sea, but an unimpeded Red Sea serves the interests of the whole world. China will strive to seek peace in the Red Sea within its capacity, which has nothing to do with the US, said Lü.

According to Li Haidong, a professor at the China Foreign Affairs University, the issues to be discussed at the Wang-Sullivan meeting will be multifaceted.

The communication pipeline between Wang and Sullivan is one of the most authoritative, straightforward and credible mechanisms between the Chinese and US governments, and deals with topics that are without doubt of the most urgent and core concerns to each other, Li said. 

The US is concerned over Red Sea tensions, the Ukraine crisis, Artificial Intelligence and supply chains, while the Taiwan question and the South China Sea issue remain China's top priorities. 

Liu Jianchao, head of the International Department of the Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee, led a delegation to visit the US before the Taiwan regional election was held on January 13, and raised the Taiwan question during talks with US officials. On Wednesday, the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) tracked and monitored a US destroyer as it made a transit through the Taiwan Straits.

The Chinese side will explain its views and positions on issues of common concern to the US side and most importantly, urge the US to not play with fire on the Taiwan question and send the wrong signal to Taiwan secessionists, Li said. 

Momentum continues

The Wang-Sullivan meeting will be their first such contact since US President Joe Biden met Chinese President Xi Jinping in San Francisco in November, according to the Financial Times, citing sources.   

"This meeting continues the commitment by both sides at the November 2023 Woodside Summit between President Biden and President Xi to maintain strategic communication and responsibly manage the relationship," read a White House statement. 

The two senior diplomats held meetings twice in 2023, with one ten-hour meeting in Vienna in May and a dialogue in Malta lasting for 12 hours in September. 

According to Li, meetings between high-level officials of China and the US in a third venue seem to have become institutionalized.

Meeting in a third venue can create a calmer, more pragmatic and solution-oriented environment for the two sides to discuss thorny issues, and reduce the negative impact of extreme and unhealthy domestic politics in the US on the exchanges, Li said. 

The interaction between high-level officials also means paving the way for the next stage of communication between the leaders, Li noted. At a critical point like the upcoming Chinese New Year, we can't rule out the possibility that the two leaders may interact with each other over phone or other means. 

On the eve of Spring Festival in February 2021, President Xi held a phone call with President Biden to exchange Lunar New Year greetings. The two leaders also exchanged New Year greetings messages on the first day of the year 2024. 

The US and China are expected to hold more top-level meetings this year. According to the Financial Times, Janet Yellen will travel to China following her first visit to Beijing as Treasury Secretary last year. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has also been discussing a possible trip to China. 

Although China and the US have restored contacts at various levels, this resumption does not appear to have been accompanied by sincerity from Washington that is sufficient to satisfy Beijing, said Lü, as the US has yet to abandon the approach of competition being the main theme defining China-US relations, which could lead to conflict.

The 2024 US presidential election means that there will be increased uncertainty in American politics and policies, which have been described as "frequently turning over a baking cake," so China must be well prepared for that, Lü remarked. 

"China still hopes that the White House will make a proper statement on China-US relations before the 2024 election," Lü said, "Regardless of whether this statement can play a substantial role or not, a kind statement is always better than a vicious one."

Despite the Biden administration's inconsistency and duplicity in its China policy, Washington and Beijing have agreed to manage their relationship with guardrails, which makes a detente and stabilization of US-China relations in 2024 a high probability, said Li, "This will produce an offsetting and mitigating function for the dramatic US domestic political turmoil, namely the upcoming US presidential election."