WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo plans to meet a Chinese delegation at a U.S. military base in Hawaii this week to discuss bilateral ties that have soured deeply since the start of the year, sources familiar with the matter said.
In addition to an intensifying strategic rivalry, the world’s top two economies have been at loggerheads in recent months over the handling of the coronavirus pandemic and China’s move to impose new security legislation on Hong Kong.
Experts say relations have reached their lowest point in years, and in mid-May President Donald Trump even went so far as to suggest he could cut ties with Beijing.
Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post newspaper cited an unidentified source as saying that Yang Jiechi, a state councilor and member of the Communist Party’s powerful politburo, will lead the Chinese side in the meeting with Pompeo.
It is expected to take place at Hawaii’s Hickam Air Force base, said a diplomatic source, who did not want to be identified. Another source said Pompeo was expected to leave Washington on Tuesday for the meeting on Wednesday.
It would be Pompeo’s first known contact with Yang since they spoke by telephone on April 15 to discuss the coronavirus.
The sources said the likely agenda included coronavirus response, arms control, trade, Hong Kong, North Korea and tit-for-tat moves against journalists.
The State Department and White House did not respond to requests for comment about the trip, first reported by Politico on Friday.
Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian declined to confirm the reports at a regular briefing on Monday, but said: “China and the U.S. have maintained communication through diplomatic channels. If there is any further information, it will be released in a timely manner.”
The U.S. China Business Council, which represents 200 companies doing business in China, said diplomacy helped bring about the first part a deal aimed ending a damaging trade war earlier this year and could help resolve other disputes.
“There are many important issues to discuss, but not enough discussions. Give diplomacy a chance,” said its spokesman Doug Barry.
Pompeo has been forceful in his criticism of Beijing’s handling of the coronavirus, which originated in China. He has said China could have prevented hundreds of thousands of deaths by being more transparent and accused it of refusing to share information.
Trump has initiated a process of eliminating special U.S. treatment for Hong Kong to punish China for curbing freedoms there, but has stopped short of immediately ending privileges that have helped the territory remain a global financial center.
(Reporting by Humeyra Pamuk, David Brunnstrom and Andrea Shalal; editing by Mary Milliken, Jonathan Oatis and Cynthia Osterman)