“I can’t give you a date because there is no set date,” he told reporters aboard Air Force One traveling to San Diego for an announcement about AUKUS, an ambitious partnership that would see the United States and Britain provide the Australia’s nuclear-powered submarines.
Sullivan made similar statements Friday that were embargoed until Monday afternoon. Asked then if the Chinese agreed to the call, he said: “I will not describe their position at this point.”
Separately, a US official said Sullivan was “trying to signal” willingness to re-engage. “I know the president wants to be clear that we want to keep the lines of communication open.”
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter, said it was likely that talks between the two leaders would take place eventually. But, the official warned, “it takes two to make a call.”
Biden and Xi’s last phone call — their fifth — took place in July, amid turmoil over former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s planned trip to Taiwan. Leaders are late met face to face in Bali last November, which appears to have eased tensions. Biden then announced that he was sending Blinken to Beijing to follow-up on the discussion.
The discovery of what the United States says was a Chinese military spy balloon gathering intelligence on sensitive military sites in February prompted the Biden administration to cancel a trip by Secretary of State Antony Blinken just a few hours to Beijing before he left.
Asked about the prospects for a rescheduled trip, Sullivan said: “Secretary Blinken has indicated that he is willing to travel to Beijing when he can have a productive trip. A lot of that depends on Beijing and their attitude.”
Sullivan rejected suggestions that the administration is preventing travel “as some kind of punishment. At this point, we want to see a high level of engagement. … We just have to make sure that we have some understanding with the PRC [People’s Republic of China] about when that can happen in a way where the two sides can have a constructive conversation.”
Sullivan said that in the past few weeks, with the National People’s Congress continues, the Chinese government is “very focused on the domestic political situation” and on Xi’s transition to a new team. “We’ve indicated that we’re willing to engage at various levels as they come out of those meetings and get back to work,” Sullivan said. “[We] is not trying to prevent communication at the senior level — quite the opposite.”
US-China experts who have served in past administrations note the challenges of any effort to mend the relationship. During the legislative session, Xi said a US-led campaign of “containment, siege and suppression” of China “poses unprecedented severe challenges to our country’s development.” Xi generally refrains from direct criticism of Washington.
“The administration is clear that their strategy is to put a floor under the breakdown of the relationship and put guardrails around it,” said Evan Medeiros, a former White House senior director for Asia in the former president’s administration. Barack Obama is now a professor of Asian Studies at Georgetown University. “The question is whether or not the Chinese will meet them halfway and what kind of price will the Chinese try and get to do it? Because there is always a price.”
Ivan Kanapathy, a White House Asia aide in both the administrations of Biden and former president Donald Trump, said: “At this point, a leadership-level engagement is required to clear the decks for any prospects of development at a lower level.”
Other factors can complicate the timing of a call. Last month, Russian President Vladimir Putin signaled that Xi’s visit to Moscow was imminent. Reuters reported this Monday could happen as soon as next week. Blinken said China is considering giving Moscow lethal aid for its war in Ukraine, a claim that Beijing was rejected. The Washington Post and other news outlets have already reported China is considering sending artillery shells to Russia while Putin’s army is rapidly depleting its supply of ammunition.
“The difficult part is when Xi Jinping shows up in Moscow, does that derail the effort to get the relationship back on track? I don’t know,” Madeiros said.