US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman met Foreign Minister Wang Yi in the northern port city of Tianjin on 26 July. As with the meeting of top diplomats in Anchorage in March, the meeting yielded no policy outcomes, only statements from both sides reiterating familiar grievances. US-China relations are clearly in a stalemate, as both domestic political constraints and the sincere convictions of top leaders prevent either side from offering concessions.
At the meeting, the Chinese side presented the US with two lists: one described “errors” that the US should correct and a second outlined issues of concern to Beijing. Vice foreign minister Xie Feng asked Sherman to abandon efforts to extradite Huawei Chief Financial officer Meng Wanzhou from Canada and to lift US visa restrictions on Chinese students and Communist Party members. Sherman raised a familiar litany of US concerns, including Hong Kong, Xinjiang, the South China Sea, Beijing’s use of trade sanctions to pressure other countries, hacking allegations, and the stalled WHO investigation on the origins of Covid-19.
In a sign of how public posturing is taking precedence over a desire for collegiality, before Sherman’s meeting with Wang even finished, China’s foreign ministry issued a series of blistering statements attributed to Xie, accusing the US trying to “contain and suppress China” and declaring that bilateral relations are in a “stalemate.” The US similarly declined to accept responsibility for the troubled relationship, with an anonymous US official saying after the talks that “it is going to be up to the Chinese side to determine how ready they are” to improve relations.
A slightly more optimistic interpretation of the meeting is that while it will not produce concrete policy changes, it may still serve to prevent further deterioration of the relationship. Even absent concessions by either side, better understanding the other side’s positions may serve to avoid miscalculations and accidental escalations. The fact that a senior-level meeting occurred at all also indicates a baseline level of diplomatic functioning. Moreover, as with the Anchorage meeting, the tone of the meeting may have been more amicable in private than both sides’ public statements indicate. Sherman’s meeting with Wang appeared less acrimonious than the one with Xie, with Sherman saying the two sides discussed areas of possible cooperation such as North Korea and nuclear proliferation.
Tough slog ahead
A half year into the administration of US President Joe Biden, it is clear that most or all Trump policies not already rolled back will remain in place for the foreseeable future. In fact, Biden’s greater concern for human rights and his administration’s inclination to frame US-China competition as a clash of value systems in some ways diminishes the scope for compromise. While offering concessions to an adversary with conflicting national interests may be politically defensible, doing the same for one that is fundamentally malicious is more difficult to justify. Downside risks to the bilateral relationship will also increase in the lead-up to the Beijing Olympics in February. The US Congress will exert pressure over how and whether US athletes and officials should attend the game and may also press corporate sponsors to withdraw support.
The next opportunity for a significant US policy shift may be when the US economy slows significantly enough that the economic harm from tariffs re- emerges as a salient political issue, shifting the balance between competing domestic political pressures.