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Amid escalating diplomatic tensions, the US deputy secretary of state, Wendy Sherman, will travel to China this Sunday to meet with senior Chinese diplomats in the highest-level visit since the US climate envoy John Kerry’s trip to Shanghai in April.
Sherman’s upcoming trip will not have the trappings of a fully fledged official visit. She will – according to a Chinese statement – “hold talks” with Xie Feng, a vice-minister in charge of the bilateral relations, and “meet” with Wang Yi, China’s state councilor and foreign minister.
According to the US state department, Sherman will “discuss areas where we have serious concerns about PRC actions, as well as areas where our interests align”. It said: “These discussions are part of ongoing US efforts to hold candid exchanges with PRC officials to advance US interests and values and to responsibly manage the relationship.”
But a Chinese-language statement published by China’s foreign ministry around the same time said that Beijing will “make clear to the US side about its principle and position of the development of the Sino-US relations, as well as its resolute attitude towards protecting the security of its sovereignty and development interests”.
Tensions have been running high between the world’s two largest economies. Last week, the Biden administration warned American businesses of the risks of operating in Hong Kong. And on Monday, the US led its allies – including the UK – to accuse China of “malicious” cyber-attacks. They alleged that China’s state-backed actors were also involved in a hack of the Microsoft Exchange email server software earlier this year. Beijing called these accusations “a smear campaign”.
The forthcoming meeting, which was finally confirmed reportedly after a standoff over diplomatic protocols, comes six months after Biden was sworn in and four months after a previous meeting in the US city of Anchorage, where top diplomats from both sides exchanged a barrage of strongly worded statements.
Analysts say that although Sherman’s trip is a good sign that both administrations are continuing the dialogue, the tense exchange in the March meeting – along with recent tit-for-tat sanctions over the Chinese territories of Xinjiang and Hong Kong – mean that the negotiations will be tough.
“The likely discussion points are very long, but full of grievances from both sides, [from] issues on blacklisting Chinese companies [to] cyber-attack, [to] sanctioning officials related to Xinjiang,” said Yu Jie, senior China fellow at the London-based thinktank Chatham House. “It is difficult to see much room for improvement in their bilateral ties.”
Sherman will arrive in China after concluding visits to Japan, South Korea and Mongolia. Washington hopes to demonstrate “what responsible and healthy competition can look like” through the visit of one of Biden’s most-trusted senior diplomats, said a state department spokesperson, Ned Price. He said that the administration was also keen to “ensure there were ‘guardrails’ in the relationship and that competition did not spill over into conflict”.
In China, rhetoric is already heating up. “Such ‘guardrails’ would be a unilateral guardrail for the US but a prison circled by a wire fence for China,” the nationalist Global Times wrote in its editorial on Thursday, warning that “if Sherman had come to China with such a purpose, the Deputy Secretary’s trip would probably have achieved little more than a taste of Tianjin’s delicious steamed stuffed bun”.
But despite the fiery words out in the open, one outcome for Sherman’s trip could be to lay the groundwork for the two countries’ top diplomats to meet, and that could pave the way for a meeting between Biden and Xi during the G20 summit this October in Italy, said Bonny Lin, director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington.
She added: “It is in the interests of both governments to be able to showcase some ‘wins’, including specific efforts that the two sides have made some progress on and agreed to push forward together. In that respect, I think there is a lot to look forward to from this meeting.”