US deputy secretary of state Wendy Sherman. Picture: REUTERS/DENIS BALIBOUSE
US deputy secretary of state Wendy Sherman. Picture: REUTERS/DENIS BALIBOUSE

Washington/Beijing — US deputy secretary of state Wendy Sherman will tell China in upcoming talks that while Washington welcomes competition, there needs to be a level playing field and guardrails to ensure ties do not veer into conflict, US officials said on Saturday.

The senior officials, briefing reporters ahead of Sherman’s talks in Tianjin with Chinese state councillor and foreign minister Wang Yi on Monday, said the world’s two largest economies needed responsible ways to manage competition.

“She’s going to underscore that we do not want that stiff and sustained competition to veer into conflict,” one senior US administration official said ahead of the first high-ranking, face-to-face contact between Washington and Beijing in months as the two sides gauge how they can ease festering ties.

“The US wants to ensure that there are guardrails and parameters in place to responsibly manage the relationship,” he said. “Everyone needs to play by the same rules and on a level playing field.”

Sherman was due in Tianjin, southeast of Beijing, on Sunday.

But a day ahead of her arrival, China’s top diplomat, Wang Yi, warned that China did not accept the US taking a “superior” position in the relationship.

“If the US has not learnt how to deal with other countries on an equal footing, then we have the responsibility to work with the international community to teach the US this lesson,” he said, in remarks published by the ministry of foreign affairs on its website.

Following Sherman’s trip, defence secretary Lloyd Austin will next week travel to Singapore, Vietnam and the Philippines, and secretary of state Antony Blinken will visit India, signs of US efforts to intensify engagement as China challenges US influence in Asia.

Sherman’s talks follow several combative months since the countries’ first senior diplomatic meeting under President Joe Biden’s administration in March.

Chinese officials publicly lambasted the US at that meeting in Alaska, accusing it of hegemonic policies. US officials accused China of grandstanding.

The Tianjin meeting would be a continuation of the Alaskan talks and “all dimensions of the relationship will be on the table”, the US official said.

Tit-for-tat sanctions

Since Alaska, the two countries have traded diplomatic barbs on an almost constant basis. The latest came on Friday when Beijing sanctioned former US commerce secretary Wilbur Ross and other individuals and groups in response to US sanctions over China’s crackdown on democracy in Hong Kong.

With bilateral ties so poor, foreign policy experts do not expect significant outcomes from Tianjin.

If the talks go reasonably well, however, they could help set the stage for an eventual meeting between Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping, possibly on the sidelines of a Group of 20 summit in Italy in October.

“If the trust is there, both sides can use these talks to discuss co-operation on bilateral issues like removing the restriction on diplomats and students visas, and on multilateral issues involving Iran, Afghanistan, Myanmar and climate change,” said Wu Xinbo, director of American Studies at Shanghai’s Fudan University.

Bonnie Glaser, an Asia expert at the German Marshall Fund of the US, said the trips by Blinken and Austin, as well as diplomatic efforts such as a planned second summit between Biden and leaders from Japan, India and Australia later in 2021, may have China feeling hemmed in.

“The Chinese are undoubtedly concerned that the US is making some progress in forging coalitions aimed at pressuring China,” she said.

The Biden administration has sought to rally partners against what it sees as increasingly coercive Chinese policies, including treatment of minority Muslims in its Xinjiang region that Washington says amounts to genocide. China denies that.

Washington recently mustered an unusually broad coalition of countries, including Nato and the EU, to publicly accuse Beijing of a global cyber-espionage campaign.

The bitterness was on display as China insisted in its announcement of the visit that it had been sought by Washington. That followed days of haggling over protocol, three people familiar with the matter told Reuters in Beijing, including whether Wang or less senior Chinese officials would meet Sherman.

Evan Medeiros, an Asia specialist in the Obama administration now at Georgetown University, said there were no illusions about the tense state of relations, but Wang’s willingness to meet Sherman suggested China was taking the talks seriously.

“Ultimately, it’s about figuring out what a stable equilibrium in the relationship looks like. That will take time, but you have to be talking to do so,” he said.

Reuters

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