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In Hawaii, US and China assess path forward from tensions
[WASHINGTON] US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, a vociferous critic of China, was meeting quietly Wednesday in Hawaii with a top official from Beijing which is hoping to ease skyrocketing tensions.
It is the first high-level meeting between the two powers since the coronavirus pandemic - which President Donald Trump has sought to blame on China, increasingly his villain of choice ahead of the November US elections.
A State Department official said that Mr Pompeo started closed-door talks just after 9am (1900 GMT) at a Honolulu military base with Yang Jiechi, a veteran Communist Party official who reportedly requested the talks.
After months of intense rhetoric between the two nations and global tumult, the two senior diplomats met without any media and without even announcing beforehand that the talks would take place.
But just moments before they entered talks, Mr Pompeo and his counterparts from the other Group of Seven major industrial democracies put out a joint statement on one area of friction - Hong Kong.
The G-7 foreign ministers voiced "grave concerns" over China's plans to move ahead with a security law that would prohibit subversion and other perceived offenses in the financial hub, to which Beijing promised autonomy before taking back the British colony in 1997.
"We strongly urge the Government of China to reconsider this decision," the joint statement said.
TALKS ON GLOBAL TUMULT
Susan Thornton, a career diplomat who served as the top State Department official on East Asia earlier in the Trump administration, said that US and Chinese leaders can "jointly save lives and save our economies" - but doubted the Hawaii talks would do so.
"I hope that this meeting will reduce tensions, and I suspect that's why the Chinese suggested it, but I am skeptical that this will be the outcome," said Ms Thornton, now at Yale Law School.
"My own view is that the United States and China both face serious crises, as does the rest of the world from Covid-19 and the consequent economic meltdown.
"It seems to me that talking about US-China rivalry in this environment is out of touch with the reality that people are facing."
Mr Pompeo, a stalwart ally of Mr Trump seen as having presidential aspirations of his own, has been in the forefront of denouncing China, saying it is "truly hostile" to the United States and "ruthlessly imposes communism."
The conservative former congressman has taken the lead in promoting a theory, discounted by mainstream scientists, that the coronavirus came out of a Chinese laboratory.
'POLEMICIST' TO THE RESCUE?
Michael Swaine, a prominent US scholar of China, said Mr Pompeo is "about the worst person" to be in charge of decreasing tensions.
"He has shown that he has zero understanding of China, and is mostly a polemicist," Mr Swaine, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, wrote on Twitter.
"Making ideological statements as if they constitute diplomacy or some kind of strategy is just embarrassing for the US."
But it would be difficult for Mr Pompeo to reject a request from Mr Yang, who is brushing aside protocol with a willingness to meet on US soil outside of Washington.
Mr Yang, who has long been active in shaping China's relationship with the United States, similarly met quietly with Mr Pompeo in New York in August.
Tensions had been boiling between the world's two largest economic powers even before the pandemic, with Mr Trump slapping tariffs on billions of dollars of Chinese goods, accusing Beijing of rampant theft of US intellectual property.
Mr Trump is expected to soon sign into law an act that authorises sanctions over China's detention of more than one million Uighurs and other Turkic Muslims.
Activists say China is forcibly homogenising minorities in a brainwashing campaign with few modern precedents. Beijing counters that it is running vocational educational centres that offer an alternative to Islamic extremism.
China has hit back at criticism by highlighting abuses by US police, an issue that has triggered global protests after a white Minneapolis officer killed George Floyd, an unarmed African American who was seen on camera pleading for his life.
Whether the United States and China reach any rhetorical truce could become clear quickly. Mr Pompeo is set to speak on Friday at a Danish forum, where the State Department says he will discuss "threats to democracy around the world."