On Monday, the United States' second-most senior diplomat met with Chinese counterparts in the port city of Tianjin. Ahead of Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman’s visit to China, U.S. officials said the aim of this round of discussions — the second face-to-face talks between senior officials from both countries since President Biden took office — was to set “guardrails” around the increasingly fractious Sino-U.S. relationship and “keep the channels of communication open.” Coming out of the meetings, it wasn’t quite clear what markers had been laid down amid a testy airing of grievances.
In exchanges with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Vice Foreign Minister Xie Feng, Sherman laid out Washington’s many concerns with Beijing, from its campaigns of repression in Hong Kong, Xinjiang and Tibet to the recent determination by the United States, the European Union and other world powers that hackers affiliated with the Chinese government have participated in a broad array of malicious cyber activities.
Sherman said that her administration welcomed “stiff competition” with China, but did not seek conflict. But she insisted to reporters after the meetings that China, which bristles over Western criticism of its human rights record, could not place itself above reproach. “We do expect … [Chinese officials] to understand that human rights are not just an internal matter, they are a global commitment which they have signed up for” under U.N. conventions, Sherman told the Associated Press.
Sherman also raised the matter of the pandemic and China’s conspicuous lack of cooperation with the World Health Organization’s efforts to understand its roots, an issue that is both a sensitive subject for Beijing and a source of political anger for U.S. lawmakers. “Last week, Beijing announced it would not cooperate with the WHO’s follow-up research plans,” reported my colleague Eva Dou. “Biden has supported the WHO plan, while also ordering U.S. intelligence agencies to search for evidence of how the pandemic started.”
Sherman’s Chinese interlocutors were similarly tough-minded. At the first meetings in Alaska in March, Wang used his bully pulpit to launch an attack on perceived American hypocrisy and the failings of U.S. democracy. This time, Xie accused the Biden administration of stoking future conflict. “The United States wants to reignite the sense of national purpose by establishing China as an ‘imaginary enemy,’” Xie was quoted as saying by state media. “As if once China’s development is suppressed, U.S. domestic and external problems will be resolved, and America will be great again, and America’s hegemony can be continued.”
Implicit in Xie’s comment is Beijing’s assessment that, contrary to what Republicans in Washington routinely claim, there’s little daylight between Biden’s current approach on China and that of his predecessor. In its first six months in power, the Biden administration has slapped sanctions on Chinese officials involved in the crackdown on Hong Kong, placed export controls on certain Chinese technology firms and extended Trump-era measures to prevent U.S. investment in Chinese companies that deal with the country’s military. Meanwhile, U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai has barely budged from the adversarial path taken by the Trump administration, while drawing Chinese ire by backing Australia in its own trade disputes with Beijing.
Indeed, some notable Chinese commentators contend that China is in an even tougher place with Biden in the White House, as the United States tries to build a more united front with European and Asian partners after four years of Trump’s erratic “America First” agenda. As Sherman left China, Secretary of State Antony Blinken headed to India and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin embarked on a tour of Southeast Asia.
“Biden’s administration is isolating China with a multilateral club strategy,” Yan Xuetong, dean of the Institute of International Relations at Tsinghua University in Beijing, told the New York Times. “This strategy has brought about much more difficulties to China’s economic development and pressure on China’s diplomatic relations than Trump’s unilateral strategy.”
For all their “wolf warrior” bravura, China’s diplomats and political elites seem to be losing the PR battle. A recent Pew Research Center survey found majorities in many countries in Europe and Asia harbor increasingly unfavorable views of the country, a consequence both of the impact of the pandemic as well as distaste for China’s authoritarian politics. Analysts suggest that, internally, the Communist regime is coping with growing underlying tensions. President Xi Jinping is reshaping the country’s political system in his image, dismantling presidential term limits and accumulating tremendous personal power. But there’s no apparent succession strategy in place and China’s leadership faces mounting challenges with a slowing economy and a graying population.
Beijing’s elites, of course, are quick to point to American shortcomings. They routinely describe U.S. behavior as a reflection of a “Cold War mentality” and the flailing of a nation that doesn’t recognize its own decline on the global stage. “The United States has declared its comeback, but the world has changed,” Le Yucheng, a vice minister of foreign affairs, said in a recent interview with a Chinese news site. “The United States needs to see these changes, adapt to them, and reflect upon and correct its mistakes in the past.”
U.S. officials also see the tussle with China in grand historic terms. “There will be periods of uncertainty — perhaps even periods of occasional raised tensions,” Kurt Campbell, the White House’s top Asia hand, said at an event earlier this month hosted by the Asia Society. “Do I believe that China and the United States can coexist peacefully? Yes, I do. But I do think this challenge is going to be enormously difficult for this generation and the next.”