For much of Biden’s term – as relations between the United States and China deteriorated – the United States struggled to convince the Chinese to participate in high-level phone calls.
“This meeting was part of ongoing efforts to maintain open lines of communication and manage relationships responsibly,” the White House said in a statement announcing the meeting on Sunday.
Incidents such as the revelation of a Chinese spy balloon over US territory have further eroded trust and diplomacy. China has also experienced recent leadership turmoil, including the ouster of a foreign minister.
But some U.S. officials, including Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, have visited Beijing in recent months, and the Chinese — whose economy is struggling — have expressed interest in intensifying discussions.
Wang Yi is a key figure in the Chinese Communist Party and the Chinese administration. He had previously had a series of discreet meetings with Sullivan in Vienna.
The talks in Malta were “frank, substantive and constructive,” the White House said in its statement.
“The two sides discussed key issues of the US-China bilateral relationship, global and regional security issues, Russia’s war against Ukraine and cross-Strait issues, among other topics” , adds the press release, without going into details.
The White House noted in particular that the discussions focused on “the importance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait.”
The fate of Taiwan, an autonomous island that Beijing claims as Chinese territory, is a major source of tension. Biden has repeatedly suggested he would send U.S. troops to defend Taiwan if China attacks the island.
The meeting coincided with a time when the administration was considering the fate of China’s Defense Minister, Li Shangfu, who disappeared from public view more than two weeks ago. According to a Reuters report, there are growing suspicions that Li was removed due to possible links to military corruption. Li’s disappearance follows the still unexplained replacement of China’s former foreign minister, Qin Gang, in July.
Phelim Kine contributed to this report.