Washington welcomes competition with Beijing, US Deputy Secretary Wendy Sherman

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WASHINGTON/BEIJING – US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman will make clear to China in upcoming talks that Washington welcomes competition with Beijing, but there needs to be a level playing field and guardrails to prevent that spilling over into conflict, senior US officials said on Saturday (July 24).

The officials, briefing ahead of Ms Sherman’s talks in Tianjin with Chinese State Councillor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi, said the world’s two largest economies needed responsible ways to manage competition.

“She’s going to underscore that we do not want that fierce and sustained competition to veer into conflict,” one senior US administration official said ahead of what will be the first high-ranking, face-to-face contact between Washington and Beijing in months as the two sides gauge whether they can salve festering ties.

“This is why the US wants to ensure that there are guardrails and parameters in place to responsibly manage the relationship,” he said. “She’s going to make clear that while we welcome stiff and sustained competition with the PRC (People’s Republic of China), everyone needs to play by the same rules and on a level playing field.”

Ms Sherman is to land in Tianjin, a city south-east of Beijing, on Sunday and will stay until Monday.

On the heels of Ms Sherman’s trip, US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin will next week travel to Singapore, Vietnam and the Philippines, and Secretary of State Antony Blinken will visit India, signs of US efforts to intensify engagement as China challenges Washington’s influence in Asia.

The talks between Ms Sherman, the State Department’s second-ranked official, and Mr Wang will follow several combative months since the countries’ first senior diplomatic meeting under President Joe Biden’s administration in March.

Chinese officials publicly lambasted the United States at that meeting in Alaska, accusing it of hegemonic policies, while US officials accused China of grandstanding.

Ms Sherman will raise concerns about areas where the US believes China’s actions are violating international commitments or principles, including human rights in Hong Kong and Xinjiang, according to senior administration officials who briefed reporters on Saturday.

The US officials also emphasised that they will seek areas of common ground with their Chinese counterparts, including on areas such as climate change.

Ms Sherman will be arriving in China after deadly flooding in the central province of Henan and is expected to offer her condolences for the loss of life and damage, US officials said.

The official briefing on Saturday said the Tianjin meeting would be a continuation of the Alaskan talks and “all dimensions of the relationship will be on the table”.

“We’re going into these meetings with our eyes wide open,” he said, adding: “We believe it’s important to maintain open lines of communication between high-level officials, frank and open discussion, even, perhaps especially, where we disagree is critical to reducing the potential for misunderstandings between our countries.”

Since Alaska, the two countries have traded diplomatic barbs on an almost constant basis. The latest exchanges came on Friday when Beijing sanctioned former US Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and other individuals and groups in response to US sanctions over China’s crackdown on democracy in Hong Kong.

A second US administration official said those sanctions were an example of how China punishes those who speak out, and said Washington would not be afraid of taking further steps against Beijing when its interests were threatened.

Bilateral ties have soured to such a degree that the prospect of significant outcomes from Tianjin talks seems almost unthinkable in foreign policy circles.

However, if the discussions go reasonably well, they could help set the stage for an eventual meeting between Mr Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping later this year, possibly on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit in Italy in late October.

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