Navigating the Complex China-USA Relations: The Sherman-Wang Meeting in Tianjin

Navigating the Complex China-USA Relations: The Sherman-Wang Meeting in Tianjin


On July 26, in Tianjin, China’s Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, and China’s Deputy Foreign Minister, Xie Feng, met the United States (US) Deputy Secretary of State, Wendy Sherman, so far the highest ranking Biden administration official to have visited China. While the US official commented that “The relationship between the United States and the P.R.C. is a complex one, and our policy is very complex as a result”, the US State Department called the meetings “frank and open”, using a diplomatic language often associated with effervescence. According to the Chinese side, the visit represented “part of mutual contact and dialogue between China and the United States, and the two sides should enhance mutual understanding, erase misunderstanding, avoid misjudgment and better manage differences via constant dialogues.”

Indeed, as the US State Department noted, the visit represents a clear and convincing demonstration of the “importance of maintaining open lines of communication between our two countries.” Following the complex Chinese delegation’s visit to Anchorage in March 2021, the Tianjin meeting represents the most recent high level US-China contact set to present, discuss and possibly manage aspects relevant to both sides. According to the US State Department, the Chinese actions in Hong Kong and in other provinces of China, media access, cyberspace security, Taiwan Strait security and the maritime disputes in East and South China Sea represent the main items on the US-China agenda. For China, an emerging power notwithstanding the economic repercussions of the pandemic, the meeting represented a double folded opportunity: firstly, to communicate with the US from the elevated stance of the “irresistible trend of historical evolution”, secondly, to communicate to all audiences, domestic and external, that “socialism with Chinese characteristics totally fits China's national realities and requirements, has already made and will continue to make an overwhelming success.”

It was in this regard that, in a possibly unprecedented public move, China seems to have proposed two “checklists” to the United States, according to Chinese analysts. The first checklist, containing 16 items of US Foreign Policy that China wants to amend, namely lifting current visa restrictions on the members of the Chinese Communist Party and their families, lifting sanctions on certain Chinese officials and government departments, easing visa restrictions on Chinese students, stop “suppressing” certain Chinese companies, stop “suppressing” Confucius Institutes, revoking the registration of Chinese media as “foreign agents”, extraditing Meng Wenzhou, etc. The other list, containing “10 key cases that China is concerned about”, has not been presented to the public in great detail.

In a similar note, according to Chinese foreign policy analysts, Beijing also availed of the meeting to present three “bottom lines for Sino-US relations”, namely:

- the United States must not challenge, slander, or even attempt to subvert the path and system of socialism with Chinese characteristics;

- the United States must not try to obstruct or even interrupt China's development process (a line presented in the Chinese academia as a direct request to remove all unilateral sanctions, high tariffs, long-arm jurisdiction, and technology blockade imposed on China as soon as possible);

- the United States must not infringe upon China’s national sovereignty, let alone undermine China’s territorial integrity (a line that illustrates the different understanding of issues such as democracy and human rights by the two parties).

The usage of “checklists” and “bottom lines” might be a common and practical instrument of diplomacy, yet the practice of placing such instruments under the limelight may signal an increasingly “assertive” position of China in relation with the United States. In the same note, China’s yet-to-be-announced Ambassador in Washington, Qin Gang, a former spokesman for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, is known as a vocal, sharp and assertive voice of Beijing’s position in the international arena. Provided his departure to Washington occurred just two days after the Tianjin meeting, one may assume that Ambassador’s mandate will strongly reflect upon the two checklists and two bottom lines presented by China during the Sherman-Wang meeting.

Of course, one may not expect that the US foreign policy will significantly change following the Tianjin meeting. In fact, only two days after the aforementioned high level meeting, USS Benfold, a destroyer warship, transited the Taiwan Strait, a manoeuvre highly criticized by Beijing. The new announcement of US defence systems acquisitions by Taipei further added to the existing tensions. Clearly, US Deputy State Secretary to China is part of a wider tour in Asia, with multiple legs in Japan, South Korea and Mongolia, which may touch upon China’s increasingly “assertive” regional and global actions. Only days later, the US State Secretary, Anthony Blinken, travelled to India for several high-level meetings, one of particular attraction to the media being an encounter with the self-proclaimed “Tibetan Government in Exile”.

The importance of the meeting, however, resides in the significance of dialogue as instrument for clarifying positions, managing differences and, most importantly, cooperating“in areas of global interest, such as the climate crisis, counternarcotics, nonproliferation, and regional concerns”, as the US State Department put it.

It is not unlikely that, following the clarifications and calibrations in Anchorage and Tianjin, a substantial high-level dialogue between the US State Secretary Blinken and the Chinese Foreign Minister Wang to occur during the following months. According to the diplomatic procedure, such a significant event would represent a second stage in possibly preparing a Biden-Xi summit, which could alleviate the political-strategic differences and, most importantly, the economic divergences, where China holds a strong position. Indeed, the reality calls for a marked progress in improving the bilateral dialogue, as the most important path in sorting differences of any nature in the global community. Shall such a dialogue intensify and its conclusions be implemented in good faith, its results would have far reaching effects not only for the US and China, but for the entire community of nations.


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The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the official policy, position or view of IRSEA.