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China is defying US pressure to change its behaviour

US-China relations updates

As Wendy Sherman, US deputy secretary of state, prepared to fly to China this weekend, Beijing imposed sanctions on seven Americans, in a tit-for-tat blow that illustrated the dismal state of US-China relations.

US officials said the move, a retaliation to Washington slapping sanctions on seven Chinese officials in Hong Kong, would not give Beijing any leverage when Sherman meets Wang Yi, China’s foreign minister, on Monday.

But the latest salvo underscored the deep and growing chasm between the US and China as the countries prepared for their second top-level meeting since Joe Biden took office.

In his first six months in office, Biden has struck a strident tone towards China, punishing Beijing over its crackdown on freedoms in Hong Kong, its persecution of Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang and its military activity near Taiwan. The president hopes this strategy, bolstered by co-ordination with allies, will help the US win what he views as an existential fight between democracies and autocracies.

Oriana Skylar Mastro, a China expert at Stanford University, said Biden had successfully shown China that US discontent was not limited to the previous administration in Washington. But she added that there was no sign he had convinced Chinese president Xi Jinping to change course.

“Unfortunately they have decided to double down on all their problematic behaviour,” she said. “I don’t think they have taken a look in the mirror in the way that we wanted.”

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Yang Jiechi, China’s top foreign policy official, ended the first, acrimonious meeting with Biden administration officials in March by declaring that the US no longer spoke to China “from a position of strength”.

Beijing has continued to push back against pressure from Washington. It approved a counter-sanctions law last month that allows it to impose penalties on anyone who helps other nations target China with sanctions.

While Beijing has shown no sign of cowering, the Biden administration has argued that its multilateral approach has made life harder for China. This has included a co-ordinated action with the EU, UK and Canada to impose sanctions over Xinjiang and the deepening of the “Quad” initiative with Japan, Australia and India.

“These multilateral actions have really gotten Beijing’s attention and in some cases . . . has actually caused Beijing in many ways to take steps that actually are potentially counter to its own interests,” said a senior US official, who pointed out that China’s retributive actions targeting EU citizens had jeopardised a cornerstone investment treaty.

Bonny Lin, a China expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said Biden had convinced allies to voice concerns about Chinese behaviour towards Hong Kong, Xinjiang and Tibet. “The question is to what extent are the current measures going to cause China to change, but it makes sense from the US perspective that we oppose the various problematic actions that China is taking in all three regions,” Lin said.

Xi Jinping
China’s president Xi Jinping. The US has pursued high-level meetings with Chinese officials even as it has ramped up pressure on Xi’s government © Reuters

Eric Sayers, an Asia security expert at the American Enterprise Institute, said Biden had put “respectable wins on the board” by activating the Quad, deepening relations with Taiwan and taking a multilateral approach to China’s human rights abuses and cyber warfare. But he said it would be a “difficult task” to convert areas of concern among Asian and European partners into joint action, including in terms of export controls.

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Sayers said the Biden administration also had work to do on other issues, including ensuring that the US military budget and strategy was tailored to respond to the “conventional military imbalance” with China, and addressing technology-related challenges such as Beijing’s push to develop a digital renminbi.

Even as China strikes an increasingly defiant stance, some experts believe it is less confident than the image it is projecting and that Xi wants a summit with Biden at the G20 in Italy — one of the issues that Sherman is expected to discuss with Wang in Tianjin. Such a summit could be used to seek to blunt criticism of China’s human rights practices and “wolf-warrior” diplomacy.

“Maintaining the image of a globally strong and respected China also serves Xi’s domestic agenda to uphold his personal authority,” said Zsuzsa Anna Ferenczy, a China expert at the Taiwan Next Generation Foundation.

Sana Hashmi, an expert at the Taiwan-Asia Exchange Foundation, said China was also worried about the Quad, particularly as Biden prepared to hold the first in-person summit with alliance leaders. “No matter how confident China portrays itself, it is concerned about the institutionalisation of the Quad,” she said.

Among the multitude of thorny issues in the US-China relationship, among the most serious is Taiwan, particularly as China escalates military flights into the island’s air defence identification zone. Some US military officers and civilian officials have suggested that China is inching closer to trying to seize control of Taiwan, though other Biden administration officials have tried to tamp down the rhetoric to avoid sparking a conflict.

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Wang Chong, a foreign policy expert at Zhejiang International Studies University, said China wanted to ease military tensions, particularly over Taiwan. He said Wang and the Chinese negotiating team would use the meeting with Sherman to improve communications in an effort to ensure there are no “misfires”.

US officials declined to provide specific details about the meeting. But one official said the veteran diplomat would “underscore that we do not want that stiff and sustained competition to veer into conflict”.

Additional reporting by Sherry Fei Ju in Beijing

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