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China’s top diplomat to visit D.C. amid tensions over South China Sea, Israel

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi will visit Washington this week, the State Department said Monday, the highest-level visit by a Chinese official since tensions spiked early this year after a Chinese spy balloon floated across American airspace.

The three days of meetings, starting Thursday, are the latest sign that Beijing is laying the groundwork for a possible visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping to a summit of Asia-Pacific leaders in San Francisco next month, which would be his first trip to the United States since 2017.

It comes as the Biden administration seeks to use every lever it can to pressure Iran to hold back from the conflict between Israel and Hamas, including by encouraging Beijing, a major partner of Tehran, to use its influence.

Wang will meet with Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who visited Beijing in June as the first of a series of trips to China by cabinet secretaries this summer. He also plans to meet with national security adviser Jake Sullivan, following two days of talks in Malta in mid-September. A senior administration official declined to comment about whether Wang will also have an audience with President Biden, although that would be typical, especially after Blinken met Xi in China during his visit.

The two sides have been trying to manage tensions after a process of re-engagement began this summer, although there have been sharp detours, including when Biden called Xi a “dictator” shortly after the secretary of state returned from China. Beijing has sided with Moscow in its war against Ukraine, although it has held back from unleashing the full might of its military industry in support of the Kremlin.

China is also making major investments in its military, according to a Pentagon report released last week, including a doubling of its operational nuclear warheads by the end of the decade. The report noted a deterioration of military communications between Beijing and Washington, despite a spate of close calls between U.S. and Chinese military aircraft over the South China Sea.

Just this weekend, a Chinese Coast Guard ship collided with a Philippine resupply ship near the Second Thomas Shoal in the South China Sea, where Beijing’s territorial claims have led to clashes with neighbors and Washington.

“We are in competition with China. We seek to manage that competition responsibly,” a senior administration official said, speaking to reporters on the condition of anonymity to speak candidly.

U.S. officials say they have few illusions about Chinese behavior. Xi rolled out the red carpet for Russian President Vladimir Putin in Beijing last week, and the senior administration official called the Chinese Coast Guard behavior “destabilizing and dangerous and irresponsible.”

Where China stands on the Israel-Gaza war and what it stands to gain

Despite the rivalry with the United States, China’s economic and political influence is still crucial as Washington seeks to influence events elsewhere in the world.

Blinken called Wang earlier this month as he crisscrossed the Middle East, seeking to get China to weigh in with the Iranians to hold them back from entering the conflict in Israel and Gaza. Hezbollah, the Lebanese political and militant group that is backed by Iran, has been lobbing rockets into Israel and senior U.S. officials are deeply concerned about the prospect of a two-front war if Tehran decides to up the pressure.

China, with its significant economic ties in the Middle East, has become an increasingly important diplomatic actor in the region, brokering the recent détente between Saudi Arabia and Iran. U.S. officials said they hope Beijing can use that muscle again in the service of preventing a regional war, which they fear could be triggered by a potential Israeli ground invasion into densely-populated Gaza and the significant civilian casualties that would likely result.

John Hudson contributed to this report.

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