US Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman met with senior Chinese diplomats last week. The meeting, despite the rotation of the White House and the State Department, did not go well. This seems to have come as a surprise only to the American side.
The tour ran into problems before it even started. The original itinerary and announcements indicated that Sherman would visit South Korea, Japan and Mongolia, but not China. There was no reason for this to be a problem; after all, the Biden administration has stressed that it will rebuild alliances with the United States and improve friendships.
But reports have revealed the trip was supposed to include a visit to China. And when the State Department was visibly disappointed and upset that the Chinese did not offer Sherman a suitable counterpart for the meeting, it became clear that the trip was as much about talking with China as it was about reassuring the allies and friends of the United States.
Sherman’s expectation was that she would meet with Le Yucheng, a higher-ranking Deputy Foreign Minister, rather than lower-ranking Xie Feng, who is responsible for relations with the United States. The Chinese often play this game of protocol, especially since their government structure is not quite parallel to other systems. In the hierarchy of Chinese foreign policy, for example, Yang Jiechi, the top Chinese Communist Party (CCP) official responsible for foreign policy and a full member of the 25-member CCP Politburo, is more powerful than the minister of Foreign Affairs and State Councilor Wang Yi. in China’s diplomatic orientation. Sherman agreed to meet Xie after the Chinese also arranged for her to meet Wang.
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Amid all the talk about meeting the ârightâ Chinese officials, the actual content of the meeting was shorter. As with other meetings, agendas and specific topics have received far less attention than the pressure on the Chinese to access the right people.
Exhibit A was the Anchorage summit in March, which was unofficially billed as a âlistening opportunityâ. Kurt Campbell, the White House’s Indo-Pacific coordinator, reportedly blatantly mocked Wang and Yang, China’s top foreign policy officials, as being “far from a hundred miles” from the circle. restricted from President Xi Jinping. Given that Yang has been the first foreign policy official at the Politburo since 1999 (and was appointed by Xi), such an assessment is questionable and likely seen as an insult to Beijing, prompting future feuds around the protocol.
Worse yet, the State Department continued to appear desperate to meet the Chinese. The Biden administration never clarified who requested the Anchorage summit in March. He hinted that the Chinese had given ground on their way to the United States, but who initiated the meeting remains a mystery. At Sherman’s meeting, however, the American side was definitely the suitor.
It shouldn’t have been surprising that Beijing seized the opportunity for all it was worth. Despite claims that Xi was advocating a softer approach, based largely on a misreading of a single line in one of his speeches, for several weeks Beijing has signaled that its diplomatic approach to the “wolf warrior” has failed. would continue. Earlier in July, Deputy Foreign Minister Le said the United States must accept that its hegemony was “in decline.” Foreign Minister Wang, meanwhile, said China should give the United States a “tutorial” on how to treat other nations with respect, even as Sherman and Foggy Bottom negotiated for the visit.
When Sherman met Xie, he took the opportunity to castigate the United States. Xie blamed Washington for the “stalemate” in relations and accused the United States of “demonizing” China. He then presented Sherman with two lists of Chinese grievances and demands, one on “US wrongdoing that must end” and the other on “key individual cases of concern to China.”
Although the contents of the lists have not been officially released by both sides, Chinese reports indicate that the United States’ list of wrongdoing includes requests for the United States to unconditionally lift visa restrictions for members. of the CCP and stop targeting Chinese businesses, media, and Confucius Institutes. , as well as the revocation of the request for extradition to Canada of Huawei’s chief financial officer, Meng Wanzhou. The second list includes more specific cases involving rejected student visa applications and allegations of harassment from Chinese diplomatic and consular missions.
In presenting these lists, Xie was not acting like a rogue diplomat. Wang himself apparently repeated the same requests. In his meeting with Sherman, he demanded more that the United States not challenge China or “violate Chinese sovereignty,” apparently including the withdrawal of US commitments to Taiwan.
State Department spokespersons insist that Wang and Sherman had a “frank and open discussion,” which demonstrated “open lines of communication.” Apparently, just having discussions is seen by many at Foggy Bottom as a victory, no matter how humiliating the tone and conditions are. In an interview with The Associated Press, Sherman was careful to note that she had raised the topics of Hong Kong, Xinjiang and Tibet.
But she also noted that she had raised the possibility of US-China cooperation on a range of issues, including climate change and North Korea. This was also reiterated in the reading of the State Department meetings, which notes that “the assistant secretary affirmed the importance of cooperation in areas of global concern, such as the climate crisis, the fight against narcotics , non-proliferation and regional concerns, including the DPRK, Iran, Afghanistan. , and Burma. Given that Xie had said that US policy generally involved “demanding cooperation when it wants something from China … and resorting to conflict and confrontation at all costs”, it is not clear that these suggestions were welcomed.
The Chinese government, both in Anchorage and now in Tianjin, has made it clear that it sees itself as having the upper hand over the United States. The Chinese leaders show the United States and its representatives all the respect they feel in the face of a waning power. The tone and general rudeness is calculated, making it clear not only to the Chinese public but to the rest of the global public that Beijing can disrespect US diplomats with impunity. Unfortunately, Washington’s apparent desperation to have talks with the Chinese only underscores this perception, not only in Beijing but probably in much of Asia.
This unsubtle signaling is reflected in both lists of requests as well, as well as Wang’s characterization of how the United States should behave. In essence, China is declaring that the United States has no right to deny China access to the American public (via Chinese state-run media), American schools (via Confucius Institutes) or to the US economy and supply chains.
However, there is no corresponding set of Chinese bonds. From a Chinese perspective, the fault lies entirely with Washington, and the redress also rests entirely on the American side. So, there is no promise or expectation for the Chinese to give Western media access to China, no prospect that there will be Jefferson Institutes established in Chinese universities. There is also no prospect that foreign journalists will have comparable access to China or even that those it has expelled will be allowed to return. Likewise, there is no reason to believe that China will scale back âMade in China 2025,â a de facto statement of commercialism as China seeks to become the dominant power in 10 major industries.
Sherman said the United States expected China to âunderstand that human rights are not just an internal matter; they are a global commitment to which they have subscribed. Yet, as the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman reiterated after Sherman’s departure, Beijing expects the United States to shut up and stop discussing China’s “internal affairs”. expression generally referring to human rights issues, in Taiwan and (more recently) in Hong Kong.
As Yang explicitly stated in Anchorage, China will no longer tolerate, let alone accept, US efforts to dictate the rules of the rules-based international order. This theme animates various Chinese speeches and statements, including Xi’s controversial speech commemorating the 100th anniversary of the founding of the CCP. As the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman noted, any discussion of “safeguards” or standards for US-China relations “must be discussed and agreed to by both sides.”
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Beijing has become increasingly vehement in this regard, not only to present itself nationally as the defender of Chinese interests, but also to signal to various third countries that China has “stood up.” As Chinese writers have long noted, strategic communications always have three audiences: the national audience, the adversary’s rulers and masses, and third parties who might be influenced or shaped.
The Biden administration risks signaling to Beijing that Washington is desperate for a deal. The constant reiteration of climate change as an arena for US-China cooperation, coupled with repeated statements by President Joe Biden that climate change poses the greatest threat to the United States (and the world), leaves little room for trading in the United States. Beijing has already made it clear, if only by building more coal-fired power capacity than the rest of the world combined, that it will not let climate change concerns displace major investment and construction. Beijing may have been encouraged by recent reports that suggest the Democratic Party is divided over whether to focus on tackling climate change or China. So, if the United States wants to change course with China, it will have to offer it concessions. The two lists are, in effect, China’s original claims. Chinese leaders are no doubt waiting to see the reaction of the Biden administration, whether it is more concerned about climate change or confronted with China.
Anchorage and Tianjin make it clear that, from a Chinese perspective, they are not in a conciliatory mood. If the United States and China want to improve their relations or any prospect of cooperation, Beijing expects Washington to make concessions. Chinese officials, meanwhile, have condescended that Beijing is prepared to treat the United States as an “equal.” US policymakers should acknowledge this Chinese perspective before going, hat in hand, requesting another meeting with their Chinese counterparts.