Relations between Beijing and Washington seem to be in a rut. Neither the outcome of high-level diplomatic talks Monday or any indications that a summit of U.S.-China leaders is in the works indicate that there are no plans to make progress. Both sides insist on making concessions to each other for better relations.
Officials from the United States stressed that Wendy Sherman, Deputy Secretary of the State, was in Tianjin, northern China to meet Wang Yi and other officials. This was to ensure that the stiffening competition between these geopolitical rivals doesn’t turn into conflict.
However, the confrontational statements made at the meeting – even though they were accompanied by suggestions that closed-door meetings were slightly more cordial – mirrored the tone set in Alaska in march when the first high-ranking diplomatic talks under President Joe Biden were overshadowed in rare public vitriol.
Although Tianjin didn’t display the same level of hostility as Alaska, both sides seemed to be unwilling to negotiate anything and instead stuck to established demands.
Sherman pressed China about actions it believes are against the rules-based international order. This included Beijing’s crackdown upon democracy in Hong Kong. The U.S. government considers this a continuing genocide in Xinjiang and Tibet, as well as abuses in Tibet, and the curtailing press freedoms.
Reporters were told by a senior U.S. official that “It’d be wrong” to describe the United States as seeking or soliciting China’s cooperation. He was referring to global concerns like climate change, Afghanistan, and North Korea.
A second official from the U.S. government spoke out about bridging differences, saying that “it is going to be up the Chinese side to decide how ready they are as well as to… take the next steps.”
Wang maintained that the ball was in America’s court.
He said that the United States must reconsider its approach to international rules and demanded that Washington lift all unilateral sanctions against China.
Recent statements by China’s Foreign Ministry suggest that there may be preconditions to any type of cooperation with the United States. This is something analysts believe could lead to diplomatic ossification, which can leave little hope for better ties.
Bonnie Glaser, an Asia specialist at the German Marshall Fund, stated that it was crucial for both sides to continue some form of engagement. However, it appeared that there was no agreement in Tianjin regarding follow-up meetings or mechanisms to continue dialogue.
“This will likely leave U.S. allies, and partners, uneasy.” They want stability and predictability in America’s relationship with China,” Glaser stated.
She added that both sides will be disappointed if the other side expects them to cave first.
Some people in foreign policy circles have hoped that Biden will meet Xi Jinping, the Chinese leader, for the first time since he became president in October while attending the G20 summit in Italy.
Jen Psaki, White House spokesperson, said that the possibility of a Biden Xi meeting was not discussed in Tianjin. However she stated that she believes there will be an opportunity to engage.
There are indications that the Biden administration will increase its enforcement of Beijing, such as cracking down Iranian oil sales to China, and coordinate with allies in order to counter China. Biden wants to host another summit later in the year with leaders from Australia, Japan and India.
The White House of Biden has not indicated that it will reverse the Trump administration’s tariffs on Chinese goods.
However, it seems that cooperation regarding the COVID-19 pandemic is almost impossible to achieve, with the United States calling Beijing’s rejection of a World Health Organization plan to further study the virus’ origin “irresponsible,” and “dangerous.”
Despite the persistent efforts of John Kerry, there has been no indication that China is willing to work with Washington on climate issues.
Eric Sayers, visiting fellow at American Enterprise Institute, stated that “what was displayed in Tianjin was that both sides are still very different on how they see the value and function of diplomatic engagement.”
Scott Kennedy, a China specialist at Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies said that neither side sees much upside in being more cooperative for the moment.
He stated that there is no low-hanging fruit in cooperation and that any gesture towards cooperation comes with significant domestic and strategic costs.
“I believe we should have very low expectations about both sides finding common ground, stabilizing the relationship, and that they will in the near future.”