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China is turning to back-channel diplomacy to strengthen ties with the US

A few days before Mr. Xi’s summit with President Biden last week, according to those in the know, Beijing sent a delegation of senior policy advisers and business leaders to New York to meet with a US counterpart set up by insurance executive Maurice “Hank” Greenberg , one of the most successful American businessmen in China.

Wall Street executives have long held a special place in Beijing’s power corridors. Beijing has viewed Mr Greenberg, aged 97, as what Chinese leaders call an “old friend of China.” Starr & Co. and former CEO of insurance giant American International Group Inc.

Such a high-level group as Mr Greenberg’s has not come to the US since the Covid-19 pandemic began nearly three years ago. In that time, relations have sunk to what both sides see as the lowest point in decades, with Beijing and Washington sparring over issues ranging from the origins of the pandemic to China’s human rights record and the military and economic pressure on China. Taiwan.

Mr Xi approved the trip, organized by a think tank affiliated with China’s foreign ministry, just after a Communist Party conclave in October that expanded his grip on power, people said. The US group also notified the White House National Security Council and other agencies ahead of the meeting, the people said. The NSC declined to comment.

Both Beijing and Washington have expressed their willingness to try to prevent relations from deteriorating any further. At their summit in Indonesia last week, Messrs Biden and Xi pledged to resume climate change cooperation and resume other high-level contacts.

Yet distrust is high, with tensions over Taiwan and US controls over technology the latest sore points, and both Mr Xi and the Biden administration are pursuing policies to counter the other’s power and influence.

“Xi is seeking some degree of stability as part of its preparation for greater competition with the US,” said Daniel Russel, a former Obama administration official in China who is now vice president of the Asia Society Policy Institute, a think tank. that there is a lack of engagement between the two sides at every level, any direct dialogue is valuable.”

With domestic politics out of the way, Mr. Xi shifted some of his focus to adjusting policies that have made China virtually cut off from the Western world, including strict Covid control measures at home and a near-suspension of officially sanctioned contacts with the US

By approving the delegation while the political calendar was cleared on both sides, people said, Mr Xi wanted to signal to Washington his intention to avoid derailing relations and find a way to communicate.

Senior Chinese officials have come to view the traditional so-called “Track II” dialogue, or the kind of backchannel diplomacy between think tanks and industry groups on both sides, as largely ineffective.

In the late 1990s, Mr. Greenberg lobbied the Clinton administration hard to get China into the World Trade Organization in 2001. the rest of the world, Mr. Xi Mr. Greenberg was awarded the China Reform Friendship Medal, making him one of 10 foreign recipients of the Chinese honor.

Last summer, as tensions between Washington and Beijing continued to rise, Mr Greenberg spoke out in favor of engagement with, rather than decoupling from, China. In a July op-ed in The Wall Street Journal, he announced the creation of a group made up of leading US business and policy leaders to help “establish constructive bilateral dialogue.”

Qin Gang, China’s Ambassador to Washington and a professional diplomat trusted by Mr. Xi, brought the piece to the attention of China’s leaders, those with knowledge of the matter said. Mr Xi then gave the go-ahead to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to form a group mirroring the one founded by Mr Greenberg, which is made up of former senior officials and business leaders.

The Chinese People’s Institute of Foreign Affairs, the think tank affiliated with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, was named as an organizer of the group – whose members, according to the people, include Cui Tiankai, Beijing’s former top envoy to Washington, Chen Deming, ex- Secretary of Commerce. , and Ning Jizhe, former vice minister at China’s main economic planning agency.

The Chinese and American groups held talks at C.V. Starr’s headquarters on Park Avenue on November 10 and the following day, with 13 members from each side participating. Americans, according to the people, include Mr. Greenberg, Paul Fribourg, CEO of agribusiness ContiGroup Cos., former US Senator Joe Lieberman, and two former US ambassadors to Beijing: Max Baucus, a former Democratic senator from Montana, and Terry Branstad , the former Republican governor of Iowa.

In a CV Starr conference room, outside of which hangs a wall of photographs of Mr. Greenberg who has met with generations of Chinese leaders, participants sat on two sides of a long table, covered with an ivory tablecloth and bouquets of flowers draped down the middle. walked. .

Retired Admin. Mike Mullen, who attended the discussions, said he, like other members of the American group, is concerned about the “downward course” of the relationship, a fear shared by the Chinese side.

“We are in a dangerous time,” said Adm. Mullen, who described what he said was a shared feeling on both sides. “As the two great powers of the time, we must try to turn this around.”

During a day and a half of meetings, the two sides discussed disagreements over Taiwan, the democratically governed island Beijing says is part of China, and areas where the governments could work together, participants said.

While the US group emphasized the need for peace across the Taiwan Strait, the Chinese delegates emphasized the importance of Taiwan’s eventual unification with the mainland, participants said.

The Chinese group indicated that it might be desirable for Beijing to work with Washington on geopolitical issues surrounding the Russian invasion of Ukraine and North Korea, the participants said. But the Chinese delegates appeared to make cooperation conditional on Washington respecting China’s core interests, such as Taiwan, and easing restrictions on high-tech sales to Chinese companies.

At the conclusion of the talks, the Chinese delegation, led by Wang Chao, a former deputy foreign minister and now head of the Institute of Foreign Affairs, offered to hold the next round of meetings in China next year.

Senior aides to Mr Greenberg said the Biden administration had been briefed on the exchanges between the US and Chinese groups under the initiative, dubbed the “Morefar Project”, named after a remote New York state estate owned by the government. Mr. Greenberg was used to entertain government and business leaders.

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