Yellen says visit helps put US-China ties on 'surer footing'

Beiyi Seow - Agence France-Presse
Yellen says visit helps put US-China ties on 'surer footing'
US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen speaks during a press conference at the Beijing American Center of the US Embassy in Beijing on July 9, 2023.
AFP / Pedro Pardo

BEIJING, China — US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said Sunday that her talks with top Chinese officials have helped put ties on "surer footing", as she wrapped up a trip aimed at stabilising fraught relations between the two biggest economies.

During her four-day trip -- which came on the heels of US Secretary of State Antony Blinken's visit -- Yellen stressed the need for healthy economic competition and improved communication, and urged cooperation on the grave threat posed by climate change. 

"And on both sides, the sentiment that was expressed is that the world is big enough for both of our countries to thrive, to cooperate on shared global challenges, to have a meaningful economic relationship and that we needed to stabilise our relationship to make sure that we were able to accomplish that," Yellen said in an interview with CBS News.

While it did not produce specific breakthroughs, Yellen's trip furthers a push by President Joe Biden's administration to steady ties with China.

Beijing's official Xinhua news agency said Saturday that Yellen's meeting with Vice Premier He Lifeng yielded an agreement to "strengthen communication and cooperation on addressing global challenges".

Both sides also agreed to continue exchanges, the readout added.

Yellen said Sunday in Beijing that while there are "significant disagreements" between the countries, her talks had been "direct, substantive and productive".

"My bilateral meetings –- which totalled about 10 hours over two days –- served as a step forward in our effort to put the US-China relationship on surer footing," she said at a news conference at the US Embassy. 

"I feel confident that we will have more frequent and regular communication."

Sources of tension

Topping the laundry list of disagreements are Washington's trade curbs, which it says are crucial to safeguard national security.

On Sunday, Yellen said she had stressed that Washington's measures "are not used by us to gain economic advantage".

"These actions are motivated by straightforward national security considerations," she said.

And with the US mulling fresh curbs that could more strictly regulate American outbound investment to China, Yellen said any new moves would be implemented in a transparent way.

"The objective of my trip was to explain that national security is something that we can't compromise about and we will protect, and we will do so even if it harms our own narrow economic interests," Yellen told CBS, "but that when we take such actions, which do have an effect on the Chinese economy, that we will make sure that they are transparent, narrowly targeted and well-explained."

In Beijing she said she had raised serious concerns over what she called unfair economic practices by Beijing.

She cited barriers to foreign firms entering the Chinese market as well as issues around the protection of intellectual property.

In an interview aired Sunday on CNN, Biden said he has warned Chinese President Xi Jinping on the war in Ukraine. China has avoided criticising Russia for the invasion and depicted Moscow as a victim of Western seduction of Ukraine, although China has not taken the big step of supplying Russia with weapons.

"I said: Since Russia went into Ukraine, 600 American corporations have pulled out of Russia. And you have told me that your economy depends on investment from Europe and the United States. And be careful. Be careful," Biden said.

'Messaging' a key goal

Looking ahead, "any concrete key breakthroughs and major deliverables presumably will be reserved for the two top leaders to announce," said Yun Sun, director of the China program at the Washington-based Stimson Center.

"The two sides have not had this level of communications and consultations for a number of years," she told AFP.

Last month, Biden voiced confidence in meeting Chinese leader Xi soon.

Lindsay Gorman, senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, added: "I think one underappreciated audience is really US allies and partners, both in the region and globally."

"The main goal for this trip is really a messaging goal," she told AFP.

Among the aims are communicating how Washington considers its economic relationship with China, and dispelling the notion that it might embrace "pure zero-sum competition" -- while signaling it targets a fairer playing field.

Overall, China's response towards Yellen's visit appears "more enthusiastic" than to Blinken's trip, as he is considered more hawkish, said Wu Xinbo, director of the Center for American Studies at Fudan University.

"Yellen is seen as a professional in the eyes of the Chinese, and her attitude towards China-US economic and trade relations is relatively rational," said Wu.

Taylor Fravel of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology told AFP: "I don't think a single visit or interaction alone can achieve the goal of stabilising relations."

But Yellen's visit and remarks convey support for continued US-China economic cooperation, "despite the political frictions in the relationship and competitive actions around limiting China's access to certain technologies such as semiconductors."

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