SINGAPORE—China’s top diplomat was set to begin a four-day visit to Russia after a surprise stopover in Malta for weekend talks with White House officials, as Beijing lays the groundwork for separate meetings between Chinese leader Xi Jinping and his U.S. and Russian counterparts.
Russia’s Vladimir Putin is expected to visit China in October—his first trip abroad since the International Criminal Court in March issued an arrest warrant over his role in the forced deportation of children from Russian-occupied areas of Ukraine. Anticipation is growing that Xi and President Biden could meet at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in San Francisco the following month.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s trip follows on the heels of several meetings with White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan in Malta this past weekend.
The previously unannounced Malta talks came after the pair held a secret meeting in Vienna in May. That meeting followed months of tensions over a suspected Chinese surveillance balloon that drifted across the U.S., derailing plans by Secretary of State Antony Blinken to make his first visit to China in February.
The Vienna talks helped set the stage for the revival of high-level contacts that unfolded over the summer with the Beijing visits by Blinken, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, special climate envoy John Kerry and Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo despite criticisms from Republican lawmakers, who say Biden appears to be making concessions without any response in kind from China.
“Beijing should recognize that the Biden administration is continuing efforts to remain engaged with China despite domestic pushback,” said Paul Haenle, a China expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
The only time Biden and Xi have met as heads of state was at the G-20 summit on the Indonesian island of Bali last November.
The Malta talks showed that U.S.-China ties remain a “work in progress,” said Wu Xinbu, dean of the Institute of International Studies at Shanghai’s Fudan University, adding that although the lack of detail showed many issues remained unresolved, the two sides were on “the right track.”
The meetings covered an array of topics, including Ukraine as well as other global security issues, statements from both sides said. Sullivan stressed the importance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait, according to the U.S. statement. The Chinese readout said that Wang had warned that Taiwan, the self-ruled island China claims as its own territory, is the “first insurmountable red line of Sino-U. S. relations.”
China sent more than 100 warplanes on sorties near Taiwan between Sunday and Monday mornings, a recent high for such flights, Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense said, with 40 of those entering the Taiwanese air-defense identification zone. Nine Chinese naval vessels were also detected in nearby waters, it said.
Both sides also noted that they intended to expand high-level engagement in the coming months, with China’s readout saying that the U.S. and China had agreed to hold bilateral consultations on Asia-Pacific affairs, maritime affairs and foreign policy. Beijing had suspended various communication channels following former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan last summer.
The timing of Wang’s back-to-back meetings appeared to reflect a growing strategic relationship and increased coordination between China and Russia, said Carnegie Endowment’s Haenle.
Fudan University’s Wu said that the Russia trip had most probably been scheduled a long time in advance to discuss preparations for Putin’s visit.
Wang’s meetings with his American and Russian counterparts are taking place as Beijing is struggling with a slowing economy and dealing with what appears to be turmoil among top-ranking party personnel. Wang returned to his job as China’s foreign minister in July after Qin Gang was removed from the post without explanation.
In August, China’s Defense Minister Li Shangfu visited Russia and Belarus and called for closer military cooperation. This month, Li was taken away by authorities for questioning, The Wall Street Journal reported, while U.S. officials said he is being removed from his post.
A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, asked at a routine briefing on Friday to comment on whether Li was under investigation, said she wasn’t aware of the situation.
The recent meetings and engagements between China and the U.S. were important for gaining visibility into China and figuring out how it is dealing with the various challenges, said Haenle. “It is become harder and harder to know what China wants to do. It is becoming more and more like a black box.”
Joyu Wang in Taipei contributed to this article.