US-China relations
Get more with myNEWS
A personalised news feed of stories that matter to you
Learn more
Sources say one sticking point to a meeting between Chinese and US senior diplomats is nuclear arms control. Photo: AP

ExclusiveChina-US relations: diplomats pave way for Yang Jiechi-Jake Sullivan rematch

  • National security and strategic stability among issues for discussion if meeting can be arranged, sources say
  • The senior officials last met in October with a proposed January 10 follow-up scratched over Washington’s Olympics boycott

China and the US are in talks to prepare for a potential crunch meeting between Chinese top diplomat Yang Jiechi and US national security adviser Jake Sullivan on core national security concerns.

But the two sides remain deeply divided on protocol and agenda items, according to sources familiar with the matter.


Xi Jinping and Joe Biden call for mutual respect and peaceful China-US coexistence

Xi Jinping and Joe Biden call for mutual respect and peaceful China-US coexistence
If it goes ahead, it will be their first face-to-face meeting of the year. Yang and Sullivan last met in October in Zurich, which paved the way for the virtual presidential summit between Xi Jinping and his American counterpart Joe Biden a month later.
The US side initially proposed for Yang and Sullivan to meet again in Rome around January 10, but the Chinese side was put off by Washington’s announcement of a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Winter Olympics, as well as a call by US lawmakers for the UN to publish a report on Xinjiang, according to one of the sources.

Even as both sides want to prevent their rivalry veering into conflict, they disagree on the range of topics to be covered in the meeting, and who should take part, people familiar with the discussion said.


“The US has been wanting to hold a meeting on national security and strategic stability for some time. But the Chinese side disagrees with what constitutes national security and strategic stability,” said one.

The same person said China was also reluctant to send military representatives, as suggested by the US, and did not want arms control to dominate the discussion.

“The Biden administration proposed the options of including Xu Qiliang [senior vice-chairman of the Central Military Commission], Wei Fenghe [defence minister], or working-level representatives from the PLA.

“China believes the US is asking for too much, especially when the relationship is at such a delicate point at the moment.”

China building up nuclear arsenal ‘in response to US pressure’

The US wants to press Beijing over China’s nuclear build-up, while China believes Washington should take the initiative and reduce its vastly larger arsenal first.


China is estimated to have about 350 nuclear warheads, according to the latest Pentagon reports on Chinese military power, compared to more than 3,800 warheads held by the US. But some experts have predicted the Chinese stockpile could quadruple by 2030.

The two sides, together with Russia, are also locked in a neck-to-neck race to develop the next generation of hypersonic delivery systems that will render the existing nuclear defence obsolete.


Amid rising tensions between the East and West, decision makers of the major powers all agree on the need to contain the risks of nuclear conflict. Earlier this year, the US, China, Russia, Britain and France issued a rare joint statement pledging never to fight a nuclear war.

But no side was willing to take the first step to cut their nuclear arsenal or slow technology upgrades.

China says it will continue to develop nuclear arsenal

Other issues that could be on the agenda for Yang and Sullivan include Taiwan, the South China Sea, the East China Sea, Xinjiang and Hong Kong.

Sourabh Gupta, a fellow at the Washington-based Institute for China-America Studies, said the Olympic boycott was not the only issue to make Beijing hesitant about agreeing to a Yang-Sullivan meeting.

Biden’s democracy summit, which included Taiwan, and his signing of the Uygur Forced Labour Prevention Act had also rattled relations since the US leader spoke virtually with Xi in November, he said.

“The Chinese are a little reticent to kind of want to stabilise [the bilateral relationship] when they continue getting kind of kicks like this.”

However, Beijing wants to “maintain a certain degree of stability in the relationship, so that even if there is no sunshine as such in the next couple of months, at least it doesn’t foreclose possibilities of greater cooperation down the line”, Gupta said.


Washington is also facing the possibility of a two-front diplomatic war with China and Russia.

Moscow and Washington are locking horns over Ukraine. Their foreign ministers are due to hold another round of negotiations on Friday in Geneva to defuse the tension.

If a failure of diplomacy in Geneva leads to a Russian invasion of Ukraine, Washington “will want to engage another P5 player on points of principle”, Gupta said, referring to the five UN Security Council members.

“If Russia does conduct aggression in Ukraine in a very open-ended way, [the US government will] want China to dissociate itself from that and ideally to have some sort of statement on that,” he said.

What is going on in Xinjiang and who are the Uygur people?

Meanwhile, with the Beijing Winter Olympics only weeks away, the narrative war between China and the US is also heating up.

Washington is doubling down on its allegations of China’s “ongoing genocide and crimes against humanity in Xinjiang” – angrily dismissed by Beijing which sees them as designed to undermine China.

A separate source has told the South China Morning Post that UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet is now under pressure from the US and its allies to issue a report on alleged human rights violations in Xinjiang before the start of the Winter Games. She has been asked to publicly press Beijing for unfettered access to the troubled region.