President Joe Biden and China's Xi Jinping will hold a virtual meeting before the end of this year, a senior U.S. administration official said Wednesday, amid high tension in the critical relationship between the world's two largest economies, including over trade and regional challenges like Taiwan.
That's the key outcome of six hours of meetings Wednesday between two of their top aides: national security adviser Jake Sullivan and China's top diplomat Yang Jiechi, director of the Office of the Central Commission for Foreign Affairs.
China has sent scores of military planes into Taiwan's air defense zone in recent days, raising concerns about potential conflict. The senior U.S. official said that the flights were part of "a very concerning trend" and that Sullivan made clear any one-sided changes in the relationship between mainland China and Taiwan would be "unacceptable."
But the discussions were seen as a positive step forward by the Biden White House, in particular as it works to stabilize U.S.-Chinese relations and avoid a misunderstanding or clash, including over Taiwan, that spirals into a larger conflict.
"Today really involved a genuine back-and-forth, which was quite welcome," the senior official said, describing it as a "more meaningful and substantive engagement than we have had to date below the leader level."
The two men and their delegations met in Switzerland, just shy of one month after Biden and Xi spoke by phone for the second time in Biden's young term. Both top aides had been "empowered directly" by their leaders to have a more honest exchange, away from the cameras and off talking points, the senior official said.
There had been hopes that Biden and Xi could meet in person on the sidelines of the COP26 climate conference or the G20 summit this fall -- but Xi will not attend either in person. So far, there are no other details confirmed about the meeting -- one of several tasks ahead of the two leaders' advisers after these engagements.
But Sullivan's meetings Wednesday seemed to be a sharp contrast from the last time he and Yang sat down, when the top Chinese diplomat lectured him and Secretary of State Antony Blinken. What was to be a brief photo op turned into a contentious and unusually public spat between the two sides, setting the tone for continued tensions in the relationship.
While Wednesday's meetings were welcomed as a step forward by the U.S., the senior administration official that briefed reporters specifically dismissed the idea that there's been some sort of "thaw."
"What we are trying to achieve is a steady state between the United States and China, where we are able to compete intensely, but to manage that competition responsibly," they said instead -- adding it is, in the White House's view, "really, really important for two large nations to understand one another's intentions and priorities and approaches."
They declined to provide details of where the two sides can "find ways to really manage the areas where our interests diverge and find ways that we can align where they do." But they specifically said that Sullivan raised U.S. concerns about the territory of Xinjiang and the treatment of Uighurs and other Muslim minorities there, Hong Kong and China's erosion of democracy there, the South China Sea and its claims to territory, and freedom of the press and human rights.
Perhaps most urgently now, Sullivan and Yang also discussed Taiwan after four days of sustained Chinese pressure against the self-governed island that Beijing considers a breakaway territory. On Monday, China flew 56 military planes into international airspace off Taiwan's southwest coast, setting a new record and bringing the total number of flights to 149.
Taiwanese Defense Minister Chiu Kuo-cheng said Wednesday that China "will be fully prepared" to invade Taiwan in just four years time, warning, "The national army should strengthen our preparations for war."
Since Sunday, the State Department has consistently denounced Beijing's actions as "destabilizing, it risks miscalculation, and it has the potential to undermine regional peace and stability," as Blinken reiterated Wednesday in Paris.
"We strongly urge Beijing to cease its military, diplomatic, and economic pressure and coordinate directly with Taiwan," he added during a press conference on a visit to France.
Yang and Sullivan had a "very candid and direct" conversation about the issue, according to the senior administration official, adding it was "very professional and respectful." Sullivan made clear that U.S. policy remains governed by same norms and laws as always and that any one-sided changes to the current reality would be "unacceptable," the official said.
But Sullivan also raised areas where the Biden administration believes U.S. and Chinese interests are aligned and they can work together - like climate change - they added. While China has linked cooperation on climate change to the U.S. backing off on other issues, like Hong Kong or economic policy, the official said Sullivan talked about working together not as a "favor to the United States" or in a "transactional" way - but because of both countries' responsibilities to the planet.
"We need to be able to do many things at the same time and not be linking things with one another," they said Sullivan told Yang. While Yang didn't "necessarily" accept Sullivan's view, he didn't raise any linkage himself either, per the official, calling it an "honest discussion."
There was no specific agreement out of these meetings, however, and instead, both referred during the talks to the channel between U.S. Special Envoy for Climate John Kerry and his Chinese counterpart Xie Zhenhua to continue working on climate issues.