By Michael Martina, Yew Lun Tian and David Brunnstrom
WASHINGTON / PEIJING (Reuters) – U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Wendy Sherman will tell China in upcoming talks that while Washington welcomes the competition, they said there must be a level playing field and guardrails to ensure that relations do not conflict US officials on Saturday.
Senior officials, who briefed reporters on Monday ahead of Sherman’s talks in Tianjin with China’s State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi, said the world’s two largest economies need to be competitive.
“It will underscore that we do not want this fierce and enduring competition to become conflicted,” said a senior US government official ahead of Washington-Beijing’s first high-level face-to-face contact in months as the two sides measure how it festers Loosen ties.
“The US wants to ensure that there are guard rails and parameters in place to make the relationship responsible,” he said. “Everyone has to play by the same rules and on an equal footing.”
Sherman is expected in Tianjin, southeast of Beijing, on Sunday.
But a day before they arrived, China’s top diplomat Wang Yi warned that China would not accept the United States’ “superior” position in relations.
“If the US has not learned to be on an equal footing with other countries, then we have a responsibility to work with the international community to teach the US that lesson,” he said in a statement posted by the State Department on his website.
Following Sherman’s trip, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin will visit Singapore, Vietnam and the Philippines next week, and Secretary of State Antony Blinken will visit India, a sign of US efforts to step up engagement as China challenges US influence in Asia.
Sherman’s talks have followed several militant months since President Joe Biden’s first diplomatic meeting of the countries in March.
Chinese officials publicly berated the United States at that meeting in Alaska and accused it of hegemonic politics. US officials accused China of defiance.
The meeting in Tianjin is a continuation of the talks in Alaska and “all dimensions of the relationship will be on the table,” the US official said on Saturday.
Since Alaska, the two countries have traded diplomatic barbs almost constantly. No later than Friday, when Beijing sanctioned former US Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and other individuals and groups in response to US sanctions for China’s crackdown on democracy in Hong Kong.
Given the poor bilateral relations, foreign policy experts do not expect Tianjin to deliver any significant results.
However, if the talks go reasonably well, they could help set the stage for a possible meeting between Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping, possibly on the sidelines of a G20 summit in Italy in October.
“If there is trust, both sides can use these talks to discuss cooperation on bilateral issues such as lifting restrictions on diplomatic and student visas, as well as multilateral issues around Iran, Afghanistan, Myanmar and climate change,” said Wu Xinbo, Director of American Studies at Fudan University in Shanghai.
Bonnie Glaser, Asia expert at the United States’ German Marshall Fund, said Blinken and Austin’s trips, as well as diplomatic efforts such as a planned second summit between Biden and heads of state and government from Japan, India and Australia later in the year, China could turn out to be Narrowed.
“The Chinese are undoubtedly concerned that the US is making progress in forming coalitions to put pressure on China,” she said.
The Biden government has sought to rally partners against what it believes is increasing coercive policies, including the treatment of Muslim minorities in its Xinjiang region, which Washington calls genocide. China denies that.
Washington recently brought together an unusually broad coalition of countries, including NATO and the European Union, to publicly accuse Beijing of a global cyber espionage campaign.
The bitterness was evident when China insisted in its announcement of the visit that Washington had sought it. After days of haggling over the minutes, three people familiar with the matter told Reuters in Beijing, including whether Wang or less senior Chinese officials would meet Sherman.
Evan Medeiros, an Asia specialist in the Obama administration now at Georgetown University, said there were no illusions about the strained relationships, but Wang’s willingness to meet Sherman indicated that China was taking the talks seriously.
“Ultimately, it’s about figuring out what a stable balance looks like in the relationship. It will take time, but you have to talk,” he said.