US, China still disagree on way forward after tense talks

The Commissioner of the Office of the Commissioner of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of China in the HKSAR Xie Feng gives a speech in a press conference in Hong Kong on February 7, 2020. (Philip Fong/AFP via Getty Images/TNS)
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Bloomberg News (TNS)

The U.S. and China both highlighted deep differences after their first high-level talks in months, suggesting the world’s two biggest economies haven’t found a clear path for improving their increasingly strained ties.

Vice Foreign Minister Xie Feng told visiting Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman during talks Monday in the Chinese city of Tianjin that the relationship was “in a stalemate and faces serious difficulties.” Xie presented the No. 2 American diplomat with two lists of demands necessary to stabilize ties, including “U.S. wrongdoings that must stop” and “key individual cases that China has concerns with,” according to the official Xinhua News Agency.

Senior Biden administration officials told reporters afterward that Sherman’s visit, which included a meeting with Foreign Minister Wang Yi, was focused on setting the guardrails on the relationship, rather than negotiating specific issues. Still, they described the talks as forthright and professional, even if it was at times a “tough conversation.”

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“The deputy secretary underscored that the United States welcomes the stiff competition between our countries — and that we intend to continue to strengthen our own competitive hand — but that we do not seek conflict with the PRC,” the State Department said in a statement, referring to China’s formal name.

The challenge facing Washington and Beijing is showing they can get to grips with their disagreements without appearing to domestic audiences that they are giving ground. That is proving a tall order given the sour feelings many in the Chinese government still harbor after the trade war that erupted under former President Donald Trump, and amid disagreements overs Xinjiang, Taiwan and Hong Kong.

Xie’s remarks show that the talks were “very tough indeed” and “look like a continuation” of the tense meetings in March in Alaska, said Zhu Feng, a professor of international relations at Nanjing University. “His comments are also aimed at giving the Chinese public confidence that the government will not succumb in the face of heightened pressure from the U.S. side.”

The talks in Tianjin — about 60 miles east of the capital Beijing — could be the first step toward a meeting between President Joe Biden and China’s Xi Jinping, possibly at a Group of 20 summit in October. Earlier this month, Xi signaled that his government would be more assertive on the world stage, saying at a speech marking the 100th anniversary of the ruling Communist Party that his people “will never allow any foreign forces to bully, coerce and enslave us.”

Xie used the meeting to take a swipe at Sherman’s boss, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who said earlier this year that Washington’s dealings with Beijing were the defining test of the century.

“The Chinese people look at things with eyes wide open,” Xie said, according to a statement released by the Foreign Ministry. “They see the competitive, collaborative and adversarial rhetoric as a thinly veiled attempt to contain and suppress China.”

Among the demands on the Chinese diplomats’ lists were revoking sanctions on Chinese officials and government departments, and ending U.S. efforts to extradite Huawei Technologies Co. Chief Financial Officer Meng Wanzhou from Canada, an issue that has been a major sticking point between the nations.

Sherman’s 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 raised U.S. concerns about Beijing’s policies in Hong and Xinjiang, and urged the Asian nation to stop its economic coercion of allies, U.S. officials said.

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. Blinken is slated to visit India this week while Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin is traveling to Singapore, Vietnam and the Philippines.

The U.S. and numerous allies this month 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.

Still, Sherman’s discussions with Chinese diplomats offer both nations a chance to manage their differences.

“There won’t be any substantial breakthrough,” said Zhu, the academic. “Hopefully behind closed doors the two sides could try to steer the meeting toward stabilization of ties.”

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