“I can’t give you a date because there’s no date set,” he told reporters aboard Air Force One traveling to San Diego for an announcement about AUKUS, an ambitious partnership that will see the United States and Britain provide Australia with nuclear-powered submarines.
Sullivan made similar remarks on Friday that were embargoed until Monday afternoon. Asked then if the Chinese had agreed to the call, he said: “I won’t characterize their position at this point.”
Separately, a U.S. official said that Sullivan was “trying to signal” willingness to reengage. “I know the president wants to be clear that we want to keep the lines of communication open.”
The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity due to the matter’s sensitivity, said it is likely a conversation between the two leaders will eventually take place. But, the official cautioned, “it takes two to have a call.”
Biden and Xi’s last phone call — their fifth — took place in July, amid a furor over then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s planned trip to Taiwan. The leaders last met face-to-face in Bali in November, which appeared to have lowered tensions. Biden announced then 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 over sensitive military sites in February led the Biden administration to cancel a trip by Secretary of State Antony Blinken to Beijing just hours before he was due to leave.
Asked about prospects for a rescheduled trip, Sullivan said: “Secretary Blinken has indicated that he’s prepared 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 was holding up the trip “as some kind of punishment. At this point, we would like to see high level engagement. … We just need to make sure that we come to 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 dialogue.”
Sullivan said that for the past several weeks, with the National People’s Congress underway, the Chinese government “has been very focused on its domestic political situation” and on Xi moving into place a new team. “We have indicated that we’re prepared to engage at a variety of levels as they come out of those meetings and return to work,” Sullivan said. “[We] are not trying to withhold senior level communication — quite the contrary.”
U.S.-China experts who served in previous administrations noted the challenges of any effort to right the relationship. At the legislative meeting, Xi said a U.S.-led campaign of “containment, encirclement and suppression” of China is “bringing unprecedentedly severe challenges to our country’s development.” Xi has typically refrained from criticizing Washington directly.
“The administration has been clear that their strategy is to put a floor under the deterioration of the relationship and to put guardrails around that,” said Evan Medeiros, a former White House senior director for Asia in former president Barack Obama’s administration who is now a professor of Asian Studies at Georgetown University. “The question is whether or not whether the Chinese are going to meet them halfway and what kind of price will the Chinese try and extract for doing so? Because there’s always a price.”
Ivan Kanapathy, a White House Asia aide in both Biden’s and former president Donald Trump’s administrations, said: “At this point, a leader level engagement is needed to clear the decks for any prospects of progress at lower levels.”
Other factors could complicate a call’s timing. Last month, Russian President Vladimir Putin signaled that a visit by Xi to Moscow was in the offing. Reuters reported Monday that it could happen as soon as next week. Blinken has said that China is considering providing Moscow with lethal aid for its war in Ukraine, a claim that Beijing has denied. The Washington Post and other news outlets reported that China was considering sending Russia artillery shells as Putin’s army rapidly depletes its supply of ammunition.
“The hard part becomes when Xi Jinping shows up in Moscow, does that derail the effort to put the relationship back on track? I don’t know,” Madeiros said.