NEW YORK — American and Chinese foreign policy chiefs met Wednesday in the U.S. state of Hawaii for the first face-to-face, high-level contact between the two countries since coronavirus lockdowns began and tensions near a boiling point.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his counterpart Yang Jiechi, director of China’s Office of Foreign Affairs and a member of the Chinese Politburo met in Honolulu, a city roughly equidistant between Washington and Beijing. The two, whose last known exchange was a phone call on April 15, likely sought to mend rifts over a range of issues, including Hong Kong and the pandemic.
But attention on the Honolulu meeting was dwarfed by coverage of leaked excerpts from a yet-to-be published book by former national security adviser John Bolton, who claimed U.S. President Donald Trump asked Chinese President Xi Jinping to help him win in the upcoming U.S. election in November.
Trump is seeking to block the publication of Bolton’s book via a lawsuit, claiming it contains “classified” information.
Before and at the Group of 20 summit in Osaka, Japan last year, Trump applauded Xi as “the greatest leader in Chinese history,” stressing the importance of Chinese purchases of American farm products in his reelection, “pleading with Xi to ensure he’d win,” Bolton wrote, per an excerpt published by The Wall Street Journal.
Ahead of the Osaka summit, Trump also refused to issue a White House statement on the anniversary of Beijing’s Tiananmen crackdown, saying “Who cares about it? I’m trying to make a deal. I don’t want anything,” according to Bolton.
But the trade agreement borne out of the laborious negotiations that followed, touted by Trump as the greatest deal ever made after it was inked in January, quickly fell out of the U.S. president’s favor as the country grew increasingly overwhelmed by the coronavirus pandemic, which started in China.
“I feel differently now about that deal than I did three months ago,” Trump said last month. In recent weeks, he has often referred to COVID-19 as a “very bad gift” from China.
Relations between Washington and Beijing have spiraled in recent months in large part due to the coronavirus pandemic. Tensions reached a crescendo last month when Trump held a news conference on China, pledging punitive and decoupling measures against Beijing, following the latter’s move that week to impose a mainland-style national security law on Hong Kong.
The 31st anniversary Tiananmen crackdown this month, coinciding with Trump’s threat to use troops on U.S. citizens protesting police brutality and racial injustices in the wake of George Floyd’s killing, have led the rivals to trade many barbs.
China’s foreign ministry has seized on the opportunity to accuse Washington of hypocrisy and double standards, using Floyd’s last words “I can’t breathe” as a retort to U.S. criticism of Beijing’s aggression on Hong Kong.
Pompeo in response said last week that “there is no equivalence between our two forms of government.”
“We have rule of law. China does not. We have free speech and embrace peaceful protest. They don’t,” he said. “The contrast couldn’t be more clear. During the best of times, China ruthlessly imposes communism. And amid the most difficult challenges the United States faces, we work to secure freedom for all.”
Meanwhile, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer told Congress Wednesday that China is on track to meet its purchase promises for the year under a phase one trade deal and that he expects phase two talks with China to start in a couple of months.
“Every indication is that in spite of this COVID-19 [pandemic], they are going to do what they say,” Lighthizer testified before the House Ways and Means Committee.
“My guess is we will start that phase two’s talk sometime in the next couple of months,” the U.S. trade chief said. “We’ve really been slowed down more than anything by the fact that we’ve had this virus and haven’t been able to meet, but it’s still a priority.”