Top U.S., China diplomats weigh first meeting since balloon drama

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Blinken and Stoltenberg  hold a news conference at the State Department in Washington
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks during a joint news conference with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg at the State Department in Washington, U.S., February 8, 2023.  REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

WASHINGTON, Feb 13 (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken is considering meeting top Chinese diplomat Wang Yi at the Munich Security Conference starting this week, in what would be their first face-to-face talks after the United States shot down what it said was a Chinese spy balloon and other flying objects, sources said.

Earlier this month, Blinken postponed a planned trip to Beijing due to what he called an unacceptable violation of U.S. sovereignty and airspace by a Chinese surveillance balloon later downed off the coast of South Carolina on Feb. 4. The U.S. military says it has since shot down another three unidentified objects flying over North America.

The balloon's intrusion into U.S. airspace caused outrage in Washington, with politicians criticizing the military and President Joe Biden for failing to shoot it down when it first appeared.

But it has also raised questions about when the two countries, both eager to inject stability into turbulent relations, might next conduct high-level meetings.

One U.S. official told Reuters on condition of anonymity that a meeting between Blinken and Wang was possible at the Munich conference, which runs from Feb. 17-19. A second source also said it was possible but that nothing had been confirmed.

Officials and analysts say the March G-20 Foreign Ministers meeting in India would be another opportunity, since both Blinken and Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang are expected there.

At a news conference with her Japanese and South Korean counterparts, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman said she had nothing to announce about a potential Blinken-Wang Yi meeting in Munich but did not rule it out.

"As Secretary Blinken has said consistently, and as he has said to Wang Yi - as have all said to the PRC - we are open to dialogue when it is in our interest to do so and we believe the conditions are right," she said referring to the People's Republic of China.

"I know there's been a report about a potential meeting in Munich, but I have nothing to announce today."

State Department spokesperson Ned Price told a regular news briefing Washington was "always assessing options for diplomacy."

"I'll have to let the PRC speak to Wang Yi's potential travel. We'll have an opportunity to speak to Secretary Blinken's potential travel, but I can tell you at the moment there's no meeting on the books between Secretary Blinken and a senior PRC official," he said.

China's Washington embassy referred to a Chinese foreign ministry briefing at which Wang's plan to attend the Munich conference was announced but no mention was made of any plan to meet Blinken.

U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan noted last week that Blinken had postponed his visit to China, not canceled it or sworn off future high-level communication with China.

China's has reacted angrily to Washington's spying allegations, saying the balloon was a civilian research craft and accusing Washington of hypocrisy. It said on Monday U.S. high-altitude balloons had flown over its airspace without permission more than 10 times since the start of 2022, something the White House denied.

Daniel Russel, the top U.S. diplomat for East Asia under former President Barack Obama, called Munich "an obvious venue for a badly-needed in-person senior-level discussion."

"No doubt the two sides are quietly exploring this," he said. "But neither side wants to handle scheduling in the glare of media attention, and both sides are dealing with the uncertainty of balloon-related drama."

Reporting by Humeyra Pamuk, Trevor Hunnicutt, and David Brunnstrom in Washington, and Juby Babu in Bengaluru; Writing by Michael Martina Editing by Don Durfee, Lisa Shumaker and Sandra Maler

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Humeyra Pamuk is a senior foreign policy correspondent based in Washington DC. She covers the U.S. State Department, regularly traveling with U.S. Secretary of State. During her 20 years with Reuters, she has had postings in London, Dubai, Cairo and Turkey, covering everything from the Arab Spring and Syria's civil war to numerous Turkish elections and the Kurdish insurgency in the southeast. In 2017, she was won the Knight-Bagehot fellowship program at Columbia University’s School of Journalism. She holds a BA in International Relations and an MA on European Union studies.