Beijing has snubbed the US by refusing to grant Wendy Sherman, deputy secretary of state, a meeting with her counterpart during a proposed visit to China that would have been the first top-level engagement since acrimonious talks in Alaska.
The US halted plans for Sherman to travel to Tianjin after China refused to agree to a meeting with Le Yucheng, her counterpart, according to four people familiar with the decision. China offered a meeting with Xie Feng, the number five foreign ministry official who is responsible for US affairs.
The Biden administration had been negotiating what would have been the first high-level engagement since their first meeting in Alaska, which erupted into a public spat between Antony Blinken, US secretary of state, and Yang Jiechi, the top Chinese foreign policy official.
While the state department had not said Sherman would travel to China, she had planned to visit after a trip to Japan, South Korea and Mongolia.
The Chinese snub follows a similar stand-off between the two countries’ militaries. China earlier this year rebuffed several requests for Lloyd Austin, US defence secretary, to meet General Xu Qiliang, China’s most senior military official. But China refused to engage, after previously offering a meeting with the defence minister, who is less senior in its system.
Evan Medeiros, a China expert at Georgetown University, said China was “playing games” since the history of diplomatic meetings made clear Sherman should be meeting with Le, the number two foreign ministry official.
“China’s move is a dangerous one. It increases distrust, tension and the risk of miscalculation during an already fraught period,” Medeiros said.
China had originally suggested that Sherman could also hold a videocall with Wang Yi, the Chinese foreign minister, during her visit to Tianjin.
Last month Kurt Campbell, the top White House Asia official, said the US was frustrated that China refused to arrange meetings with officials who are close to Xi Jinping. He said even Yang and Wang were “nowhere near within a hundred miles” of the Chinese president’s inner circle of trusted advisers.
The stand-off comes four months after the Alaska meeting, which also ended on an acrimonious note. At the end of the two-day meeting, Yang told Blinken in private that he would welcome a follow-on meeting in China, to which the secretary of state said “thank you”. When Yang asked if that meant he would visit, Blinken responded “thank you means thank you” in a clear indication that the US was not prepared to hold another meeting that angered China.
“Perhaps they are trying to punish the US for insufficient respect in Anchorage,” said Bonnie Glaser, a China expert at the German Marshall Fund. “Or maybe Beijing is simply testing the Biden administration, and will eventually propose a higher level ministry of foreign affairs official and the visit could be added to Sherman’s itinerary.”
Ryan Hass, a former state department China expert now at Brookings Institution, said it was “common” for the US and China to engage in haggling over protocol at the start of a new administration in Washington.
“Incoming US officials typically want to protect the protocol level at which their office historically has been received by Chinese authorities, and vice versa,” Hass said. “These types of protocol kerfuffles often — but not always — work themselves out by the time of arrival of the senior official.”
A senior state department official said the US would continue to “explore opportunities” to engage Chinese officials. “As in all travel abroad, we make announcements only once — and if — we determine that a visit has the potential to be substantive and constructive for our purposes.” US officials said the state department was holding “ongoing” discussions with Beijing about a possible visit.
The US viewed the Sherman visit as a possible stepping stone to a China visit by Blinken that would set the stage for President Joe Biden to hold his first meeting with Xi at the G20 summit in Italy in October.
The Chinese embassy did not respond to a request for comment.
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