Analysis-U.S., China positions ossify at entrenched Tianjin talks

By Michael Martina and David Brunnstrom
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - With no indication of a work-in-progress summit of US-China leaders and no announcement of the results of high-level diplomatic talks on Monday, Beijing-Washington relations appear to have stalled as both sides on the other must make concessions to improve relationships.
US officials had emphasized that Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman's trip to the northern Chinese port city of Tianjin to meet with Secretary of State Wang Yi and other officials was an opportunity to ensure that heightened competition between the two geopolitical rivals does not come into conflict.
But the combative remarks that emerged from the meeting - albeit coupled with suggestions from officials that closed sessions were a little more cordial - reflected the tone that was struck in Alaska in March as the first high-level diplomatic talks under President Joe Biden were overshadowed by rare public carnage from both sides.
Although Tianjin did not display the same level of external hostility as Alaska did, the two sides did not seem to really negotiate and instead stuck to lists of established demands.
Sherman urged China to take actions Washington said violates the rules-based international order, including Beijing's crackdown on democracy in Hong Kong, which the US government views as ongoing genocide in Xinjiang, abuses in Tibet, and restrictions on the freedom of the press.
"I think it would be wrong to characterize the United States as somehow seeking or soliciting China for cooperation," a senior US government official told reporters after the talks, citing global concerns such as climate change, Iran , Afghanistan and North Korea.
"It will be up to the Chinese side to determine how willing they are to take the next step," a second US government official said of bridging disagreements.
But Wang insisted in a statement that the ball was in the US court.
"When it comes to compliance with international rules, the United States must rethink," he said, calling on Washington to lift all unilateral sanctions and tariffs against China.
China's State Department recently signaled that there might be conditions for the United States upon which any kind of cooperation depends, an attitude some analysts say is a recipe for diplomatic ossification and bleak prospects for better relations.
Bonnie Glaser, Asia expert at the United States' German Marshall Fund, said it was important for both sides to get involved in some way. At the same time, there did not seem to be any agreement in Tianjin on follow-up meetings or mechanisms for ongoing dialogue.
"That will probably unsettle the US allies and partners. They hope for more stability and predictability in the relationship between the US and China," said Glaser.
Both sides will likely be disappointed if they expect the other to give in first, she added.
Foreign policy circles expected that Biden could meet Chinese leader Xi Jinping for the first time since taking office on the sidelines of a G20 summit in Italy in October.
White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said there was no prospect of a meeting between Biden and Xi in Tianjin, but added that she expected there will be an opportunity to get involved at some point.
Meanwhile, there are indications that the Biden administration is taking both enforcement actions affecting Beijing - like cracking down on Iranian oil sales to China - and coordinating with allies related to fighting China, including another summit later this year, Biden is interested in joining hosts with the leaders of Japan, Australia and India.
The Biden White House has also given few signals that it intends to withdraw tariffs on Chinese goods set under the Trump administration.
At the same time, cooperation on the COVID-19 pandemic seems almost out of reach as the United States calls Beijing's rejection of a World Health Organization plan to further investigate the virus's origin "irresponsible" and "dangerous".
Despite the energetic appeals from US Climate Commissioner John Kerry, there is little evidence of China willingness to work with Washington on the climate issue, which Biden considers a priority.
"In Tianjin it became apparent that the two sides are still very far apart in terms of the value and role of diplomatic engagement," said Eric Sayers, visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.
Scott Kennedy, a China specialist at the Washington Center for Strategic and International Studies, said neither side currently sees much benefit in being more cooperative.
"And there is no low-hanging fruit of collaboration for either side, and any gesture toward collaboration comes with significant costs, both domestically and strategically," he said.
"I think we should have very low expectations that the two sides will find common ground and stabilize the relationship in the near future."
(Reporting by Michael Martina and David Brunnstrom; Editing by Mary Milliken and Dan Grebler)
In this article:
Joe Biden
Former US Vice President, 2020 Democratic presidential candidate
Wendy Sherman
American diplomat

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