Sino-US Talks Come Amid Sea Change in Bilateral Ties

2021-03-18
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Sino-US Talks Come Amid Sea Change in Bilateral Ties US Secretary of State Antony Blinken adjusts his earpiece during a joint press conference with Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin in South Korea, March 18, 2021.
AFP

Rights abuses against Uyghurs in China's northwestern Xinjiang region, an ongoing crackdown on freedom of speech and political participation in Hong Kong, and military threats against the democratic island of Taiwan were among the issues affecting Sino-U.S. ties as U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken headed towards Anchorage, Alaska for talks with his Chinese counterpart on Thursday.

Blinken and national security adviser Jake Sullivan are scheduled to meet China's top diplomat Yang Jiechi and State Councilor Wang Yi in the first face-to-face meetings between the two governments since Joe Biden began his presidency in January.

The meeting comes just two days after Washington announced the expansion of financial sanctions against 24 high-ranking officials in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) over recent changes to Hong Kong's political system and the arrests of 47 democracy activists under a draconian national security law imposed on the city by Beijing from July 1, 2020.

China has hit out at the sanctions, threatening countermeasures.

U.S. officials have already said they don't expect much to come out of the meeting.

An unnamed senior U.S. official told journalists at a background briefing that the meeting was a "one-off," and didn't represent a resumption of ongoing bilateral dialogue.

He said the two sides were just seeking to understand each other's position, so as to formulate future strategy.

No joint communique is expected, the official said.

However, while Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian hit out at the U.S. for "interfering in China's internal affairs," he still called for a renewed focus on cooperation in the bilateral relations.

"[We need to] manage our differences and get Sino-U.S. relations back on track," Zhao told a news conference in Beijing.

A second senior U.S. official who attended the same briefing said Beijing appears to be expecting a change of tone from Washington since the end of the Trump administration.

But he said the U.S. would be watching to see what China did, not what it said.

Call to close the camps

Dolkun Isa, president of the World Uyghur Congress, told Blinken in a letter ahead of the meeting: "First and foremost, it is imperative that China immediately and unconditionally ends the ongoing genocide and crimes against humanity in [Xinjiang]."

"This includes that China closes all internment camps and unconditionally releases all those arbitrarily detained," he said in the letter from his group's base in Munich, Germany.

Isa said China must also end the use of forced labour in Xinjiang and other regions and allow U.N. monitors to investigate.

China's ambassador to the United Nations, Chen Xu, rejected the label "genocide" that has been applied by the U.S. government to rights abuses and falling birthrates among Uyghurs and other ethnic minority groups in Xinjiang.

His comments came after the European Union agreed in principle on Wednesday to sanction Chinese officials over rights abuses.

Hsiao Bi-khim, Taiwan's trade and economic envoy to Washington, said her country's government is confident that it will continue to enjoy the same support from the Biden administration that was extended under the Trump administration.

She said Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen is hopeful of completing a planned trade and economic cooperation agreement agreed in principle last November.

Last week, Blinken broke with decades of convention by referring to Taiwan as a "country."

Taiwan has never been ruled by Beijing nor formed part of the People's Republic of China, but has been locked out of international diplomacy and agencies at the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)'s insistence.

Washington has said it will no longer seek to "appease" China on Taiwan, as the State Department announced an end to a ban on high-level official and diplomatic contact with Taiwanese officials on Jan. 9, at the tail end of the Trump administration.

'Combat ready'

CCP leader Xi Jinping has told the country's military and armed police force to get 'combat ready' to defend national sovereignty and security, amid fears that Beijing may be planning an invasion of democratic Taiwan in the next few years.

In 2018, the Pentagon warned that the PLA is gradually preparing for a possible invasion of Taiwan, as the CCP "continued to develop and deploy increasingly advanced military capabilities intended to coerce Taiwan, signal Chinese resolve, and gradually improve capabilities for an invasion."

Under CCP general secretary Xi Jinping, China has stepped up its rhetoric claiming the island as part of its territory, saying that "unification" is inevitable, and has refused to rule out a military invasion.

But Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen, who has been a vocal critic of China's erosion of Hong Kong's promised freedoms, has repeatedly said that the country's 23 million people have no wish to give up their sovereignty or their democratic way of life.

Hsiao told RFA that Taiwan is open to talks with China on an equal, government-to-government footing, in a manner that respects the views of the majority of the island's people.

"The people of Taiwan have rejected any proposal similar to the framework ... used in Hong Kong," Hsiao said.

"As long as the other side respects the wishes of the people of Taiwan, we can open the door [to talks]."

Reported by Jane Tang for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Fong Tak Ho for the Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.

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