China, US to start dialogue amid new tensions and high attention
China reciprocates sanctions before visit, could be ‘new normal’ in bilateral interactions
Published: Jul 26, 2021 01:33 AM
Wendy Sherman photo:CFP

Wendy Sherman photo:CFP

In a break from the past approach, when the Chinese side often released a goodwill gesture before a China-US meeting while the US exerted pressure on China, this time before the visit of US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, China announced it is sanctioning six individuals and one entity of the US, a move that Chinese observers said could become a new normal in China-US interaction. 

Sherman is scheduled to arrive in North China's Tianjin Municipality Sunday night for a meeting with the Chinese side that will draw intensive attention amid increasingly tense bilateral ties fueled recently by the US' moves to impose sanctions on several Chinese officials over Hong Kong and its groundless accusation that China is engaging in cyberattacks worldwide. 

Chinese experts expressed low expectations for this high-ranking, face-to-face interaction between the two world powers since the Alaska talks, saying it will be more of a gesture to keep in touch rather than yield any actual outcomes. 

Sherman posted two tweets Sunday night, saying that "the Biden-Harris Administration is pushing for a level playing field for American companies in China," while expressing condolences to victims of the Henan floods.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry confirmed Sherman's visit on late Wednesday night, announcing that the senior US official will visit Tianjin from Sunday to Monday, a visit arranged after the US proposal to exchange views on China-US relations. Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Xie Feng, who is in charge of China-US relations at the Ministry, will hold talks with Sherman. Later, State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi will meet Sherman, according to the announcement. 

US no superior 

Prior to Sherman's China visit, Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi on Saturday warned that China will never accept the US talking with it in a condescending manner. 

"The US has always put pressure on others with its self-claimed strengths in a condescending manner," Wang said. "But I want to tell the US side that there is never a country that is superior to others, and there shouldn't be one." He also stressed that China will never accept any country who thinks this way.

The senior diplomat's statement was in response to US State Department spokesperson Ned Price's description of Sherman's trip to China as coming "from a position of strength" due to its consultations with its allies. The State Department also said in a press release on Wednesday that the meetings 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."

If the US still has not learned how to treat other countries equally, then China, together with the international community, has a responsibility to teach the US, Wang noted.

Almost at the same time, US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin started his trip to Singapore, Vietnam and the Philippines on Friday and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken will pay a visit to India. 

Given the overall situation of the China-US relationship, in addition to apparent tensions at the Alaska meeting, the most recent face-to-face interaction between senior officials of the two countries, Chinese officials are unlikely to hold high expectations toward the upcoming dialogue, Li Yan, deputy director of Institute of American Studies of China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, told the Global Times on Sunday. 

"Especially as the US government has taken a series of measures to further suppress China, which has largely lowered the expectations of the Chinese side," he said. 

China said on Friday that it will impose sanctions against six individuals including the former US Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Louis Ross and Chairman of US-China Economic and Security Review Commission (USCC) Carolyn Bartholomew, as well as one entity of the US, the Hong Kong Democratic Council, according to the Anti-Foreign Sanctions Law.

The move is a reciprocal countermeasure against the recent erroneous practice of the US targeting Hong Kong, when the White House issued an advisory to warn US businesses about risks to their operations and activities in Hong Kong, and sanctioned seven Hong Kong liaison office officials, while adding them to the US Treasury's "specially designated nationals" list on July 16.

A shift in China policy?

"Since US President Joe Biden took office, his administration has been following strategies from the Trump era featuring the heavy pressure and dealing with China in a cold way. However, such an approach has been less effective than he anticipated, and Biden is looking for another way around," Wu Xinbo, director of the Center for American Studies at Fudan University in Shanghai, told the Global Times on Sunday. 

The US increasingly finds that it needs China's support and coordination on various fronts, including on international issues like Iran, Afghanistan, Myanmar, climate change and trade, experts noted. 

If the talks go well, the two sides could be setting the stage for higher level meetings as well as meetings on a larger scale. "For now there have only been talks on the diplomatic front, but dialogues on trade and commerce and other fields could be expected in the future," Wu noted. 

However, Li Yan believes that the US' recent moves to seek interaction with China do not mean there will be a change in the Biden administration's China policy, but indicates that its overall China policy evaluation is close to an end. Also, it has been about six months since Biden took office emphasizing competition, cooperation and confrontation, however, the competition and confrontation have been largely amplified over the past few months, leading to a negative impact on overall China-US relationship which needs to be adjusted. 

Ways to manage competition

US officials said prior to Sherman's visit that there needs to be a level playing field and guardrails to ensure ties do not turn into conflict, and the world's two largest economies need responsible ways to manage competition, Reuters reported on Sunday. 

"She's going to underscore that we do not want that stiff and sustained competition to veer into conflict," one senior US administration official noted. 

The US wants to ensure there are "guardrails" and "parameters" in place to responsibly manage the relationship," he said, adding that "Everyone needs to play by the same rules," according to the Reuters report. 

However, Chinese observers see such remarks "vague and far from enough," as the "guardrails" and "parameters" were only set to serve US interests.

"When the US said it wants to ensure there are guardrails and parameters in place to responsibly manage the relationship, it's still very dangerous if there is no clear boundary, as the competition can evolve into conflict. The real guardrail should emphasize cooperation and explore solutions through cooperation," Diao Daming, associate professor at the Renmin University of China in Beijing, told the Global Times on Sunday. 

 Those so-called rules only serve the interests of the US, underscoring the West-defined value systems while attempting to cover a number of issues such as human rights and democracy, Diao noted.  

"China won't reject playing by the rules, but they must be based on and widely accepted by the international community, in accordance with international law and the UN Charter, not designed by the US alone," he said.

Such rule-based international order has been advocated by the Biden administration since he took office in January, which is closer to rhetoric rather than a true standard the US adheres to, as it is unclear on what fundamental this rule is set or who designed it, leaving a lot to be discussed, noted Li Yan.

China has its own rules with which the US side must abide, Wu Xinbo added, including not interfering in China's internal affairs and not infringing on China's core interests. Meetings between Beijing and Washington are a constant process of adjusting and adapting to each other's rules, Wu added.