(Bloomberg) -- The U.S. and China barreled into their first high-level talks since March trading sanctions and rhetorical barbs, raising the stakes for the effort to stabilize strained relations between the world’s two largest economies.
Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, the U.S.’s No. 2 diplomat, is set to meet Foreign Minister Wang Yi on Monday in Tianjin, about 60 miles east of the capital Beijing. The visit follows a series of Biden administration actions challenging China’s red lines on what it considers its internal affairs, prompting Beijing to protest and announce fresh sanctions against Americans including former Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross.
Sherman intends to raise concerns about human rights in places such as Hong Kong and Xinjiang while seeking to reassure Beijing that the U.S. isn’t building an anti-China coalition, senior administration officials told reporters Saturday. High-level engagement is needed to ensure responsible management of U.S.-China ties and cooperation on issues of common interest, such as climate change, said the officials, who asked not to be identified because the meeting’s agenda hasn’t been made public.
The talks are the first between top American and Chinese diplomats since the two sides had a testy exchange in Alaska, although they have since communicated by phone and U.S. climate envoy John Kerry has spoken with his Chinese counterpart. If the latest discussions are fruitful, they could set up a meeting between Presidents Joe Biden and Xi Jinping, possibly at a Group of 20 summit in October.
“Neither side wants to appear to be softening its position after the chilly Alaska meetings,” said Avery Goldstein, professor of international relations at the University of Pennsylvania.
Beijing and Washington will have to show they can get to grips with their disagreements without appearing to domestic audiences that they are giving ground. Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said last week that Beijing would use the meetings to “make clear our principles and positions on developing China-U.S. relations,” later warning the Americans not to try to negotiate from a position of strength: “We did not buy it in Anchorage and we will not buy this in Tianjin.”
Sherman’s trip is part of a broad U.S. diplomatic push in the region, as Biden attempts to extract American forces from Afghanistan and bolster Washington’s frayed foreign relationships to better answer the challenges posed by China’s rise. Secretary of State Antony Blinken is slated to visit India this week while Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin is traveling to Singapore, Vietnam and the Philippines.
In Tokyo last week, Sherman along with her Japanese and South Korean counterparts discussed preserving peace in the Taiwan Strait, a reference to China’s military pressure campaign against the democratically ruled island. The statement prompted protests from China, with Zhao saying the U.S. and Japan are “stuck in the Cold War mentality” and deliberately seeking bloc confrontation and attempting to form an “anti-China encirclement.”
Separately, the U.S. and numerous allies blamed the Microsoft Exchange hack to actors affiliated with the Chinese government and said Beijing’s leadership was responsible for an array of “malicious cyber activities.” The U.S. also charged four Chinese nationals linked to the Ministry of State Security with a campaign to hack into computer systems of companies, universities and government entities.
China and the U.S. are also at odds over the coronavirus. The White House said on Thursday China was “stonewalling” a World Health Organization probe into the origins of SARS-CoV-2, including the possibility it escaped from a lab.
Chinese officials said earlier that day there was no evidence for the theory the virus leaked from a facility in Wuhan, the city where it was first observed in humans, and that no further resources should be put into such a probe.
Sherman’s visit followed behind-the-scenes wrangling, with the Financial Times reporting earlier that she had suspended her travel plans after Beijing offered only a meeting with one of Wang’s subordinates. While China designated Vice Foreign Minister Xie Feng, who holds a lower rank in the ministry than Sherman does in the State Department, for formal talks, it also agreed to grant her an audience with Wang.
“As the meeting occurs in the wake of the U.S.-allies cyber-attack charges against Chinese nationals and now with China apparently rejecting a phase two WHO investigation, I suppose it’s impressive that the visit to Tianjin was salvaged at all,” said Goldstein, the University of Pennsylvania professor.
©2021 Bloomberg L.P.