Washington – U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman will travel to China this weekend to address deteriorating ties, the two countries announced Wednesday, in the highest-level visit under President Joe Biden.
The trip is going ahead despite near-daily new rifts between the two powers, including on human rights and cybersecurity, with both sides saying they at least want to try to bring more stability in a relationship often described as the most consequential to the world.
Sherman hopes to show China “what responsible and healthy competition looks like,” State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters.
“We welcome that stiff competition, but we also want to make sure that the playing field is level and, importantly, that competition doesn’t veer into conflict. We want to make sure that this is a relationship that has guardrails,” Price said.
China’s state-run Global Times, a tabloid that reflects nationalist views, quoted an expert saying that “a more stable China-U.S. relationship will benefit the world,” but also warning there may be no further talks depending on what Sherman tries to discuss.
If the United States brings up concerns about rights in Hong Kong and Xinjiang, “they have to know they are wasting time,” it quoted another expert as saying.
The trip will not have the trappings of a full-fledged official visit. Sherman will not go to Beijing, but instead spend two days starting Sunday in Tianjin, an eastern port city.
She will meet senior officials in Tianjin, including Foreign Minister Wang Yi, the State Department and Chinese Foreign Ministry said.
John Kerry, the former secretary of state turned U.S. climate envoy, is the only other senior official from the Biden administration to have visited China, as the world’s two largest emitters pledged to work together on the planetary crisis, despite their differences.
Kerry did not hold talks in the capital either, but met with his climate counterpart in Shanghai, where there were few public sightings of the usually media-friendly former senator.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security adviser, met in March in Alaska with Wang and top official Yang Jiechi in a visibly tense meeting in which the Chinese side berated the United States in front of the cameras.
Since last week, the United States publicly accused Beijing of carrying out the massive hack in March of Microsoft Exchange and issued a business advisory warning of risks in Hong Kong. The U.S. Senate also voted to ban imports from Xinjiang due to allegations of forced labor.
China denounced what it called a “fabricated” campaign by the United States, which rallied allies, including Japan and NATO, for a rare joint condemnation on purported cyberattacks.
Like Blinken before the Alaska talks, Sherman is seeking to show a united front by traveling to Japan, South Korea and Mongolia before Tianjin.
A State Department announcement of her travel last week raised eyebrows by not including China, indicating the two sides were continuing to negotiate the visit.
The trip could help set the stage for further exchanges and a potential meeting between President Joe Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping later this year, possibly on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit in Italy in late October.
Ryan Hass, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said he expected both the U.S. and China to make sure the discussions are “forthright.”
“Given the current stresses in the relationship and the possibility of a meeting between both leaders at the G20 in October, I suspect both sides decided to turn focus to matters of substance,” he said.
Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post reported last week that China planned for Xie Feng, a vice foreign minister, to meet Sherman, but the two sides were haggling over protocol details.
“Our senior level engagement is a precious resource, so we wanted to make sure that we were going to have substantive and constructive exchanges with senior PRC officials,” a senior U.S. administration official told reporters.
“That’s exactly what we believe we’re going to be getting with this meeting we’re going to have with Wang Yi.”
North Korea, climate and Iran are issues of shared concern she will be hoping to make progress on in China, despite a fractious relationship that has plunged ties to their worst level in decades.
“We are certainly having ongoing conversations about potential ways that we may be able to work together on shared problems,” a second senior official said.
Biden has largely kept the hawkish stance on China of his predecessor, Donald Trump, with U.S. policymakers across party lines saying an increasingly assertive Beijing is the pre-eminent challenge for the United States.
But Biden has promised a more focused approach of working with allies on China and has toned down the more vitriolic statements from late in Trump’s tenure.
The State Department also announced Sherman would continue on to Oman.
The Gulf sultanate has been the key go-between for the United States and Iran, diplomacy in which Sherman was closely involved under former president Barack Obama.
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