WASHINGTON/BEIJING: Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi begins a long-anticipated visit to Washington on Thursday, as the US and China seek to manage deep strategic differences and pave the way for an expected summit between presidents Joe Biden and Xi Jinping.
The Middle East war has added a fresh dynamic to the testy relationship between the superpowers and Washington is hoping Beijing could use its influence with Iran to help ensure the Israel-Hamas conflict does not spread to the wider region.
However, while both Beijing and Washington have spoken of looking for areas where they can work together, and Xi on Wednesday said China was willing to cooperate on global challenges, experts do not expect immediate progress.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken will welcome Wang at the State Department on Thursday, and he told the UN Security Council on Tuesday he would work with him to prevent the Middle East conflict from spreading.
Policy analysts in China and the US say both sides share an interest in averting a wider war and that China, as a major oil purchaser, has considerable influence it could exert on Iran.
But whether Beijing will use it remains to be seen and experts say China may instead watch from the sidelines for a while longer.
“The Chinese certainly have an interest in preventing a direct US-Iranian confrontation, as they are major oil consumers and that would spike prices,” said Jon Alterman, head of the Middle East program at Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“Still, the Chinese are unlikely to do any heavy lifting here. I expect they’ll want a seat at the table when the Israel-Gaza struggle gets resolved, but they don’t feel much need or ability to hasten resolution.”
Shi Yinhong, professor of international relations at Renmin University of China, said Beijing exerting its influence over Iran was “almost the only serious and practical US expectation of China on the Middle East situation.”
However Shi added: “The US position on Iran is far from acceptable to China and vice versa. Mutual compromise on this issue could be too limited and small to be of any significance.” Washington has stressed the importance of China’s ability to influence Iran.
Blinken, during a whirlwind Middle East trip last week, spoke by phone to Wang and asked him to use Beijing’s clout to ensure the conflict does not widen.
China has called for restraint and a ceasefire in response to Israel’s bombardment of Gaza in retaliation for an Oct. 7 attack by Hamas that Israel says killed 1,400 people.
Retaliatory Israeli airstrikes have killed over 6,500 people, the health ministry in Hamas-ruled Gaza said on Wednesday.
Reuters has not been able to independently verify the casualty figures of either side.
“China has been working tirelessly to promote the cessation of hostilities and the restoration of peace. We have been maintaining close communication with the parties concerned,” China’s UN Ambassador Zhang Jun said on Tuesday.
Wang’s visit to Washington comes after several top US officials, including Blinken, visited Beijing in the past several months. The veteran Chinese diplomat is expected to meet Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, on Friday.
He is also expected to speak with Biden during his visit to the White House, according to two US officials, although it is unclear how substantial their interaction will be.
Path to Biden-Xi meeting
Analysts expect the discussions to focus on preparations for an anticipated meeting between Biden and Xi on the sidelines of the summit of Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) countries in San Francisco from Nov. 11 to 17.
It would be Biden and Xi’s first in-person meeting since a summit in Bali last November.
“There are substantive things to be ironed out and finalized,” said Yun Sun, director of the China Program at Washington’s Stimson Center.
“(Wang) will be here for the negotiations only - the big deliverables will be reserved for the top leaders to announce.” On Wednesday, Xi said whether Washington and Beijing could establish the “right” way of getting along and managing their differences would be crucial to the world.
The two sides go into APEC from different economic perspectives, with economic policy analysts saying the US has weathered challenging global conditions after the COVID-19 pandemic somewhat better than China.
US and Chinese officials held a virtual meeting on Monday on macroeconomic developments, talks the US called “productive and substantive” and China called “in-depth, frank and constructive.”
They said re-establishing military-to-military ties with China remained a top US priority to avoid unintended conflict.
China’s Global Times tabloid highlighted contradictions in relations.
“Although Sino-US interactions have seen a rapid recovery in different fields,” the US policy of attempting to “contain” China had not changed, it said, accusing Washington of “two-faced tactics” in which it “frequently takes various opportunities to discredit China and create friction.”