Why China is making overtures to both US and Russia

Sep 18, 2023, 12:04pm EDT
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Wang Yi, China’s top diplomat, met with White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan in Malta over the weekend.

The two reportedly had “candid” and “constructive” conversations lasting 12 hours over two days, according to a senior Biden administration official among the latest attempts at cooling tensions between DC and Beijing.

The weekend session will have likely laid the groundwork for a potential summit between U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping in the upcoming months1 . Incidents such as the emergence of a Chinese spy balloon in U.S. territory and Washington’s fervent support for Taiwan have soured relations between the two countries and prevented meaningful engagement from happening. But as China continues to face a faltering economy, Beijing has shown interest in ramping up talks with the U.S.

The “Taiwan question” remains the “No. 1 red line” that should not be crossed in China’s relationship with the U.S.2 , the Chinese Foreign Ministry wrote in a readout following the Malta meeting. The U.S. took a slightly more allusive approach3 in its own readout by noting that discussions between Wang and Sullivan included mentions of “the importance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait”. On Monday, Taiwan’s defense ministry said that it had identified "a recent high" of 103 Chinese military aircraft over the sea4 .

Unlike their counterparts, Chinese diplomats serve to “keep foreigners away from Chinese policymakers,” John Gerson, a former China advisor to British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher told Foreign Policy. He said that China’s efforts at engaging with other countries are for the purpose of seeking approval5 while bolstering an authoritarian regime. The diplomats closest to Xi prioritize discipline over charm, Cindy Yu, an assistant editor of The Spectator writes, arguing that under Xi’s model of wolf warrior diplomacy, the fear among officials of being purged is high.

The Malta meeting may be undermined by Wang’s four-day visit to Moscow to meet his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov6 . That meeting is similarly intended to prepare for a bigger one between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Xi next month, but is also expected to boost political trust between the two countries. Xi and Putin had previously met in Moscow in March.