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During the recently concluded Tianjin meetings, the US and China offered diverging narratives on ‘managing competition’

By Yu Xiaodong Updated Oct.1

US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman arrived in Tianjin on July 25 for a two-day visit, where she met with China’s Vice Foreign Minister Xie Feng and Foreign Minister Wang Yi.  

Sherman is the highest-ranking US official to visit China since John Kerry, who serves as the US special presidential envoy for climate change, visited Shanghai in April. The Tianjin meetings are the second high-level talks held between the two countries since US President Joe Biden took office, after China’s top diplomat State Chancellor Yang Jiechi and Wang Yi flew to Anchorage, Alaska in March for what turned into a contentious meeting with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan.  

War of Words 
Sherman’s meeting with Yang and Xie was no less heated as the two sides began exchanging blows even before Sherman arrived.  

In the run-up to her departure from the US, the White House said Sherman would tell the Chinese side that the US will deal with China from “a position of strength,” while “a level playing field” and “guardrails” are needed to ensure ties do not veer into conflict.  

On his part,Wang warned that China would not accept the US taking a “superior” position in the relationship. “China would never accept any country that claims to be superior to others. If the US has not learned to treat other countries equally, China and the international community have the responsibility to help the US make up for this lesson,” Wang said.  

Following the meeting between Sherman and Xie on July 25, China released a transcript of the meeting, according to which Xie made an elaborate statement that rejected major elements of the Biden administration’s approach toward China.  

Regarding the “competition-cooperation-confrontation” trichotomy advocated by the Biden administration to manage the US-China relationship, Xie said that the real focus of US policy toward China is confrontation.  

“The collaborative aspect is just expediency and the competitive aspect is a narrative trap,” Xie said. “When the Biden administration needs China, it demands cooperation, and when it comes to areas where the US is superior to China, it calls for decoupling and sanctions. And in areas where the US wants to contain China, it leaves no stone unturned,” Xie said.  

Regarding Washington’s rhetoric on “guardrails,” Xie said that if the US wants to set up guidelines to prevent conflicts, both countries should set them. “It should follow the principles of equality and reciprocity, with the interests of both sides taken into consideration and binding for both sides,” Xie said, “It cannot become the US unilaterally defining what China can or cannot do.”  

Xie again criticized the US notion of “engaging other countries from a position of strength,” which he said was just another version of “the big bullying the small” and “might is right.” “This is pure coercive diplomacy,” Xie added.  

Regarding the concept of “rule-based” diplomacy frequently raised by the Biden administration, Xie said that the US version of a “rulesbased international order” deviates from the UN-based framework of international law and order.  

“It’s an effort by the US and a few other Western countries to frame their own rules as international rules and impose them on other countries,” Xie added.  

According to the transcript, the two sides also discussed “issues of common concern” including climate change, the fight against illegal drugs, and Iran, the Korean Peninsula and Myanmar. But Xie hinted that China’s cooperation with the US on these issues would not be unconditional. 

“Any cooperation should be based on mutual trust and mutual benefits, and the US should not expect China to cooperate on these issues unconditionally while it seeks to contain China,” Xie said.  

Xie delivered a list of 16 actions to Sherman that the US should stop and 10 individual cases, including US sanctions and visa restrictions on Chinese officials and entities, and senior Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou’s extradition. Addressing these issues and cases will help gain a solid foothold for moving relations forward, Xie said.  

On ‘Redlines’ 
In a separate meeting with Sherman, Wang agreed the two sides should continue dialogues to find a way for the two countries to coexist despite their differences.  

To prevent relations from dipping further, Wang set out three “redlines” that the US must not cross: seek to subvert China’s political system, disrupt China’s development and interfere in China’s sovereignty such as matters in Hong Kong, the Tibet Autonomous Region, Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region and Taiwan.  

In a released statement, the White House said in a more conciliatory tone that Sherman reiterated to the Chinese side that the US “welcomes the stiff competition,” but intends to “continue to strengthen our own competitive hand” and “does not seek conflict” with China, adding that she raised a range of China’s actions that “run counter to our values and interests and those of our allies and partners.”  

Without a joint statement or any consensus, the Tianjin meetings are widely considered a continuation of the Anchorage dialogues in March, albeit less dramatic and combative.  

For some, Washington’s mention of “guardrails” and “parameters” is a positive sign that the US does not want its relationship with China to spin out of control. But as the Biden administration has doubled down rather than reverse the anti-China agenda of the Trump administration, many are suspicious of Washington’s intentions.  

Diao Daming, an associate professor from the School of International Relations at the Renmin University of China, told NewsChina that the US proposal for guardrails appears to be only intended to reduce the potential costs of its anti-China agenda.  

“It is intended to safeguard the unilateral interests of the US, rather than safeguard the overall bilateral relationship between the two countries,” Diao said.  

Peng Shengyu, a research fellow at the Center of American Studies at Zhejiang International Studies University, went further. In an article for Singapore-based newspaper Lianhe Zaobao, Feng warned that Washington’s rhetoric of managing competition is a “trap” aimed at tying China’s hands.  

“On one hand, the US wants to maximize its containment measures against China, but on the other hand, it is concerned that it might lead to conflicts, which is why the US seeks to manage competition,” said Peng, “There is nothing for China to gain.”  

Peng added that only when there is genuine risk of the US’s anti-China measures leading to conflict will it think twice about doubling down.  

Opportunity or Trap? 
Peng is not alone in his assessment. A July 26 editorial in Stateowned English-language newspaper China Daily read that the US talking about managing competition is “nothing but a deceit.” “Before Washington adopts a new direction for its diplomacy that encompasses common ground, there is no foundation on which to erect guardrails,” read the editorial.  

According to Nie Wenjuan, deputy director of Institute of International Relations, China Foreign Affairs University, the Tianjin meetings differ from past dialogues because the US proposed the talks, which shows more initiative.  

In a commentary published on chinausfocus.com on August 3, Nie said the reason is the Biden administration has completed its firstphase preparations for negotiations with China and is “turning the stage of strategic patience into a stage of interactive run-ins.”  

Although disputes between China and the US cannot be solved at the deputy minister or secretary level, Nie said the fact that the US proposed to “responsibly manage bilateral relations” showed that both sides still agree on the strategic goal of managing competition, despite their differences on specific matters.  

But Nie said the US has yet to clarify its goals for how to manage competition. In comparison, by presenting its “three bottom lines,” “China’s stance is resolute, explicit and defensive,” Nie said.  

According to Su Xiaohui, an associate research fellow at the China Institute of International Studies, a research institute, by presenting two lists and three bottom lines China has become more proactive in structuring relations, rather than passively reacting to the US’s agenda.  

“Now the key is whether the US will change its course to prevent US-China relations from falling off a cliff,” Su told NewsChina.