U.S.-China Perception Monitor: Breaking down Wendy Sherman’s recent visit to China

July 29, 2021

by: Yawei Liu

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Wendy Sherman’s visit to China was quick—just about 24 hours. But her meetings with two top Chinese diplomats, Minister Wang Yi and Vice Minister Xie Feng, were long—about six hours. According to China’s reporting on these meetings, much of the time was dedicated to the Chinese side venting its anger at Washington and scolding the Biden administration’s attempt to undermine China’s political system, freeze its growth, and violate its sovereignty. Many feel the meeting in Tianjin was as useless as the one that took place in Anchorage back in March 2021.

However, this meeting, only the third to take place between American and Chinese diplomats since President Biden took office on January 20, 2021, is an important one. After Sherman’s visit to China was announced, State Department spokesperson Ned Price told the press the meeting was designed to set up “guardrails” for the bilateral relationship and discuss how to responsibly manage the volatile interaction between the two countries. After Sherman’s return to Washington, Price described her meetings in China as a “frank and open discussion about a range of issues, demonstrating the importance of maintaining open lines of communication between our two countries.” Zhao Lijian, one of Price’s counterparts at Chinese Foreign Ministry, told the press on July 27 that “we can say that the two sides had deep and thorough conversations and enhanced mutual understanding.”

Agreeing to meet was no small affair

Sherman began her trip to Asia without China on the itinerary. It was reported that Beijing and Washington could not reach agreement on the visit because the State Department did not think Xie Feng, one of four vice ministers in China’s foreign ministry, was at the correct diplomatic level for Sherman to talk to. In fact, demanding to meet with the right officials in China seems to be an increasingly important factor when the U.S. engages China diplomatically. For example, Kurt Campbell, coordinator for Indo-Pacific Affairs at the U.S. National Security Council, has previously complained that Yang Jiechi and Wang Yi, China’s two highest ranked diplomats, are not particularly close to President Xi Jinping unlike Antony Blinken and President Biden. Furthermore, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin reportedly asked to meet with General Xu Qiliang, a member of the Politburo and vice chairman of China’s Central Military Commission, not his counterpart, Defense Minister General Wei Fenghe. Regardless of what transpired in the negotiation on the perimeters of the meeting, Minister Wang Yi, whose counterpart is Secretary of State Antony Blinken, agreed to meet with Sherman.

Sherman’s Asia trip was apparently designed to deepen U.S. ties to its Asian allies and to ask leaders of the countries she visited to synchronize with Washington’s “get tough with China policy.” While she was busy on the road, the White House publicly accused China of hacking into Microsoft servers and encouraged NATO to do the same. It also imposed new sanctions on Chinese officials because of their involvement in implementing repressive policies in Hong Kong and Xinjiang. A Chinese scholar commented to me privately that agreeing to meet with Sherman was tantamount to conceding to U.S. pressure and it would make Beijing look weak.

It took courage and pragmatism for the China side to agree to meet with Sherman under these trying circumstances, demonstrating that both American and Chinese officials are keenly aware of what is at stake if the relationship cannot be managed and if mutual communication is cut off.

China’s venting is not meaningless

A year after President Trump took office, the U.S. declared that engagement policy with China was dead. The 2018 National Security Strategy called upon the U.S. government to do everything possible to change China’s behavior both at home and internationally. So far, that policy approach has not succeeded and there was initial hope that President Biden would change Trump’s maximum pressure approach. To the shock of many in China and the surprise of a large coalition of Democrats in the U.S., President Biden has largely adopted Trump’s China policy wholesale and made it even more strategic by bringing more American allies to the counter-China bandwagon. This U.S. China policy was best described by Secretary Blinken as “our relationship with China will be competitive when it should be, collaborative when it can be, and adversarial when it must be. The common denominator is the need to engage China from a position of strength”  

Chinese decision-makers do not believe U.S. is in a position of strength. They believe the U.S. has lost that position when the financial crisis in 2008 knocked it off balance. Like many in the U.S., Chinese elite believe Washington is simply scapegoating China for many of its own structural problems. Furthermore, Chinese officials and many Chinese intellectuals formerly supportive of engagement with the U.S. do not think China should cooperate with the U.S. when Washington publicly declares that China threatens the U.S. politically, economically, and diplomatically.

In the words of Xie Feng during his meeting with Sherman, China sees “the competitive, collaborative and adversarial rhetoric as a thinly veiled attempt to contain and suppress China.” He went on to say that the real emphasis of the U.S. China policy “is on the adversarial aspect, the collaborative aspect is just an expediency, and the competitive aspect is a narrative trap.”

Beijing feels important to get one message across to the U.S. side: “It cannot expect to harm China’s interests on one hand while hoping for unconditional cooperation from China on the other.”

It is important to ‘compare notes’

Observers of the U.S.-China relationship often find that the American side pays more attention to results and the China side is heavy with empty rhetoric. Back in 2013, when China introduced the concept of building a new kind of great power relationship, the American response was often—that is great, but how can we operationalize that?

The U.S. is always specific about where they expect China to change its behavior. As Ned Price explained of Sherman’s visit, “The Deputy Secretary raised concerns in private – as we have in public – about a range of PRC actions that run counter to our values and interests and those of our allies and partners, and that undermine the international rules-based order.” In addition to raising concerns regarding Taiwan, Xinjiang, Hong Kong, the South China Sea, and coercive diplomacy, Sherman also asked the Chinese government to release both Americans and Canadians who were detained by Chinese authorities or are serving jail time in China on what the U.S. believes to be illegitimate charges.

Notably, China’s approach changed drastically this time. As Yang Jiechi was in March, Xie Feng was ready to broadly reject American criticisms. But he went a step further by presenting two lists of demands to the U.S. delegation. Zhao Lijian told the press corps at the Chinese Foreign Ministry on July 27, “China also gave the US two lists, one consisting of 16 items detailing erroneous U.S. policies, words and actions that should be redressed, another containing 10 key individual cases of particular concern.”

In reality, stakeholders in the U.S.-China relationship outside the government also have their own favorite list of demands they would very much like to present to foreign policy decision makers across both capitals. Some of these demands on the list include: for both governments, to reopen the consulates in Houston and Chengdu; for the U.S. government, to abolish the China Initiative at the Justice Department, to restore the Fulbright Program and Peace Corps, and to stop politicizing and securitizing trade, joint scientific research and market behavior; for the Chinese government, to cease blocking U.S.-based websites, including Google, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, to transfer authority of foreign NGO management from the Ministry of Public Security to the Ministry of Civil Affairs, and to release dissidents and rights defending lawyers.

Neither the U.S. nor China can handle challenges alone

While it is obvious both sides described what was discussed at the meeting in ways that catered to domestic political needs, it is significant that both sides highlighted areas of possible and necessary bilateral coordination, cooperation, and collaboration. The U.S. readout of the meeting includes the following language: “The Deputy Secretary affirmed the importance of cooperation in areas of global interest, such as the climate crisis, counternarcotics, nonproliferation, and regional concerns including DPRK, Iran, Afghanistan, and Burma.” Zhao Lijian briefed the reporters on the issue of potential U.S.-China cooperation as follows: “The two sides also exchanged views on some international and regional issues including climate change, the Iranian nuclear issue, the Korean Peninsula, Afghanistan and Myanmar.”

Chinese diplomats’ call to manage the bilateral relationship in a “win-win” manner is seen by their American counterparts too trite to be useful.  However, when China and the U.S. were on the same page, gains were clear. China was a major partner of JCPOA. China played an instrumental role in the signing of the Paris Climate Accord. When China coordinated with the U.S. on responding to Pyongyang, there was much progress. Beijing facilitated dialogue between the U.S. and the Taliban in the past. China also declared that exporting narcotic chemicals to the U.S. is illegal.  However, all this cooperative practice happened in the past. Since 2021, except for a visit by special envoy for climate John Kerry to Shanghai to talk to his China counterpart Xie Zhenhua, there does not appear to be coordination between Washington and Beijing on any issues that require bilateral attention at present.

A major opportunity of U.S.-China cooperation has emerged, however, which was discussed at the Tianjin meeting: the growing and destabilizing crisis in Myanmar. The coup in February, the subsequent collapse of the government and economy, and the deepening of the Covid-19 pandemic will make what was once a budding democracy to a failed state with huge regional and international ramifications. It is a crisis that could potentially transform the U.S. and China’s fierce strategic rivalry in Myanmar into a rare opportunity of doing good for the people of Myanmar while finding common ground between Washington and Beijing. Sherman told AP via a telephone interview after her meetings with the Chinese diplomats: “There are some things that rise above specific differences that are the global responsibility of great powers.”  Responding collectively and responsibly to the situation in Myanmar is certainly one of the “some things.”

The two presidents need to meet as soon as possible

Media outlets in both countries have speculated about whether a meeting between Biden and Xi was discussed at the Tianjin meeting. The spokesperson for the White House, Jen Psaki, was asked this question at the briefing. She said that “President continues to believe in face-to-face diplomacy,” and that a meeting with China’s top leader “is something he has long been an advocate for.” The White House expects “there will be some opportunity to engage at some point, but it did not come up in the context of these meetings, and it wasn’t — that was not the purpose of these meetings.”

It is absurd that such an important issue did not come up during the meeting between Sherman and her Chinese counterparts. What is the White House afraid of by not stating that both sides are in active discussion to see if Biden and Xi could meet in Rome during the G20 meeting in October?

China became the second largest economy in 2010. Since then, the two nations began to increase the frequency of top-level consultation. Both Presidents Bush and Obama embraced the biannual strategic and economic dialogues between the two governments. President Xi and President Obama met in person four times from 2013 to 2016 and there were also numerous meetings between the two on the sidelines of international conferences. Even President Trump traveled to China during his first year in office, and later met President Xi again on the sidelines of the APEC meeting in Argentina in December 2018.

President Biden knows President Xi well because they hosted each other when each served as vice presidents. After getting elected, Biden did not call Xi until February 11, 2021. Furthermore, Biden has already met with Russian President Putin last month. The last time Biden and Xi met was in September 2015 when Biden was still vice president of the Obama Administration during Xi’s first state visit to the U.S. after becoming China’s top leader in 2013. If the U.S. side is complaining not being able to meet with the right people from the China side, the easiest way is for President Biden to talk to President Xi in person. While Biden is balanced by Congress, his own base, and the media, Xi is the only decider in China– every major decision has to go through him. If Washington wants to complain about China’s bad behavior and malign influence, it is best for Biden to do it directly to Xi.

The bilateral relationship is in a free fall. All signs indicate that the U.S. and China are engulfed in comprehensive, stiff competition, and there is not a single indication that Washington and Beijing are actively seeking common ground. At the same time, both militaries are getting dangerously close to each other in the South China Sea and East China Sea. Sherman told an AP reporter that “there’s no way to know in the early stages of building this relationship whether we will get to all the places that we hoped for.” Well, half a year has passed, and the so-called China policy review has not yielded any new policy initiatives.

Furthermore, the U.S. mid-term election and Chinese Communist Party’s next national congress will both take place in the fall of 2022. In the months leading to these two seminal events, the main players in both countries will all be anti-each other. Sherman hits the nail on the head when she says, “we will see whether, in fact, there’s follow up and we are able to move another step.” It is high time now for both Washington and Beijing to follow up on what was discussed at the Tianjin meeting, to stabilize the relationship, and to identify areas of information sharing and policy coordination.

Yawei Liu is a senior fellow with the George H. W. Bush Foundation for U.S.-China Relations. The views expressed in this publication are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the George H.W. Bush Foundation for U.S. China Relations.