Top officials from the United States and China have agreed to maintain communication after eight hours of talks over two days in the Austrian capital, according to statements from the White House and the Chinese embassy.
US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and China’s top diplomat, Wang Yi met in Vienna on Wednesday and Thursday with both sides describing the previously unannounced meeting as “candid, substantive and constructive.”
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The talks were held as both countries try to navigate heightened tensions over a range of issues, including trade, the status of Taiwan, China’s claims in the disputed South China Sea and an ongoing US push against growing Chinese influence in the Pacific.
“The two sides agreed to maintain this important strategic channel of communication to advance these objectives,” the White House said.
China’s embassy in Washington DC said the “in-depth” talks were focussed “… on removing obstacles in China-US relations and stabilising the relationship from deterioration.”
Top US officials have said President Joe Biden’s administration is pursuing competition with China but does not want it to veer into conflict.
The Sullivan-Wang discussions followed a meeting between US Ambassador to China Nicholas Burns and China’s second highest diplomat, Qin Gang, also this week.
Daniel Russel, who was the top US diplomat for East Asia under former President Barack Obama, said communication between the US national security adviser and the top Chinese foreign affairs official has been historically important and today “appears to be virtually the only significant channel still operating.”
He said the avoidance of damaging public sparring seen in the past was encouraging, but did not mean relations were necessarily on the mend.
“Both sides are delivering stern – sometimes angry – messages,” he told the Reuters news agency, “but these meetings create the possibility they may find some common ground that can help stabilise a relationship that is dangerously volatile.”
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken recently said he hopes to reschedule a trip to China that was postponed in February after a row over an alleged Chinese spy balloon that was shot down over the US. China has denied the balloon was used for surveillance.
The latest diplomatic flurry could also foreshadow a potential meeting between Biden and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, although the US president on Wednesday said there had been no progress on that front.
The two leaders met in November ahead of a G20 summit in Bali, Indonesia.
On Thursday, the White House said Sullivan and Wang had discussed a range of topics, including “cross-Strait issues”, a reference to rising tensions over self-ruled Taiwan, which China claims as part of its own territory.
Beijing has responded with anger to Washington’s continued support for Taiwan, deploying military assets that have stoked fears of a larger escalation.
Last month, a US warship sailed through the waters separating Taiwan and China after Beijing launched three days of military exercises around the democratic island.
Wang “comprehensively expounded upon China’s solemn position” on Taiwan, Chinese state-run news agency Xinhua said, adding the two diplomats “agreed to continue to make good use of this strategic channel for communication.”
Sullivan and Wang also discussed “global and regional security issues” as well as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Biden administration said.
The US has warned against growing ties between China and Russia, including the potential of Beijing sending direct aid to Moscow for its ongoing invasion of Ukraine.
Beijing has denied it favours either side, maintaining it wants to be a peacebroker in the conflict.
Washington has made countering Beijing’s growing influence a top foreign policy priority and has sought to shore up support in the Pacific region to counter what it calls China’s growing commercial, political and military assertiveness.
China, for its part, has accused the US of pursuing a new Cold War.