Top US, Chinese diplomats meet at ASEAN talks as tensions risk flaring

Blinken-Wang meeting takes place despite Chinese hacking allegation

JAKARTA: The top US and Chinese diplomats met Thursday for the second time in as many months, seeking to manage tensions that risk flaring anew over alleged Chinese hacking. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Wang Yi, China’s top foreign policy official, saw each other on the sidelines of Association of Southeast Asian Nations talks in the Indonesian capital. “Director, good to see you,” Blinken told Wang with a smile as they shook hands before US and Chinese flags at a Jakarta hotel. The two then went into talks with their aides and made no comments to assembled reporters.

The meeting went ahead despite Microsoft saying two days ago that Chinese hackers had breached US government email accounts, including those of the State Department. The Jakarta talks come nearly a month after Blinken travelled to Beijing, the first visit by a US secretary of state in nearly five years, and met President Xi Jinping as well as Wang and Foreign Minister Qin Gang. Wang, who leads the foreign affairs commission of the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Committee, is representing China at the Jakarta talks among foreign ministers because Qin is ill, the foreign ministry in Beijing said. Blinken’s Beijing trip opened a flurry of diplomacy, with Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen visiting the Chinese capital last week and a trip by climate envoy John Kerry set for the coming days.

But the United States has still not achieved its key goal of resuming dialogue with the Chinese military, seen as critical to avoiding confrontation. Tensions between the world’s two largest economies have soared in recent years over a host of issues including China’s growing assertiveness in the region and sweeping restrictions imposed by the United States on exports of advanced semiconductors. US officials fear China is readying plans to invade Taiwan, the self-governing democracy Beijing claims as its territory, and want to preserve the status quo that has existed, often uneasily, for nearly five decades. ‘Productive coexistence’?

Neither the United States nor China has predicted breakthroughs from the renewed diplomacy but both have spoken of making sure that disagreements do not lead to outright conflict. Blinken spoke in unusually sanguine terms about China after his trip to Beijing, avoiding the Cold War-like talk of a long-term global confrontation with the rising Asian power that was popular under former president Donald Trump’s administration. “At least in the near term, maybe even in the lifetimes of most people in this room, I don’t think (there is) a clear finish line,” Blinken said of US goals in China during a recent appearance at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.

“This is more about getting to a place where we have peaceful and maybe somewhat more productive coexistence between us.” But incidents have repeatedly crept up to overshadow the relationship. Microsoft said this week a Chinese hacking group had gained access to nearly 25 organizations with the goal of espionage. The State Department said it detected “anomalous activity” but stopped short of publicly blaming China, saying an investigation was underway. Blinken’s first plan to visit Beijing was scuttled in February after Washington said it detected a Chinese espionage balloon over the mainland United States.

Tensions on sea, Myanmar The South China Sea has been a major topic at the ASEAN talks in Jakarta, where Washington and Beijing will both take part in an 18-nation East Asia Summit with foreign ministers on Friday. China claims almost the entirety of the strategic waterway and several ASEAN members complain about Beijing infringing on their own overlapping territorial claims. Wang addressed ASEAN ministers before talks Thursday morning as did Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who will be in the same room as Blinken on Friday for the East Asia Summit meeting.

It will be their first encounter since a brief March meeting in India but no bilateral talks are expected between the two diplomats as Moscow’s widely condemned invasion of Ukraine grinds on. ASEAN members also met jointly with the foreign ministers of China, Japan and South Korea, a dialogue in place since the 1997 Asian financial crisis.

The crisis in coup-racked Myanmar that has divided ASEAN members has been high on the agenda in the Indonesian capital, with the Southeast Asian bloc divided over how to engage the country’s junta rulers. Thailand’s foreign minister said on Wednesday he met ousted Myanmar democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi last week and Bangkok has sought engagement with Myanmar’s junta, drawing criticism that it is undercutting ASEAN efforts. – AFP

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