US-China meetings fail to produce breakthrough on Red Sea shipping attacks

The U.S. failed in two days of talks to prod China into pressuring Iran to stop Houthi attacks on commercial shipping in the Red Sea, an administration official said Saturday.

National security adviser Jake Sullivan raised U.S. concerns about the ongoing attacks in the meetings with China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Bangkok, Thailand, on Friday and Saturday. But the talks ended with no sign that China is willing to take decisive steps to use its economic influence on Iran — which funds and equips Yemen’s Houthi militia — to stem the threat to global supply chains.

Those attacks, which began two months ago, have prompted multiple U.S. and British air strikes on Houthi positions in Yemen in recent weeks.

“Beijing says they are raising this with the Iranians … but we’re certainly going to wait before we comment further on how effectively we think they’re actually raising it,” a senior administration official told reporters during a call on Sullivan’s meeting on Saturday.

The Biden administration has been making the case to Beijing that it should help “in terms of quieting some of those attacks, but whether it chooses to use that leverage in that way I think that remains to be seen,” the official said.

The Biden administration is also hitting a brick wall in trying to prod Beijing to convince close ally North Korea to scale back its nuclear weapons program, curtail support for Russia’s war on Ukraine and ease up on its increasingly hostile rhetoric toward South Korea.

“I wouldn’t characterize anything recently as constructive” in terms of Beijing’s influence on Pyongyang, the officials said.

Sullivan had better luck engaging with Wang on the ongoing civil conflict in Burma, where a military offensive by an alliance of ethnic militias launched in October has inflicted a series of defeats of government forces.

Much of the fighting, which has fueled a humanitarian crisis by displacing large numbers of civilians, has occurred along Burma’s border with China, which has closeties to Burma’s military dictatorship. Sullivan and Wang “discussed the ongoing crisis and we hope to have follow up discussions at lower levels in the coming weeks and months,” the official said.

A Chinese Foreign Ministry readout of the meeting published Saturday called the Sullivan-Wang talks “frank, substantive and fruitful,” but didn’t make any specific mention of the Red Sea shipping crisis.

The readout instead described the perceived threat of Taiwan independence as “the biggest challenge to China-U.S. relations.”

The statement also reiterated Beijing’s concerns that the U.S. is using export restrictions “to contain and suppress the development of other countries” and said that the two countries will discuss “the boundary between national security and economic activities” in future meetings.

China’s reluctance to use its diplomatic and economic heft to support U.S. moves to address the Red Sea disruptions or temper North Korea’s provocations underscores the limitations of the Biden administration’s diplomatic outreach efforts to Beijing over the past eight months.

That has included a series of cabinet officials’ trips to Beijing that climaxed with President Joe Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s meeting in San Francisco in November.

Biden and Xi will follow up that meeting with a phone call “this spring at some point in the coming months,” the official said. But Beijing’s deaf ear to U.S. calls for Chinese assistance in the Red Sea and on the Korean Peninsula suggests that China sees greater value in sitting by the sidelines of two ongoing international crises rather than actively siding with the U.S. against two key allies.

The two-day meeting was a follow-up to Wang’s visit to Washington in October in the run-up to the Biden-Xi encounter in San Francisco in November. That meeting ended with agreements to resume military-to-military contacts, bolster bilateral counter-narcotics cooperation and to begin discussions on the use of artificial intelligence.

Bilateral efforts to deliver on those agreements are bearing fruit. A U.S.-China Counternarcotics Working Group will have an inaugural meeting in Beijing on Tuesday, the official said. And a series of military-to-military contacts that Beijing suspended in 2022 in reprisal for then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s Taiwan trip — including “communication between theater commanders and at the Minister-Secretary level” — will resume in the coming months, the official said.

A U.S.-China initiative to address “safety and risks posed by advanced forms of AI” will culminate in a joint meeting “sometime in the spring,” the official added.

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