September 22, 2021

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Briefing with Senior Administration Officials Previewing Deputy Secretary Sherman’s Upcoming Travel to the People’s Republic of China

27 min read

Office of the Spokesperson

Via Teleconference

MODERATOR:  Hello, everyone.  We are here today to discuss the Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman’s travel to the People’s Republic of China or the PRC on July 25th through 26th, following her stops in Tokyo, Seoul, and Ulaanbaatar.  Today’s briefers are and .  Today we will provide a brief preview of the deputy secretary’s planned discussions, which are part of ongoing U.S. efforts to hold candid exchanges with PRC officials to advance U.S. interests and values.

Today’s call is on background and for your reporting purposes our briefers should be referred to as senior administration officials.  All contents of the call are embargoed until the conclusion of this call.  With that, I’ll hand it over to .

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE:  Well, thanks very much, and thank you all for joining us.  The deputy secretary is going to be traveling to Tianjin tomorrow for discussions with the Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Vice Foreign Minister Xie Feng.  The deputy secretary’s travel to China follows a week of important engagements with allies and partners in Japan, we were in Seoul a little bit earlier, and right now we’re in Mongolia.  The deputy secretary used her meetings there to underscore the United States commitment to standing shoulder to shoulder with our allies and partners to address pressing global challenges, advance a free and open Indo-Pacific, and uphold and strengthen the rules-based international order.

We’ve said we are prepared to engage Chinese officials when we believe those engagements will be substantive and constructive.  Those are the terms on which we agreed to this visit.  So Deputy Secretary Sherman’s meetings are a continuation of the discussions we had in Anchorage in March around setting the terms for the relationship and achieving a steady state of affairs between our countries.  We believe it’s important to maintain open lines of communication between high-level officials.  Frank and open discussion, even – perhaps especially – where we disagree, is critical to reducing the potential for misunderstandings between our countries, maintaining global peace and security, and making progress on important issues.

As Secretary Blinken has said, the U.S. relationship with China will be collaborative where it can be, competitive where it should be, and adversarial where it must be.  And we expect all dimensions of the relationship will be on the table for discussion during Wendy’s meetings.  You know as well as I do she’s a seasoned diplomat.  We’re going into these meetings with our eyes wide open.  The deputy secretary is going to represent the U.S. interests and values and those of our allies and partners.  We’re going to do it honestly and directly.  In Tianjin, she’s going to make clear while we welcome stiff and sustained competition with the PRC, everyone needs to play by the same rules and on the level – on a level playing field.

She’s going to underscore that we do not want that stiff and sustained competition to veer into conflict.  This is why the U.S. wants to ensure that there are guard rails and parameters in place to responsibly manage the relationship.  While I’m not going to preview Wendy’s full agenda, I think you can anticipate that she will take the opportunity to explain our concerns about many of Beijing’s actions, including those on which we’ve taken recent steps, both on our own and in – excuse me – coordination with our allies and partners. 

And at the same time, there are important global challenges where the U.S. and China both have an interest and where we think it’s important to exchange views and explore potential areas for cooperation.  So we anticipate that this will also be a focus of these meetings. 

Before I turn it over to , I just want to say that I’m sure you’re all aware of the floods that have been going on this week in Hunan Province.  We’re very much aware of that as we head into Tianjin.  I would anticipate that the deputy secretary is going to express condolences to the Chinese for the loss of life and also concern for those who are missing.

So with that, I’m going to turn it over to my colleague .

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO:  Well, thanks, .  And thanks again, everybody, for joining us on a Saturday morning.  Your time, appreciate it very much.

Let me just underscore a few points on why and how we are engaging Chinese officials in Tianjin.  As we said in advance of our conversations in Anchorage and as we’ve discussed consistently, we think it’s important for us to say directly to Chinese officials in private what we say in public.  It’s in our interests to be very clear to Beijing about where we stand and explain our concerns in detail.

The main purpose of this meeting is to have frank and honest exchanges about the relationship.  The goal isn’t to negotiate over specifics, but rather keep the channels of communication open at a senior level, and our philosophy is that we should not avoid hard topics just to be polite because that will only allow problems to fester.  As we’ve made clear in our actions and words, we believe it’s important to responsibly manage the relationship, as said, even and especially when the relationship is challenging.

So let me also put this meeting into the context of the administration’s broader China policy effort.  Since President Biden took office, we’ve put a lot of focus on strengthening our own competitive hand vis-a-vis China through many actions that we’ve taken domestically, investing in ourselves at home.  We’ve also rallied our allies and partners, including to advance an affirmative vision of the rules-based international order.  And we’ve confronted China when they’ve acted against our interests and values while working to cooperate with China on areas like climate change and nonproliferation. 

We know we’re stronger when we work with our allies.  We know this makes us more effective when dealing with Beijing.  We aren’t seeking an anti-China coalition in our work with allies and partners, but rather trying to work together in a multilateral fashion to uphold the international rules-based order.  So when the deputy secretary sits down with her interlocutors, I anticipate very clearly that she will be not only representing the United States, but she will be standing up and advocating her positions that are shared around the world. 

And across the three pillars of our approach to China policy – investing in ourselves at home, working with our allies and partners and through international institutions, and confronting China where we need to while cooperating where we can – we’re actively executing on our strategy to present that affirmative vision, demonstrate that democracies can and do best deliver results for our people and people around the world – a premise that President Biden is deeply invested in – and that we’re competing effectively with China.  With all of those actions underway, we’re entering this engagement from a position of strength and of solidarity.

But this bilateral engagement is just one piece of the puzzle when it comes to our China policy.  We are doing many things at once.  We have a multifaceted approach to a multifaceted relationship.  We’re engaging at a senior level precisely because we are in a competitive relationship.  We want to maintain open dialogue so that we are able to – so that we are being responsible and not letting the competition veer into an unintended conflict.

Even as we meet with our Chinese counterparts, we will also continue to hold China accountable.  These things are not mutually exclusive, and it should be clear that we are not afraid to impose costs for China’s behavior that undermines international norms.  We will do this simultaneously with our engagement.  For example, as you’ve all seen in just the last few weeks, we’ve taken actions on Beijing’s efforts to erode democracy in Hong Kong, human rights abuses in Xinjiang, its use of forced labor, and its malicious cyber activities.

Historically, people, I think, have had a binary assumption that either we’re in a period of engagement with China or we’re in a period of confrontation – essentially, that the relationship goes up and down.  But that’s just not the case anymore.  This is a continuation of the steady state of affairs and it’s in that context that we see this meeting occurring.  So with that, I think we’re happy to take some questions.

MODERATOR:  Let’s go to the line of David Brunnstrom.

OPERATOR:  Mr. Brunnstrom, your line is open.

QUESTION:  Thank you very much.  I wondered if you could give any comment on the sanctions China announced ahead of these talks and whether or not that’s helpful.  And can you also tell us whether the United States side will be warning China of the possibility of more sanctions, for instance, over Iran oil shipments or in response to the Microsoft hack, and whether that’s going to be any sort of leverage in the talks?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO:  Thanks, David.  Look, I would say a few things.  We’ve obviously seen China’s counter sanctions this week, which we think are just another instance of China targeting private citizens and others for actions that the U.S. Government is taking to uphold our interests and values.  Look, we remain fully committed to implementing all relevant U.S. sanctions authorities, and as we’ve said, to take actions that are consistent with our interests and values.  We think this kind of retaliation is really just an example of how Beijing punishes those who speak out and further illustrates China’s deteriorating climate and rising political risks on many different fronts.

On the second part of your question, look, I think that trying to think about some of these things as leverage is certainly not how we’re thinking about this.  Again, we are acting in ways that are intended to protect our interests and values and those of our allies and partners.  We certainly will raise concerns where we have them about where we think Beijing may be acting inconsistently with UN Security Council resolutions or with other elements of international law.  I’m not going to get ahead of the secretary – of the deputy secretary’s points and agenda in terms of what she may raise, but I think that you certainly can anticipate that she will be raising concerns about where we believe Beijing is violating (inaudible).

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE:  Yeah, so – right, I don’t think that the deputy secretary is going in thinking that those measures or those actions that the Chinese took are going to be leverage in these talks.  We are definitely going to be engaging with them, as we said, on substantive and constructive issues.  Thank you.

MODERATOR:  Let’s go to Demetri Sevastopulo.

OPERATOR:  Your line is open.  Go ahead.

QUESTION:  Yeah, good morning.  Can you hear me?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO:  Yeah, we hear you.

QUESTION:  Great, morning.  So my question is:  In the last six months, you’ve taken a range of actions towards China.  You’ve also done an awful lot with allies, particularly in Asia, also in Europe.  Can you point to a few examples of where you think U.S. policy towards China has actually caused China to do things differently over the last six months?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO:  So I’m happy to point to a couple of things, Demetri, and thanks for the question.  I mean, number one is, as you rightly note, a huge part of our emphasis on our approach to China is working with allies and partners.  And I think there’s a few things I would note as context before getting to the second part of your question.

I think a lot of our effort is really aimed at shaping the international environment around China, on building resilience among allies and partners to Beijing’s coercive and – and actions that are at odds with our collective interests and values and ensuring, as we said, that we can present an affirmative vision.

One of the things, though, I think that we’ve really seen is that these multilateral actions have really gotten Beijing’s attention, and in some cases I think has actually caused Beijing in many ways to take steps that actually are potentially counter to its own interests, where we saw Beijing impose its own counter sanctions on European officials, European parliamentarians after the multilateral actions imposed some Xinjiang sanctions back in March.  That certainly has given some pause to certain quarters in Europe about things like the comprehensive agreement on investment. 

I think there’s other areas where we’ve also seen Beijing take some pretty assertive steps when we have acted in concert with allies and partners, and I think it’s a demonstration of the fact that those multilateral actions really get Beijing’s attention.  And so I think it is really that broad upholding of international norms and rules and principles as well as the shaping of the international environment around China that is really, again, having the potential I think in the long term to influence Beijing’s actions.  So I think that’s basically reflective of the approach that we’re taking and some of the ways I see that playing out.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE:  Yeah, and I think it’s really important to note here that it’s not just one action that we would be taking.  We’re talking about the accumulation of actions here showing China that this is – we’re redefining this relationship (inaudible) not going to be afraid to take steps when we see that our interests have to be defended.  And so I think that in the long run, you’re going to see a little bit more rather than pointing at a specific action in response to one of our actions.

It’s really – what we’re showing is that we are going to continue doing this, that this – the relationship is stabilized in this manner, that we’re going to take consistent action when we have to.  And that’s going to result in modified behavior down the – in the future.

MODERATOR:  Let’s go to Francesco Fontemaggi.

OPERATOR:  Thank you, and before we open Mr. Fontemaggi’s line, if I may remind you, to ask a question, press 1 then 0 on your touchtone phone. 

Mr. Fontemaggi, your line is open.  Go ahead.

QUESTION:  Hi, good morning.  Thank you.  As you said at the top to – you’ve said several times that you were prepared to engage when you believe these meetings would be substantive and constructive.  As David mentioned, there were these counter sanctions just in the past few days and a decision from China not to cooperate with the WHO inquiry on the COVID origins and several other actions by China.  What makes – what exactly makes you think that this is the right time to have constructive and substantive meetings?

And also, if I may, is this meeting from deputy secretary – is that to prepare any future meeting at the top level between the presidents?  Thank you.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE:  Yeah, I think this is not just about timing, ups and downs in the relationship like we defined it maybe in the past.  I think when we’re talking about timing here, we’re going to take advantage of opportunities if there are areas that are constructive.  I just mentioned a little bit earlier these very, very dangerous floods that are going on in Hunan.  I think that if you read what the Chinese are saying about these floods, it’s very apparent to them – they know that there are climate issues out there, there are these causes out there that they have to fix themselves if they’re going to – if they’re going to resolve some of these problems that affect all of their citizens, they’re going to have to join global movements.  And I think that there are opportunities for us to take advantage of what’s happening there where the Chinese people agree with the international community.  So I mean, that’s an example of how we can be constructive.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO:  Thanks.  Yeah, I’ll just briefly – I think – I totally agree with .  I think I would just note, again, if we’re coming from the perspective that we are in stiff and sustained competition with China, that we need to establish ways to responsibly manage that competition and really manage the relationship for the long term.  And that requires an understanding that we can’t avoid talking when times are difficult, that we have to be able to engage at senior levels in order to have responsible management of the relationship.  And so I think that we’re not really seeing this from a framework of are we up, are we down, as I said.  I think that’s, as noted, a sort of arcane way of understanding the relationship between the U.S. and China.  We just – we really believe that we’ve got to be able to have frank and open and honest conversations, even and particularly when we’re in difficult times.

MODERATOR:  We’ll go to Colum Murphy.

OPERATOR:  Your line is open.  Go ahead.

Mr. Murphy, I’ve actually released you from the queue.  If you would press 1 then 0 again at this point, we’ll open your line. 

Mr. Murphy, your line is open.  Go ahead, please.

QUESTION:  Great, thank you.  I just wanted to see if you could give some more guidance on the logistics of the events tomorrow and Monday.  Some of us are looking to go to Tianjin and we just want to see what is the timing of the different meetings, which – what’s the order.  Where will the delegation stay, for example?  Right now we have very little information.  I’m just wondering if you could elaborate a little bit more on the on-the-ground sort of proceedings over the next two days.  Thank you.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE:  Yeah, some of those logistics formatting questions or format questions are still being decided.  I think you can understand this is not a typical meeting.  We’re in Tianjin, which is not in the capital, and so the Chinese themselves are doing some unprecedented things.  And we are getting information late, in some cases piecemeal, and we’re going to have to make adjustments.  So we’ll be in touch with all journalists who are thinking about heading out there to provide more information on how this is going to work. 

But we’re in a little bit of uncharted territory because of COVID, and I think the Chinese side is struggling with the same kinds of things.  And so what we do know is that the meetings are going to take place on Monday, and it’ll likely be Xie Feng first and then Foreign Minister Wang Yi second.  But after that, we’re still gathering information on how this is going to work, especially the press arrangements, because again, this is a very – this is a very new thing.  Over.

MODERATOR:  That concludes today’s briefing.  The embargo is now lifted.  Have a wonderful Saturday and thank you for joining.

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