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China's foreign minister met with Secretary of State Blinken

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

There's been lots of news out of and about China over the past few days. The country's just retired premier suddenly died. A missing defense minister is now officially dismissed. China's foreign minister was in Washington to try to mend ties with the U.S. And there is trouble in the South China Sea. NPR's Emily Feng joins us now for the latest. Thanks for being with us.

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: Hey, Ayesha.

RASCOE: So let's start with China's foreign minister. He just wrapped up a three-day trip to the U.S. this weekend. Was it a productive trip? What was he able to accomplish?

FENG: It seems like it. You know, there's been a lot of contact between the U.S. and China right now. China's foreign minister is in the U.S. for the first time in five years. His name is Wang Yi. And he met for seven hours with Secretary of State Antony Blinken and then, by the White House, met President Biden. And so it's widely expected that the Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, will also meet Biden next month at the APEC Forum in California. Top of mind this week during talks has been Taiwan. This is the self-ruled island that China claims as its own. And Wang Yi, China's foreign minister, listed Taiwan potentially declaring independence as China's No. 1 challenge when it comes to U.S.-China relations.

But it has been striking this week just seeing how Chinese state posturing on the U.S. has been much more positive the last few months. They've really been stressing the absolute need for stability with the U.S. and the desire to work with the U.S., and that's perhaps in part because China is seeing a lot of turbulence in its economy and also political upheaval. They've suddenly had this unexplained removal of two ministers, a number of top military staff and then, this week, the death of a former premier.

RASCOE: So who was this premier who just died?

FENG: His name was Li Keqiang, and he had just stepped down as the country's No. 2 official in March. He'd been a pretty bland premier, to be honest, for the last decade. But China is still in shock because Li Keqiang was only 68 years old when he died of a heart attack in Shanghai. And his death has opened up this window for people to criticize Xi Jinping. The song "A Pity It Wasn't You" has been shared on social media sites a lot, and there is a long line of mourners in Li's birthplace - although videos of those lines are being censored. And his death comes at a really bad time for China. They're suffering from a stagnant economy and still rocky relations with the U.S.

RASCOE: So all of this is happening as two top ministers were dismissed with no explanation, as well.

FENG: They're missing two ministers. The former foreign minister Qin Gang went missing in June. Then China's defense minister Li Shangfu went missing at the end of August. This week, Li, the defense minister - he was officially removed from his job, and Qin was stripped of his last state title, as well. We don't have an explanation for why, but all this signals some trouble at the top and also just how little clarity we have on what actually goes on these days in Chinese elite politics. And this is a bit of a problem because today, Beijing is actually hosting this annual defense forum called the Xiangshan Forum. The U.S., other countries - they're sending their defense officials to attend, but there's no Chinese defense minister to receive them because Li has not had a replacement yet.

RASCOE: So what can you tell us about what's happening in the South China Sea?

FENG: Right. There's that going on. Well, last week, the Philippines released this video showing two minor collisions in the South China Sea, specifically around disputed waters near what's called the Second Thomas Shoal. That's where the Philippines sunk a World War II ship there, and they've permanently stationed their soldiers on the ship to maintain a territorial claim against China's. And last week, it accused China of blocking resupply boats and then causing a small crash with those boats when they were trying to deliver food and supplies to the Filipino sailors. Now, from what I understand, the Philippines have been able to get food in since, but they haven't been able to ship in construction supplies to maintain that station. And tensions got tense enough around this shoal in the South China Sea that Biden actually weighed in last Thursday and said the U.S. would defend the Philippines if China attacked it.

RASCOE: That's NPR's Emily Feng. Emily, thank you so much.

FENG: Thanks, Ayesha. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.
Emily Feng is NPR's Beijing correspondent.