Antony Blinken and Wang Yi meet to contain high tensions on Taiwan

Antony Blinken (left) and Wang Yi meet on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly. PHOTO: AFP

NEW YORK - Senior diplomats from the United States and China met on Friday with tensions high after an explicit pledge by US President Joe Biden to defend Taiwan.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi shook hands in New York on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly, but did not respond to shouted questions from the media as they sat down for talks.

The State Department had said earlier the meeting was part of Washington's ongoing efforts to "maintain open lines of communication and manage competition responsibly".

It was their first encounter since extensive talks in July in Bali where both sides appeared optimistic for more stability.

One month later in August, however, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan, infuriating Beijing which staged unprecedented military exercises around Taiwan seen as a trial run for an invasion of the self-governing democracy.

China regards Taiwan as a renegade province to be reunified, by force if necessary.

In a sign of smoother ties, Mr Wang also met in New York with US climate envoy John Kerry, despite China's announcement after Mrs Pelosi's visit that it was curbing cooperation on the climate issue, a key priority for Mr Biden.

Mr Blinken went ahead with the talks despite paring down his schedule following the death of his father on Thursday.

Immediately before seeing Mr Wang, he met his counterparts from Australia, Japan and India, the so-called "Quad" which Beijing has denounced as an attempt to isolate it.

"Our four countries know very well the significant challenges that we face, as well as the opportunities that are before us, demand more than ever that we work together," Mr Blinken said as the ministers signed an agreement on cooperation in disaster relief.

President Biden in an interview aired on Sunday said he was ready to intervene militarily if China uses force in Taiwan, once again deviating from decades of US ambiguity.

In a speech before his talks with Mr Blinken, Mr Wang compared the drive for Taiwanese independence to a charging rhinoceros that must be stopped in its tracks, and blamed the US for speeding it along.

"Taiwan independence is like a highly disruptive grey rhino charging towards us that must be stopped resolutely," Mr Wang said in a speech at the Asia Society think tank in New York. "We have always worked with the greatest sincerity and effort to pursue peaceful reunification, but we will never tolerate any activity aimed at secession."

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China's authorities have used the term "grey rhinos" in the past to refer to highly probable, high-impact financial hazards that risk being overlooked. They include shadow banking, property bubbles and local government debts.

"The Taiwan question is growing into the biggest risk in China-US relations. Should it be mishandled, it is most likely to devastate bilateral ties," he said at the Asia Society.

"Just as the US will not allow Hawaii to be stripped away, China has the right to uphold the unification of the country," he said.

But Mr Wang was conciliatory towards Mr Biden. The New York talks are expected to lay the groundwork for a face-to-face meeting between Mr Biden and President Xi Jinping, likely in November in Bali on the sidelines of a summit of the Group of 20 economic powers, or on the sidelines of the Apec summit in Bangkok.

Mr Wang said that both Mr Biden and Mr Xi seek to "make the China-US relationship work" and to "steer clear of conflict and confrontation".

Mr Daniel Russel, the top US diplomat for Asia under former President Barack Obama, said the fact Mr Blinken and Mr Wang had met was important after the turbulence prompted by Mrs Pelosi’s visit, and hopefully some progress would have been made towards arranging a meeting between Mr Xi and Mr Biden on the sidelines of the G-20 in Bali in November, which would be their first in-person as leaders.  

“Wang and Blinken’s decision to meet in New York does not guarantee the November summit will go smoothly or that it will even occur. But had they been unable to meet, it would have meant the prospects for a summit in November were poor,” said Mr Russel, who is now with the Asia Society.

Earlier in the week, Mr Wang met former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, the architect of US relations with China, and said the possibility of a peaceful resolution was diminished by ever more "rampant" Taiwanese independence sentiment and he invoked a Chinese proverb: "It is better to lose a thousand soldiers than an inch of territory". REUTERS, AFP, BLOOMBERG

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