China’s foreign minister, Qin Gang, met with the American ambassador to China in Beijing on Monday in a possible hint at a thaw in relations between the two powers after months of growing tension.
Mr. Qin told the ambassador, Nicholas Burns, that a “top priority” was to stabilize relations, “avoid a downward spiral, and prevent accidents between China and the United States,” according to China’s official readout of the meeting.
The meeting marked one of the highest-level engagements between American and Chinese officials since relations soured in February following the appearance, and subsequent downing, of a high-altitude Chinese balloon over the continental United States. The Pentagon said China had used the balloon for spying; Beijing has insisted that the balloon was a civilian airship that had been blown off course, and has accused the United States of overreacting.
Relations deteriorated further after Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken publicly warned in February that China might be preparing to give weapons and ammunition to Russia for its war on Ukraine, a claim that Beijing dismissed as fake news.
In the three months since, China has ramped up a campaign of anti-American rhetoric and tried to drive a wedge between the United States and Europe, which is divided over how closely to align with Washington’s more hawkish policies toward Beijing.
In Mr. Qin’s meeting with Mr. Burns, the Chinese official accused Washington of derailing progress in the relationship following the meeting of President Biden and China’s top leader, Xi Jinping, in November in Bali, Indonesia. Mr. Qin blamed “a series of erroneous words and deeds” by the United States for undermining “the hard-won positive momentum of Sino-U.S. relations,” according to the Chinese readout.
Mr. Qin said he hoped the Biden administration could “reflect deeply” and push the relationship “back on track.” To do that, Washington needed to respect “China’s bottom line” on issues such as Taiwan, the self-governing island claimed by Beijing. Mr. Qin said the United States was “supporting and condoning ‘Taiwan independence’ separatist forces.”
China reacted angrily to a visit last month by President Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan to the United States. Ms. Tsai met with Kevin McCarthy, the speaker of the House of Representatives, in what was the highest-level in-person gathering for a leader of Taiwan in the United States since Beijing established relations with Washington in 1979.
In a post on Twitter, Mr. Burns said he and Mr. Qin “discussed challenges in the U.S.-China relationship and the necessity of stabilizing ties and expanding high-level communication.”
The meeting between Mr. Qin and Mr. Burns comes after months of failed efforts by the United States to re-engage with China, and it follows recent expressions of optimism by Mr. Blinken that he may be able to reschedule a visit to Beijing that Washington had called off after the balloon incident.
At a virtual event last week, Mr. Burns said the United States and China needed “deeper channels” of communication and that Washington was “ready to talk.”
While China had largely frozen high-level contacts with the United States, Mr. Xi has been working to shore up ties with American allies and burnish his image as a global statesman. He has worked to restore ties between Saudi Arabia and Iran, hosted President Emmanuel Macron of France and called President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine. China also announced on Monday that Mr. Qin would visit Germany, France and Norway this week.
“It’s a positive sign they met,” said Paul Haenle, a former director for China on the National Security Council in both the Bush and Obama administrations.
Mr. Haenle said the meeting with Mr. Burns will benefit Mr. Qin when he travels to Europe, where there have been calls for China and the United States to cool tensions between them.
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