New Chinese ambassador warns of ‘serious difficulties’ in US-China relations upon arrival in US

Kylie Atwood and Jennifer Hansler, CNN

China’s new ambassador arrived in the United States on Tuesday as both the US and Chinese governments have indicated that they want to put relations between their two nations back on track.

Xie Feng said he aims to enhance US-China relations at a time of “serious difficulties and challenges.”

“We hope that the United States will work together with China to increase dialogue, to manage differences and also to expand our cooperation so that our relationship will be back to the right track,” Xie said in remarks in English after landing in New York City.

Xie Feng’s arrival as the top envoy for Beijing comes after what has been a tumultuous period in relations between Washington and Beijing. Tensions soared following a visit by former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan and Secretary of State Antony Blinken postponed a planned visit to China earlier this year after a Chinese surveillance balloon traversed the US.

In recent weeks, however, there have been signals that those heated tensions seem to be cooling. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan met with top Chinese official Wang Yi in Vienna, and China’s Commerce Minister may meet with top US commerce and trade officials in the US in the coming weeks.

President Joe Biden said in Japan last weekend that “everything changed in terms of talking to one another” following the spy balloon incident, but “I think you’re going to see that begin to thaw very shortly.”

Xie said Tuesday he’s looking forward to “properly handling sensitive and important issues, like the Taiwan question,” as well as engaging with Americans “from all walks of life.” He referenced the last time he was working in the US as a diplomat over a decade ago and said that the world and the US have changed a lot.

US officials are expecting Xie to be a capable and productive interlocutor based on past engagements they have had with the longtime Chinese diplomat.

“He’s a professional, he’s very capable. We’ve known him for many, many years. I think he’s been working at the MFA for more than 30 years,” said a State Department official. “And we really know him from his time in Washington. He served multiple tours here, and most recently has been the Vice Foreign Minister overseeing the Americas and other departments as well.”

US officials point to the current moment in US-China relations being different than when Xie met with Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman in the summer of 2021, when he said the relationship had hit a “stalemate and faces serious difficulties.”

At the end of last year, Xie met with top State Department and National Security Council officials who visited China following Biden’s meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the G20 in Bali. That was one of many engagements Xie has had with Biden officials over the course of the last few years.

“Things have changed,” the official said of this moment in time versus earlier on in the Biden administration. Since the Sherman meeting – which followed a tense encounter in Alaska that Blinken and Sullivan had with their Chinese counterparts, there have been “tens of dozens of hours” of calls between the US and China that have included Xie Feng, specifically in preparation for the Biden-Xi meeting in Bali and the planned Blinken visit to Beijing earlier this year.

“We have seen how professional, how clear he is,” the official said.

There was a “longer process” for the last Chinese ambassador to the US to get up and running, partially due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Officials are hoping that the process for Xie to get up and running officially – which requires him to present his credentials to Biden, which is scheduled by the White House – happens as quickly as possible.

The State Department welcomed Xie Feng’s arrival. “We look forward to working with the ambassador designate and his team,” said State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller at a press briefing.

Miller said that State Department protocol officials will work to get Xie presented with credentials “in accordance with standard State Department practices and diplomatic norms.”

“We remain committed, as we’ve said on a number of occasions, to maintaining channels of communication with the PRC to responsibly manage competition,” Miller said.