International

US, China meet to explore path forward from tensions

The United States and China resumed top-level talks Friday after months of spiraling tension, looking to see if they can find a way forward on disputes from trade to human rights.

US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis (L) and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (2nd L) meet with Chinese politburo member Yang Jiechi (2nd R) and Defense Minister Wei Fenghe (R) for top-level talks in Washington
US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis (L) and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (2nd L) meet with Chinese politburo member Yang Jiechi (2nd R) and Defense Minister Wei Fenghe (R) for top-level talks in Washington (AFP)

The United States and China resumed top-level talks Friday after months of spiraling tension, looking to see if they can find a way forward on disputes from trade to human rights.

Yang Jiechi, a longtime architect of Chinese foreign policy, and the defense minister, General Wei Fenghe, led Beijing's delegation to Washington for a dialogue that had been delayed by rising friction during the US election campaign.

A total of eight Chinese officials, half of them in uniform, met the US delegation headed by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, one month after a planned visit by Mattis to Beijing was scrapped.

The talks at the State Department come several weeks before the US and Chinese presidents, Donald Trump and Xi Jinping, are expected to meet in Argentina on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit -- a potential occasion for big announcements on resolving disputes.

The Washington talks are focusing primarily on security, but trade is at the heart of tensions between the world's two biggest economies.

Trump has slapped $250 billion worth of tariffs on Chinese goods, accusing Beijing of nefarious trading practices. Retaliatory measures quickly followed.

While some of the Trump administration's comments on China have prompted commentators to draw parallels to the Cold War, Terry Branstad, the US ambassador to Beijing, said that Washington was not seeking confrontation for the sake of it.

"We want this to be a constructive, results-oriented relationship with China. The US is not trying to contain China, but we want fairness and reciprocity," Branstad told reporters on the eve of the talks.

In Beijing, foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said Friday that China hopes the talks "will bring very good results", and help "deepen understanding" and "accelerate collaboration between both sides."

Flurry of disputes

The United States has sought China's help on North Korea, with which Trump has invested politically by negotiating with leader Kim Jong Un.

But the United States has otherwise seen China increasingly as a meddlesome player on the international scene.

In a meeting with former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger in Beijing on Thursday, Xi said it was "noteworthy that negative voices concerning China have been rising for some time in the United States," according to the official Xinhua news agency.

But Xi noted that he had agreed to meet Trump in Argentina, where "the two sides can have an in-depth exchange of views on issues of common concern."

China, Xi said, "is still committed to the building of a relationship with the United States that features no conflicts, no confrontation, mutual respect and win-win cooperation."

Washington has been especially incensed at what it believes is widespread theft of US technology -- a charge that China denies.

The Trump administration, while generally soft-spoken on human rights, has taken China to task over its mass detainment of Uighurs, the mostly Muslim minority in the country's northwest.

A recent UN report said that as many as one million ethnic Uighurs are being kept in extrajudicial detention, some simply for outwardly practicing Islam.

The Uyghur Human Rights Project, a Washington-based advocacy group that uses an alternative spelling for the ethnicity, urged the United States to raise the detentions in Friday's dialogue, saying it was important to show a "unified" global message.

Beijing, after initially denying the existence of the detention camps, has described them instead as vocational training centers that discourage religious extremism.