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U.S. Looks to China to Commit to Working Together on Fentanyl Crisis as Biden and Xi Prepare to Meet

WASHINGTON — The U.S. hopes to announce a new commitment from China to stem the flow of fentanyl into the U.S. and the resumption of some communication between the two countries’ militaries when President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping meet next week, according to two people familiar with the discussions.

China expects a commitment from Biden that his administration would not intervene in efforts by the Beijing-claimed island of Taiwan toward independence, a former U.S. official said.

Beijing also got a much-desired meeting between Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen and her Chinese counterpart, Vice Premier He Lifeng, this week — a sit-down discussion he is expected to use to try to assess the scope and scale of coming restrictions on U.S. investment in China in several high-tech industries, a current U.S. official and a former U.S. official said.

Yellen is finalizing the regulations, which were mandated in an executive order Biden signed in August.  

One possibility for new cooperation on fentanyl is the establishment of a joint working group to try to tackle the issue, the two people familiar with the discussions said. 

An announcement about military communications between Washington and Beijing, which have been cold for months, is expected to include the resumption of the Military Maritime Consultative Agreement, under which the two countries discuss safety in the waters of the Asia-Pacific, including the South China Sea, two defense officials said.

The U.S. and China signed the maritime charter in 1998. It focuses on safety of ships, aircraft and personnel at sea, and it is intended to open communications at an operator-to-operator level to discuss cases of unsafe unprofessional behavior. But China’s military has canceled the past few charter dialogues, which U.S. defense officials say increases the chances of a collision or miscalculation. 

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin may also have a long-requested conversation with his Chinese counterpart, the two defense officials said.

The breakthrough would come just weeks after Xi ousted Defense Minister Li Shangfu. Li had been under U.S. sanctions since the Trump administration, a point of contention between the U.S. and China that fueled China’s refusal to engage with Austin.

The Defense Department requested a meeting between Austin and a senior Chinese official at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit in Jakarta, Indonesia, next week, but the Chinese government has not responded yet, the two defense officials said. 

The White House declined to comment.

In a statement, a Defense Department spokesperson said that Austin and other senior leaders “across the department have always been very clear on the importance of military to military communications with the PRC [People’s Republic of China]. There is no substitute for substantive conversations between defense and military leaders, and open lines of communication are essential to ensure competition does not spill into conflict. So we will continue to seek practical discussions with the PRC — from the leader level to the working level.”

The meeting between Biden and Xi, which China has not officially confirmed, is the capstone to months of effort by Biden administration officials to mend deeply strained relations. They have not met face to face in a year.

Their November 2022 meeting on the sidelines of the summit of the Group of 20 industrial and emerging-market nations in Bali, Indonesia, was intended to reduce elevated tensions. At the time, the White House said Biden and Xi “spoke candidly about their respective priorities” for three hours through interpreters. 

They agreed that Secretary of State Antony Blinken would visit China to follow up on discussions, but the trip in February was abruptly scrapped after the U.S. shot down a Chinese spy balloon off South Carolina.  

Biden said in the days afterward that he intended to speak to Xi by phone, but the call never materialized. Biden was talked out of seeking it, NBC News has reported.

Blinken eventually visited China, months later, followed by other top U.S. officials, including Yellen and Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, in an attempt to re-establish key communications channels. 

Nicholas Burns, the U.S. ambassador to China, said recently that there are “some bright spots” and “some more difficult issues” in the U.S.-China relationship and stressed the importance of maintaining a dialogue.

“I do think we’ve made some progress in reconnecting the two governments and establishing these leadership channels, which we didn’t have, frankly, a year ago,” Burns said. “We’re the two most powerful governments in the world. We’ve got to be communicating.”

Earlier this year, the White House had eyed the September G20 summit in New Delhi as a possibility for a follow-up meeting between Biden and Xi, but Xi skipped the gathering altogether. 

Biden has indicated since May that he expected to meet with Xi in person at some point before the end of the year, with senior administration officials pointing to a global summit as the most likely venue.

Source: NBC News