Yellen heads to China as US seeks to stabilize ties

Beiyi Seow - Agence France-Presse
Yellen heads to China as US seeks to stabilize ties
(FILES) In this file photo taken on June 22, 2023 Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen delivers remarks during a press conference at the US embassy, ahead of the Global Climate Finance conference, in Paris on June 22, 2023. US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen is due to arrive in Beijing on July 6, 2023, kicking off a high-level visit aimed at improving communication and stabilizing the tense relationship between the world's top two economies.
AFP / Stefano Rellandini

WASHINGTON, United States — US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen is due to arrive in Beijing on Thursday, kicking off a high-level visit aimed at improving communication and stabilizing the tense relationship between the world's top two economies.

Yellen's trip through Sunday will be her first to China as treasury secretary, and comes just weeks after Secretary of State Antony Blinken paid a rare visit to the country.

While Yellen had previously expressed her intent to visit China, these plans were cast in doubt as tensions surged earlier this year after the United States said it detected a Chinese spy balloon and shot it down.

The latest travel plans will see her seek to expand lines of correspondence, avoid miscommunications and widen collaboration on issues like the global economy, climate change and debt distress, according to a Treasury official.

On such a trip -- which comes amid concerns over China's economic recovery and US interest rate hikes -- officials on both sides generally have a chance to speak about their countries' growth outlooks as well.

"The fact that she's spending four days in Beijing, given all of her other domestic and international pressures, underscores the importance she is attaching to this visit," Asia Society Policy Institute vice president Wendy Cutler told AFP.

While each side will have a long list of complaints to raise with the other, with little flexibility to adjust their policies, the visit could allow Yellen to lay groundwork for future collaboration, Cutler added.

Reframing relations 

Yellen's trip continues an effort by the United States to reframe US-China ties diplomatically and in other areas, said Lindsay Gorman, senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

"It's about managing the new realm of strategic competition," she said, noting that Yellen has pointed to competition only so far as it implicates security and values like human rights.

The message-bearing could be the "most important and most tangible piece of a potential Yellen trip," Gorman told AFP.

With technology export controls and competitive measures "dominating the economic policy agenda now, I think there's a real role to explain and communicate what the purpose of these measures really is," she said.

Underscoring the challenges Yellen will face, the Wall Street Journal reported that the US administration is mulling restricting Chinese companies' access to US cloud-computing services provided by companies like Amazon and Microsoft. 

Ahead of the trip, Beijing appears to have adopted reciprocal actions such as new export controls on metals key to semiconductor manufacturing, underscoring that a shift in relations could take time.

But Yellen may be best positioned to build bridges with China on shared global challenges, Gorman said.

For now, the Treasury chief's visit likely marks her first meetings with new Chinese counterparts.

Details of her talks have not been announced, but analysts are watching closely for potential engagement with Chinese Vice Premier He Lifeng, who succeeded top economic official Liu He.

Tensions remain

But tensions remain over a host of economic issues, including possible plans by President Joe Biden's administration to restrict certain outbound investments involving sensitive technology -- which could hit investment in China.

Washington also has concerns over Beijing's "coercive actions and non-market economic practices," and plans to push for corrective actions, according to the Treasury official.

Although top American officials have stressed that Washington is not looking to decouple from China, instead pushing to "de-risk," it remains unclear if Beijing will be convinced of a shift in US policy.

And other issues could include recent amendments to China's anti-espionage law, which broadened the definition of spying and bans the transfer of information relating to national security.

There are, however, areas like debt distress where cooperation appears more likely.

The United States has welcomed progress in the case of Zambia -- whose creditors including China agreed to restructure its public debt -- along with that in Sri Lanka.

Washington has been pushing bilateral creditors for quicker debt treatments, while previously accusing China of delays.

Looking ahead, Biden has voiced confidence that he would meet China's top leader Xi Jinping again soon.

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