Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman’s visit to the northern city of Tianjin is the first major meeting between the world’s leading economies since March discussions in Anchorage between the countries’ top diplomats collapsed into mudslinging.
The preamble to Sherman’s trip said she aimed to seek “guardrails” as ties deteriorate on a range of issues from cybersecurity and tech supremacy to human rights in Hong Kong and Xinjiang.
But the tone was set early in the day in statements published by Beijing.
“The hope may be that by demonising China, the US could somehow… blame China for its own structural problems,” Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Xie Feng told Sherman, in a readout issued by China’s foreign ministry early Monday.
“We urge the United States to change its highly misguided mindset and dangerous policy,” the statement quoted Xie as saying, adding that Washington views China as an “imagined enemy”.
He claimed that Chinese people view the United States’ “adversarial rhetoric as a thinly veiled attempt to contain and suppress China”, in comments reminiscent of the fiery exchange between Washington and Beijing’s top diplomats Antony Blinken and Yang Jiechi in Alaska in March.
Sherman tweeted Monday that she “spoke about the United States’ commitment to healthy competition, protecting human rights and democratic values” with Foreign Minister Wang Yi.
The US State Department said Sherman had raised various concerns about China’s violations of human rights in Hong Kong, Xinjiang and Tibet.
“The Deputy Secretary and State Councilor Wang had a frank and open discussion about a range of issues, demonstrating the importance of maintaining open lines of communication between our two countries,” the State Department said in a readout.
“They discussed ways to set terms for responsible management of the US-China relationship.”
Unlike Xie’s characterisation of the talks, US officials told reporters Monday that the “candid” discussion was “professional” and “direct”, despite no specific outcomes achieved.
“The Deputy Secretary was very forceful in making the Chinese understand the factual information we had to support what we were talking about,” US officials said, adding that Sherman had been “brutally honest” at times on issues such as China’s alleged cyberhacking.
“We’re looking for constructive ways to move forward on some of these issues… I don’t think we were expecting any major breakthroughs.”
The US side also raised media freedoms, as well as China’s military actions in the Taiwan Strait and its claims in the South China Sea, according to the readout.
Beijing issued an exhaustive list of demands to the US, which included lifting sanctions on Chinese officials and visa restrictions on Chinese students as well as stopping the “suppression” of Chinese firms, foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian later told reporters.
Calls for a renewed probe into the origins of the coronavirus must end, Zhao added, in a sweeping warning to “stop stepping on red lines”.
The visit is widely viewed as a preparatory step for an eventual meeting between Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping, as US-China ties continue their freefall with little sign of improvement.
A day before Sherman landed in China, Wang vowed to “teach the US a lesson” in treating other countries equally, foreshadowing a rocky start to talks.
“China will not accept any country’s self-proclaimed superiority,” he was quoted as saying in a foreign ministry statement Saturday.
John Kerry, the former secretary of state turned US climate envoy, is the only other senior official from the Biden administration to have visited China.
The two sides pledged to cooperate on climate change, despite their numerous differences.
Biden has largely kept the hawkish stance on China of his predecessor Donald Trump as Washington has sought to build a united front of democratic allies against Beijing.
Last week, China and the United States traded sanctions over Beijing’s repression of freedoms in Hong Kong, in the latest round of an ongoing tit-for-tat saga that has targeted individuals including former US commerce secretary Wilbur Ross.
Washington last week issued an advisory warning to businesses operating in Hong Kong over the city’s deteriorating autonomy.
The United States also rallied allies including NATO for a rare joint condemnation last week of alleged large-scale cyberattacks from China.