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Top US, China officials to meet over intense divides

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Secretary of State Antony Blinken testifies before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs on the administration foreign policy priorities on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, March 10, 2021, in Washington. (Ken Cedeno/Pool via AP)

WASHINGTON – Senior U.S. and Chinese officials will meet next week in their first face-to-face talks since President Joe Biden took office to confront growing strains in the relationship between the world’s two largest economies.

The White House and State Department said Wednesday that Secretary of State Antony Blinken and national security adviser Jake Sullivan will see China’s top foreign policy officials, State Councilor Wang Yi and the foreign affairs chief of the Chinese Communist Party, Yang Jiechi, on March 18 in Anchorage, Alaska.

In his first appearance before Congress since being confirmed as America’s top diplomat, Blinken told lawmakers Wednesday it would be an opportunity to discuss intense disagreements over trade and human rights in Tibet, Hong Kong and the western Xinjiang region, as well as the coronavirus pandemic. Cooperation on North Korea and its nuclear weapons program are also likely to top the agenda.

In his testimony, Blinken also touched on the administration’s positions toward Iran, Cuba, Ethiopia, Russia and Venezuela. But he gave no hints about any potential policy changes. In each case, he pledged to work with lawmakers on their concerns, and his staid demeanor stood in sharp contrast to the often confrontational tone that his predecessor, Mike Pompeo, adopted in similar settings.

Blinken excoriated Ethiopia for a crackdown on dissent in the Tigray region, demanding that the country's prime minister “step up” to protect Ethiopian citizens from violence and abuse. He reiterated pledges from Biden and others that the administration will not re-enter the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, which Trump withdrew from, unless the Iranians return to compliance with the accord first.

The meeting with the Chinese in Alaska will come just just days after Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin see their Japanese and South Korean counterparts in Tokyo and Seoul to reaffirm U.S. treaty alliances with those nations. It will also come less than a week after Biden holds a virtual summit with the leaders of India, Japan and Australia to discuss Indo-Pacific policy.

“It’s pretty simple,” Blinken told the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “This is an important opportunity for us to lay out in very frank terms our concerns."

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said earlier that the meeting would be "an opportunity to address a wide range of issues, including ones where we have deep disagreements.”

"We’ll be frank in explaining how Beijing’s actions and behavior challenge security, prosperity and our concerns about challenges they pose to the security and values of the United States and our allies and partners,” she told reporters. She added that the talks would also focus on areas, such as climate change, where the U.S. and China can cooperate. “We approach our relationship with the Chinese from a position of strength and in lockstep with our allies and partners,” Psaki said.

U.S.-China relations nose-dived while Donald Trump was president, with his administration taking multiple actions against Beijing for its actions against Uyghur Muslims and other minorities in Xinjiang and in Tibet, its crackdown on pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, aggressive actions toward Taiwan and staking claims to territory in the South China Sea.

Since moving into the White House, however, Biden has yet to make any significant overtures to China, signaling that many of Trump's policies toward the country will continue.