The US and China fought a war of words Monday as each side worked to set the narrative after their latest testy senior-level meetings.
A US delegation led by the Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman met with Foreign Minister Wang Yi and other officials in Tianjin, China, a week after the Biden administration joined an international coalition to condemn China for its global cyberattacks.
The State Department called the meetings “frank and open” – diplomatic code for a skirmish – and painted Beijing as an international outlier that is subverting international norms, listing China’s genocide in Xinjiang and its refusal to cooperate with an international investigation into the origins of the coronavirus.
“The Deputy Secretary underscored that the United States welcomes the stiff competition between our countries—and that we intend to continue to strengthen our own competitive hand—but that we do not seek conflict with” China, State Department spokesman Ned Price said in a statement Monday.
Beijing, describing the talks as “in-depth and frank,” responded with a torrent of condemnation. Chinese officials expressed “strong dissatisfaction” with Washington’s “extremely dangerous China policy” and accused it of hypocrisy on human rights.
Chinese foreign minister spokesperson Zhao Lijian said Chinese officials “demanded that the US immediately stop interfering in China’s internal affairs, stop harming China’s interests, and stop stepping on the red line, stop playing on the fire, and stop orchestrating group confrontation under the guise of values.”
Both countries are trying to gain an advantage as they struggle to manage the world’s most important bilateral relationship and set the stage for the first leaders’ meeting between President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping expected at the G7 summit in October. Despite the assertive language, both sides expressed an interest in continued dialogue.
“The US and China are in a period of strategic competition, relations are overall going downhill, and that trend has continued through the talks today,” said Neil Thomas, a China analyst at Eurasia Group, the political risk advisory and consulting firm. “But the fact that both sides wanted to hold this meeting … shows that that both Biden and Xi Jinping still want to put some kind of floor beneath deteriorating relations, because they both know this is the most important bilateral relationship in the world. It has significant consequences for global stability – for politics, for security, and economically.”
Speaking to The New York Times after her meetings, Sherman said, “On areas where we have common interests, and there are great global interests, we had very substantive discussions, shared some ideas. We will have to see where that goes.”
Sherman’s meetings in China followed a tour through Asia with stops in Japan, Korea, and Mongolia, and came as Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin visited Singapore and Secretary of State Antony Blinken flew to India – all reflecting the importance the Biden administration is placing on Asia.
The deputy secretary’s trip to Tianjin marked the first senior-level meeting since a contentious meeting in March in Alaska between Blinken and national security adviser Jake Sullivan and Wang and senior officials from the People’s Republic of China was partially caught on camera.
The readouts after Sherman’s meetings signaled that the disputes in March not only remain unresolved but will continue to create friction going forward – particularly around the issues of human rights, in the lead up to Beijing hosting the Winter Olympics, and international attempts to determine the origins of the coronavirus.
“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,” Price said in a statement.
“She raised our concerns about human rights, including Beijing’s anti-democratic crackdown in Hong Kong; the ongoing genocide and crimes against humanity in Xinjiang; abuses in Tibet; and the curtailing of media access and freedom of the press,” Price continued. “She also spoke about our concerns about Beijing’s conduct in cyberspace; across the Taiwan Strait; and in the East and South China Seas.”
Sherman’s meeting came just days after China rejected the World Health Organization plan for a second phase of an investigation into the origin of the coronavirus.
“The Deputy Secretary reiterated concerns about the PRC’s unwillingness to cooperate with the World Health Organization and allow a second phase investigation in the PRC into COVID-19’s origins,” Price said, adding that Sherman also raised the issue of Americans and Canadians detained in China under exit bans and “reminded PRC officials that people are not bargaining chips.”
A Chinese statement about Sherman’s first meeting with Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Xie Feng said that the vice minister told Sherman the frayed US-China relationship is due not to any of the issues Sherman raised, but to Americans’ portrayal of China as the “imagined enemy.”
Many of Xie’s other comments seemed to be an attempt to flip US criticism of Beijing.
According to the statement, Xie also told Sherman that it is the US that has abandoned the rules-based international order it helped create in the aftermath of World War II, but that China would like to build a “new type of international relations” built on “respect.”
Xie also said the US is in “no position to lecture China on democracy and human rights,” pointing to the American genocide of Native Americans and US military action and said that the US is the “inventor and patent and intellectual property owner” of coercive diplomacy – another criticism Washington has often leveled at Beijing for its approach to smaller, poorer countries.
During the long day of talks on Monday, spokesperson Zhao said at a regular news briefing that China had expressed its “strong dissatisfaction” with Washington’s “extremely dangerous China policy.”
But Zhao also added that the talks were “in-depth and frank,” and that it was beneficial for the healthy development of Sino-US relations.
And Price, the State Department spokesman, said that even as Sherman delivered her critique of China’s actions, “at the same time, the Deputy Secretary affirmed the importance of cooperation in areas of global interest, such as the climate crisis, counternarcotics, nonproliferation, and regional concerns” including North Korea, Iran, Afghanistan, and Burma.
CNN’s Beijing bureau and Eric Cheung in Hong Kong contributed to this report