President Joe Biden is set to launch the next phase of his China policy with a push for high-level meetings with Beijing officials after five months of pursuing a hardline stance.
The US and China are discussing a possible meeting between Antony Blinken, secretary of state, and Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi at a G20 meeting in Italy next week, according to three people briefed on the talks.
The Biden administration has also told Beijing it would like to send Wendy Sherman, deputy secretary of state, to China over the summer.
The White House is considering a call with Xi Jinping, too, which would be only Biden’s second engagement as US president with his Chinese counterpart.
In the first months of his presidency, Biden stressed that he would take a patient approach towards China as he focused on strengthening the US domestically and shoring up alliances.
The decision to step up engagement significantly with China comes after Washington made big strides tackling the Covid-19 pandemic and following months of talks with allies that produced tough joint statements about Chinese behaviour at summits, including the G7.
The White House has also held preliminary internal discussions about sending Blinken or Jake Sullivan, national security adviser, to China later this year, which could set the stage for Biden and Xi to hold a bilateral summit on the margins of the G20 leaders meeting in Rome in October.
“The administration from the very beginning planned to sequence its policies by [first] focusing on reinvigorating the US and getting control of the pandemic and rejuvenating our alliances and partnerships,” said Bonnie Glaser, a China expert at the German Marshall Fund.
“Now they believe this is the time to turn to engagement, although they probably won’t call it that, and begin dialogue with China.”
The move will spark criticism from hawks who had praised Biden for taking an unexpectedly tough stance on Beijing. But it will be welcomed by the business community, which has been concerned about the deterioration in relations.
A Blinken-Wang meeting would mark the first top-level engagement since Blinken and Sullivan met their counterparts in Alaska in March. One US official said it would be an opportunity to continue talks about issues that were raised in Anchorage behind closed doors after a fiery public start.
At the end of that meeting, Blinken made clear to Yang Jiechi, the top Chinese foreign policy official, that he was not prepared to travel to China for follow-on discussions despite receiving an invitation.
It is unclear whether Beijing will agree to the meetings. The US official said China had not said if it would host Sherman, who would be the only high-level Biden official to visit aside from John Kerry, the climate negotiator who met his counterpart in Shanghai in April.
Underscoring the challenges to the relationship, China continues to ignore a Pentagon request for Lloyd Austin, defence secretary, to speak to General Xu Qiliang, the top Chinese military officer. The Financial Times reported last month that China had rebuffed three requests for a call. A US defence official said the situation had not changed.
The White House and state department did not comment about the negotiations for diplomatic engagement. But Sullivan last week suggested that Biden would soon talk to Xi, in the wake of the US president’s Geneva summit with Vladimir Putin, the Russian leader.
Sullivan said Biden was committed to talking to Xi “to take stock” of the relationship. “We’re very much committed to that. It’s now just a question of when and how,” he said.
Follow Demetri Sevastopulo on Twitter