NEW YORK – After years of latent tensions between the United States and China, the White House announced on Tuesday that President Joe Biden’s national security adviser Jake Sullivan will travel to Switzerland to meet with senior Chinese diplomat Yang Jiechi, a sign that the two sides are looking to lower the temperature.
The meeting in Zurich, which could take place as early as Wednesday, could pave the way for the first in-person talks between Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit in Rome which begins on October 30.
Bloomberg reported on Tuesday that Chinese diplomats have informed their G-20 counterparts that Xi is not currently planning to attend the summit in Italy. But a potential trip to an African forum could pave the way for a Biden-Xi summit during this period.
Rome is not the only opportunity for the Chinese leader to make his first overseas trip in more than 21 months. China is also preparing to host the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) in Senegal in the first week of November.
The meeting will bring together key representatives from more than 50 countries and is considered an event of prime importance by Beijing. If the Chinese leader is preparing to make a trip to Dakar but has not committed to a summit in Rome, it may be a sign that he is seeking a firmer commitment from the United States to progress.
Eight months into his presidency and after a murderous exit from Afghanistan, Biden seeks a new phase of “relentless diplomacy”. Its trade representative, Katherine Tai, told the Washington Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank on Monday that the administration would seek “recoupling” with China rather than decoupling.
At the Zurich meeting, both sides “will follow President Biden’s September 9 call with President Xi as we continue to seek to responsibly manage competition between the United States and the People’s Republic of China.” , the White House statement said.
In that September appeal, Biden expressed his intention to “manage” competition between the two countries to ensure that it “does not come into conflict.”
Since then, there have been signs of a thaw in the cold relationship. Huawei chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou returned to China last month after nearly three years in Canada. She struck a deal with U.S. prosecutors to resolve the fraud charges against her. China immediately released two Canadian citizens it had detained after Meng’s arrest.
The dramatic turn of events came weeks after the Biden-Xi call.
At the United Nations General Assembly, Xi said Beijing would not build new overseas coal-fired power projects, a decision Council on Foreign Relations analysts Jennifer Hillman and David Sacks said. called it something that “could become the most significant change in China’s Belt and Road Initiative for Date.”
And on Monday, Tai, the U.S. trade representative, said she would meet with her counterpart in China in the coming days to resume trade talks. While Tai has said she will implement the phase one trade deal signed between Beijing and the Trump administration, she also said, “Our goal is not to fuel trade tensions with China.”
When asked if decoupling supply chains with China was a priority for the Biden administration, Tai said no.
âThe concern maybeâ¦ whether or not the US and China should stop trading with each other. I don’t think that’s a realistic outcome in terms of our global economy,â Tai said.
âPerhaps the question is what are the goals we are looking for in some kind of recoupling. How do we have a trade relationship with China, where we have strong and robust positions in the supply chain, and there is trade that is happening as opposed to dependency? “
The Chinese leader has not left China since the COVID-19 outbreak. He visited Myanmar on January 17-18, 2020 and moved to China’s Yunnan Province for the next few days. It happened as an unknown virus began to wreak havoc in Wuhan, Hubei province, and Xi was later criticized for not being in Beijing during the crisis. On January 23, 2020, the central government imposed a lockdown on Wuhan.
While Xi has been reluctant to leave the Chinese capital amid the pandemic, one event he will want to attend is FOCAC. Organized once every three years since its launch in 2000, FOCAC has been Beijing’s main platform for engaging with Africa.
Organized alternately in China and Africa, it has so far been hosted in Beijing, Ethiopia, Egypt and South Africa. The next meeting in Dakar, Senegal, will be the first time that FOCAC will be held in West Africa.
Paul Nantulya, associate researcher at the African Center for Strategic Studies, said that if the original plan was for Xi to address the meeting via video, “there’s a very good chance he wants to attend in person.”
âIt would be a huge message, a huge symbol if Xi used his first overseas trip after COVID-19 to visit Africa,â he said.
FOCAC has been a showcase of China’s unifying power. “More African leaders choose to attend FOCAC than at the United Nations General Assembly, the world’s largest summit,” Nantulya said. “In 2018, 51 African presidents attended the FOCAC summit compared to just 27 at the General Assembly two weeks later.”
If Xi attends FOCAC in Dakar, it could contrast China’s engagement with that of Biden, who chose not to meet with any African leaders at the UN General Assembly.
U.S. analysts have called on the White House to focus on Africa, especially after the African Continental Free Trade Area entered into force in January, the largest such area by number of countries since its inception. of the World Trade Organization.
Landry Signe, a senior researcher at the Brookings Institution, called on Biden to visit Africa.
“Presidential visits are one of the highest expressions of respect,” he said. “Biden’s international trip to Africa will be incredibly well received by the African community, sending the signal that it’s not just about words.”
Biden’s predecessor, Donald Trump, was the first US president since Ronald Reagan not to visit Africa during his tenure.
Additional reporting by Jack Stone Truitt in New York