An agreement announced on Wednesday by the US and China for their first face-to-face talks between senior diplomats in months represents the latest effort by both sides to keep a growing list of disputes from spiraling out of control.
The nations said that US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman would meet Chinese Minister of Foreign Affairs Wang Yi (王毅) next week in the northern port city of Tianjin as part of her current tour through Asia. The trip followed behind-the-scenes wrangling, with the Financial Times reporting earlier that the No. 2 US diplomat had suspended her travel plans after Beijing offered only a meeting with one of Wang’s subordinates.
The decision to compromise on the two-day visit shows the importance both sides put on stabilizing relations before the annual G20 summit in October, which is the most likely opportunity for the first meeting between US President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平).
Sherman’s visit would be the highest-level meeting between US and Chinese diplomats since acrimonious talks in Alaska in March, although they have since spoken over the phone and US Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry has held talks with his Chinese counterpart.
“Given that the earlier report of a scrapped China trip was taken as a sign of worsening relations, this development should be taken positively,” said Alvin Tan, head of Asia FX strategy at RBC Capital Markets in Hong Kong. “This is keeping expectations alive of a direct Biden-Xi meeting on the sidelines of the G20 summit.”
The tussle over the meetings underscores the depth of suspicion between the world’s largest economies, as Biden builds a democratic united front to counter Beijing. In the past week, the Biden administration has cautioned US businesses against operating in Hong Kong and accused China of masterminding the Microsoft Exchange hack.
Meanwhile, Sherman on Wednesday joined her Japanese and South Korean counterparts in affirming allied support for stability in the Taiwan Strait.
Both sides face domestic pressure to maintain a tough line in ties. A coalition of Hong Kong democracy advocates in exile sent a letter to the US Congress urging lawmakers to pass legislation granting refugee status to Hong Kong citizens with “well-founded fears of persecution.”
Introductory talks between US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and a Chinese delegation in Alaska in March descended into bickering, with Chinese Central Foreign Affairs Commission Director Yang Jiechi (楊潔篪) saying that the top US diplomat’s remarks were not “normal.”
“The controversies surrounding protocol details are a sign of how difficult it is for China and the Biden administration to gel,” said Zhu Feng (朱峰), a professor of international relations at Nanjing University. “The unprecedented attention to such technical details show the Biden administration is trying to reframe bilateral communication. Of course, China is also standing up. As such, the mutual trust and goodwill is quickly running out.”
Choosing a full-fledged confrontation with the US due to the loss of a megacontract for submarines for Australia, France is making a risky bet and other nations are not rushing to its defense. After Australia renounced its deal for conventional submarines in favor of US nuclear-powered ones, France took the extraordinary step of pulling its ambassadors from Washington and Canberra for consultations. Bertrand Badie, an international relations professor at the Sciences Po institute in Paris, said France had put itself in a position where it can only appear to be backing down or losing face once its ambassador returns to the US,
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