Top US, Chinese diplomats to meet at ASEAN talks

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The top US and Chinese diplomats will hold their second meeting in as many months on Thursday in Jakarta, seeking to manage tensions that risk flaring anew over alleged Chinese hacking.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Wang Yi, the top Chinese foreign policy official, will meet on the sidelines of Association of Southeast Asian Nations talks in the Indonesian capital, the State Department’s public schedule showed.

The meeting is going ahead despite Microsoft saying two days earlier 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 the top US diplomat 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 as Qin is ill, the foreign ministry in Beijing said.

Blinken’s trip opened a flurry of diplomacy, with Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen visiting Beijing last week and a trip by climate envoy John Kerry set for the coming days.

But the United States has still not achieved a key goal of resuming dialogue with the Chinese military, seen as critical to avoiding worst-case scenarios.

Tensions between the world’s two largest economies have soared in recent years over a host of issues including China’s 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 it claims, and want to preserve the status quo that has reigned, often uneasily, for nearly five decades. 

Neither the United States nor China has predicted breakthroughs in the renewed diplomacy, but both have spoken of making sure that disagreements do not lead to outright conflict.

Blinken after his trip to Beijing spoke in unusually sanguine terms on China, avoiding the Cold War-like talk popular under former president Donald Trump’s administration of a long-term global confrontation with the rising Asian power.

“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, because the bottom line is this: China’s not going away, we’re not going away, so in the first instance we have to find a way to coexist and coexist peacefully.”

But incidents have repeatedly crept up to overshadow the relationship.

Microsoft this week said that a Chinese hacking group had gained access to nearly 25 organisations 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. 

The South China Sea is set to be a major topic at the ASEAN talks in Jakarta, where Washington and Beijing will both take part in an 18-nation East Asia Summit foreign ministers’ meeting 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.

ASEAN will also meet 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 will also be on the list of topics to be addressed because it is a thorny issue that divides ASEAN members, said Teuku Rezasyah, international relations expert at Padjadjaran University.

“Japan and South Korea have an interest to prevent Myanmar from joining China’s orbit,” he said.

Thailand’s foreign minister on Wednesday said he met with ousted Myanmar democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi last week in her first known meeting with a foreign envoy since she was detained in the military takeover more than two years ago.

Thailand’s army-backed government has also sought engagement with the junta in neighbouring Myanmar, drawing criticism that it is weakening ASEAN unity on pressing the military rulers.

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