Will Vienna meeting change US-China diplomatic stalemate?

The two sides discussed ways to remove obstacles and stabilize China-US relations in Vienna, according to a Thursday press release from the Chinese side.
15 May 2023

Will the meeting in Vienna bring any changes to the US and China diplomatic stalemate? (Photo by Jim WATSON / AFP)

The US and China have not been on good terms in recent years, and the relationship between the economic juggernauts has been complex for far longer. While both nations have shared close economic ties and are significantly intertwined, they also have a hegemonic great power rivalry throughout the Asia Pacific region and beyond.

When Joe Biden was sworn in as the 46th president of the US, he offered a chance to change the course of US-China relations, which had hit a low point under theTrump administration. Finally, on the afternoon of November 14, the President of China, Xi Jinping, met with President Biden in Bali, Indonesia – their first in-person encounter since the latter took office. 

The meeting, albeit closed-door, offered a clarifying opportunity for the world’s most important bilateral relationship. The two presidents had a candid and in-depth exchange of views on issues of strategic importance in China-US relations and major global and regional issues. Biden and Xi agreed in their opening remarks that they were looking for ways to coexist despite their disagreements.

Between November 14 and now, a lot has happened between the two nations, including the US military shooting down a suspected Chinese spy balloon off the Carolina coast after it traversed sensitive military sites across North America. 

The presence of the balloon in the skies above the US in February this year dealt a severe blow to the already strained US-China relations that have been in a downward spiral for years. 

It immediately prompted US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to abruptly cancel a high-stakes Beijing trip aimed at easing tensions. Conversely, China has claimed that the balloon was merely a weather research “airship” blown off course. The Pentagon rejected that out of hand — as well as China’s contention that it was not being used for surveillance and had limited navigational ability.

Since then, the US and China have maintained an arm’s length distance, and relations have been wholly paused between the superpowers until last week, when top US and Chinese envoys met in Vienna in what is dubbed the “highest in-person engagement” since Xi and Biden’s meet-up in November.

When in Vienna, with US and China

After two intense meetings on May 10 and 11 between national security adviser Jake Sullivan and top Chinese diplomat Wang Yi, the two nations used identical language to describe the meetings: candid, substantive, constructive. 

The Vienna meeting came ahead of Biden’s expected visit to Asia, starting with a G7 summit in Japan from May 19-21 that is likely to look for closer alignment of the group’s approach towards China.

According to statements from the White House and the Chinese embassy, the gist of the eight-hour-long meetings includes agreeing to maintain communication. “The two sides agreed to maintain this important strategic communication channel to advance these objectives,” the White House said.

Key issues in the US-China bilateral relationship that were discussed include global and regional security issues, Russia’s war against Ukraine, and cross-Strait issues. China’s embassy in Washington DC said the “in-depth” talks focused “… on removing obstacles in China-US relations and stabilizing the relationship from deterioration.” 

A report by China’s state news agency Xinhua indicated that the Taiwan issue was on the agenda during the Sullivan-Wang talks. “Wang Yi comprehensively elaborated on China’s solemn position on the Taiwan issue,” Xinhua added. “The two sides also exchanged views on international and regional issues of common concern, such as the Asia-Pacific situation and Ukraine.”

The statements on May 11 were the most transparent signal since bilateral engagement broke down earlier this year that it was reigniting. Just before the Sullivan-Wang discussions took place, there was also a meeting between US Ambassador to China Nicholas Burns and China’s second-highest diplomat, Qin Gang, last week. 

Even the US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, recently said he hopes to reschedule a postponed trip to China in February after the row over the alleged Chinese spy balloon that was shot down over the US. 

While the talks are, without a doubt, the latest in a series of minor signs that tensions could be easing between the world’s two biggest economies, other events on the horizon will test both countries’ ability to keep engagement intact.