China-US talks in Bangkok yield ‘useful’ discussions on Taiwan, other issues: Sullivan

China-US talks in Bangkok yield ‘useful’ discussions on Taiwan, other issues: Sullivan
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31 January 2024
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The US and China made progress in last week’s talks in Thailand on starting a dialogue in “the spring” on the responsible use of artificial intelligence, Washington’s top national security official said late on Tuesday.

US national security adviser Jake Sullivan said his nine hours of talks with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi also included “very useful direct” talks over Taiwan and frank discussions on instability in the Red Sea, the Ukraine war and the Korean peninsula.

The Bangkok talks on Friday and Saturday were the first high-level meetings between the two wary giants since Presidents Xi Jinping and Joe Biden met in November in California.

“Both of us leave feeling that we didn’t agree or see eye to eye on everything but that there was a lot of work to carry forward,” Sullivan told a conference sponsored by the University of California, San Diego and the Council on Foreign Relations.

“Both of us agreed that we would report back to our leaders and we would get them on the phone sooner rather than later,” he added, without providing a date.

While reviewing the China-US relationship at the conference, Sullivan suggested that Washington is prepared to sanction Beijing over its growing non-lethal support to Moscow, including heavy trucks and other equipment used in the Ukraine war.

“We’re prepared to take steps to respond to that kind of activity because we believe that Russia’s defence industrial base is basically building up to continue to support an imperial war of conquest in Europe,” he said.

“And that’s a fundamental national security interest of the United States. And I made no bones about that in my conversations with my counterpart.”

An executive order signed in late December strengthens US sanctions authority against those supporting Russia’s war effort, giving Biden expanded legal authority.

“It’s not directed at [China]. It is general to countries that are supporting Russia’s defence industrial base,” he said. “But it gives us tools in this regard.”

Sullivan added that Washington will soon release another round of export restrictions, hinting that this could come in the autumn.

The first tranche of restricted US items, including high-end semiconductors, deemed useful for China’s military advancement was released in October 2022 and an updated list rolled out in October last year.

“The world can expect that will be part of the process going forward because, as the technology evolves, our controls have to evolve,” he said.

During their meeting, Sullivan said he made clear to Wang that the US continues to hold to the one-China policy, Taiwan Relations Act, six assurances and other pillars of US-China understanding in relation to the self-governed island.

“It was also clear that we continue to have concerns about elevated levels of aggressive military activity around the [Taiwan] Strait,” he added. “We don’t regard that as conducive to peace and stability.”

‘One China’ explained

Beijing sees Taiwan as part of its territory, to be brought under mainland control by force if necessary. Like most countries, the US does not recognise Taiwan as an independent state.

But Washington maintains robust unofficial ties with Taipei, opposes any attempt to take the island by force, and is committed to supplying it with weapons – positions that anger Beijing.

China has repeatedly slammed US human rights and hi-tech sanctions, characterising them as evidence of a “cold war mentality” and an effort to hold back China’s development.

Sullivan said the Biden administration has been careful to telegraph its policies to Beijing, explain its intentions and make it clear these are intended to protect US national interests and not undercut China or decouple the two economies.

But he also pushed back in Bangkok during discussions with Wang on the boundary between economics and national interests, he said.

“It’s really important to recognise that, for a very long time, [China] has taken measures on explicit grounds of national security that have had an adverse impact on American workers, American businesses, the American economy. And so this cannot be a one-way street of a conversation.”

Sullivan said Washington, Beijing and Taipei all worked to reduce tensions in and around Taiwan’s recent elections, which followed a Xi-Biden agreement in November to resume military-to-military communication.

“The question now is whether that will continue even in the face of future turbulence. We for our part will continue to make the case the military-to-military communication is critical at all times, but especially in times of tension,” he said.

Xi Jinping, Joe Biden hold talks on sidelines of Apec summit to ease strained US-China ties

Sullivan, who did an internship at the Council on Foreign Relations while in college, used the opportunity to take a broader look at US-China policy – and take a bit of a victory lap.

When the Biden administration came to power, it was fighting a narrative espoused by China that the East was on the rise and the West in inexorable decline, its alliances in disarray, its industrial base decaying, he told the conference.

And while the administration of former president Donald Trump had correctly assessed the need to reshape strategy, it never developed effective tools and was too often confrontational, Sullivan said.

The Biden administration has since developed its “invest, align, compete” approach while focusing on addressing US problems and investing in US infrastructure and industrial revival, he said.

According to Sullivan, investments in semiconductors and clean energy are up twentyfold, construction spending has doubled and an estimated US$3.5 trillion in investments has been released by the Chips and Science Act and other legislation.

“America in this moment is once more showing its capacity for resilience and reinvention,” he said.

Left unspoken by the senior official – who artfully evaded the topic during questioning – was any overt comparison with the Chinese economy, where youth unemployment has risen sharply, growth is slowing and its real estate industry swoons.

Sullivan conceded that the US has abandoned its mistaken belief over decades that it could shape or change China.

He argued that a key to improved relations has been dogged, hard-nosed diplomacy since a Chinese balloon crossed the US mainland and was shot down a year ago, derailing efforts to put a floor under ties.

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