Top US official heads to China to seek ‘guardrails’ in tense ties

Then-US Under Secretary for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman arrives at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland on April 3, 2015. Sherman returned after participating in Iran nuclear program talks with US Secretary of State John Kerry in Switzerland.

WASHINGTON, US -- US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman will travel to China this weekend to address deteriorating ties, the two countries announced, in the highest-level visit under President Joe Biden.

The trip is going ahead despite near-daily new rifts between the two powers, including on human rights and cybersecurity, with both sides saying they at least want to try to bring more stability in a relationship often described as the most consequential to the world.

Sherman, who will meet Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Xie Feng, a top China-US relations envoy, hopes to show Beijing "what responsible and healthy competition looks like," State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters.

"We welcome that stiff competition, but we also want to make sure that the playing field is level and, importantly, that competition doesn't veer into conflict. We want to make sure that this is a relationship that has guardrails," Price said.

In Beijing, foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said they welcomed the chance for "consultation" over a range of issues but warned Sherman that attempts to discuss "China's internal affairs" from Xinjiang and Taiwan would fall flat.

"China will make clear to the US its principled stand pertaining to developments in Sino-US relations and its firm attitude on safeguarding its own sovereignty, security and development interests," Zhao told reporters.

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The July 25-26 trip will not have the trappings of a full-fledged official visit. Sherman will not go to Beijing, but instead spend two days starting Sunday in Tianjin, a northeastern port city.

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, as the world's two largest emitters pledged to work together on the planetary crisis, despite their differences.

Kerry did not hold talks in the capital either, but met with his climate counterpart in Shanghai, where there were few public sightings of the usually media-friendly former senator.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Jake Sullivan, Biden's national security advisor, met in March in Alaska with Wang and top official Yang Jiechi in a visibly tense meeting in which the Chinese side berated the United States in front of the cameras.

Suspense on trip 

Since last week, the United States publicly accused Beijing of carrying out the massive hack in March of Microsoft Exchange and issued a business advisory warning of risks in Hong Kong. The US Senate also voted to ban imports from Xinjiang due to allegations of forced labor.

China denounced what it called a "fabricated" campaign by the United States, which rallied allies, including NATO, for a rare joint condemnation on purported cyber attacks.

Like Blinken before the Alaska talks, Sherman is seeking to show a united front by traveling to Japan, South Korea and Mongolia before Tianjin.

A State Department announcement of her travel last week raised eyebrows by not including China, indicating the two sides were continuing to negotiate the visit.

Biden has largely kept the hawkish stance on China of his predecessor, Donald Trump, with US policymakers across party lines saying an increasingly assertive Beijing is the pre-eminent challenge for the United States.

But Biden has promised a more focused approach of working with allies on China and has toned down the more vitriolic statements from late in Trump's tenure.

The State Department also announced Sherman would continue on to Oman.

The Gulf sultanate has been the key go-between for the United States and Iran, diplomacy in which Sherman was closely involved under former president Barack Obama.

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