Beijing plays hardball at talks despite U.S. concessions

China this week demanded that the Biden administration reverse its hard-line policies toward Beijing despite the recent American concessions of dropping federal prosecutions of several Chinese researchers accused of hiding their links to the country’s military.

During meetings in Tianjin, China, on Monday, Deputy Secretary of State Wendy R. Sherman was upbraided by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Vice Foreign Minister Xie Feng, a senior official in charge of U.S.-Chinese relations who presented two lists of demands for the United States to change its policies if it wanted better bilateral relations. The demands included lifting restrictions on visas for party officials and halting the prosecution of a top executive of Huawei Technologies — a leading Chinese telecommunications company whom the U.S. government has linked to electronic espionage.

Just days before the talks, the Justice Department revealed it was dropping prosecutions of five Chinese researchers arrested in the United States for not disclosing on visa forms prior links to the People’s Liberation Army. The prosecutions were part of an aggressive campaign by the department begun under the Trump administration to thwart what it claimed was widespread technology theft by visiting Chinese researchers at American academic institutions.

Coinciding with the talks Monday, Chinese military forces conducted what state media called intense military exercises near the Taiwan Strait. The exercises included sea, land and air forces in a bid to intimidate Taipei authorities.

Chinese military saber-rattling continued this week. Beijing launched war games in the South China Sea, coinciding with the visit to the waterway by a naval strike group led by the British aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth.

Ms. Sherman is the highest-ranking Biden administration diplomat to travel to China for direct talks. Her visit is part of the administration’s three-pronged policy described as pursuing simultaneous competition, cooperation and confrontation with China. A March meeting in Alaska between U.S. and Chinese officials, including Mr. Wang and Secretary of State Antony Blinken, included an acrimonious public denunciation of the United States by the Chinese.

Mr. Wang, the foreign minister, suggested before meeting with Ms. Sherman that the United States is arrogant and needs to be taught a lesson.

“If the United States still hasn’t learned how to get along with other countries in an equal manner, then we have a responsibility to work with the international community to give it a good catch-up lesson,” Mr. Wang said on Saturday.

New priorities

The demands Monday reflect new priorities of the ruling Chinese Communist Party, which in recent months appears to have abandoned cordiality with the United States in favor of hard-line, anti-U.S. policies. Mr. Wang reportedly told Ms. Sherman that there are three red lines the United States must not cross: issuing a challenge, slander or subversion of the Chinese communist system, blocking China‘s development, and infringing on Chinese sovereignty.

“The [Chinese Communist Party] has little incentive to shift away from its combative posture against America,” said the SinoInsider newsletter. “The U.S. has always been the party’s top ideological foe since the founding of the PRC, and the [Communist Party’s] worsening political crisis at home and abroad gives it even less incentive to play nice at this juncture.”

No amount of U.S. concessions will satisfy China‘s ambition to become a global superpower. “The Biden-Harris administration will be naive if they believe the contrary,” the newsletter said.

Ms. Sherman said the talks were “conversations not expecting any specific outcomes.” She called them a step in trying to work through critical issues.

“We will see whether, in fact, there’s follow-up and we are able to move another step,” she told The Associated Press. “There’s no way to know in the early stages of building this relationship whether we will get to all the places that we hoped for.”

Ms. Sherman said the focus of her discussion included China‘s “crimes against humanity” involving the Uyghurs, the crackdown on democracy in Hong Kong and China‘s use of economic leverage to pressure others. She also raised the issue of China‘s “aggressive actions” near Taiwan and in the South and East China seas.

The deputy secretary said she called for China to release some Americans and Canadians held as part of China‘s hostage diplomacy.

China has held two Canadian citizens and demanded the release of Meng Wanzhou, the top Huawei executive who is fighting extradition from Canada to the U.S. to face charges that her company violated international sanctions on trading with Iran.

U.S. officials still see some areas of cooperation between the rival powers, including climate issues, counternarcotics operations and regional hot spots such as North Korea, Iran and Afghanistan.

Ms. Sherman was a senior official in the Obama administration and took part in negotiating the 2015 Iran nuclear deal that President Trump later repudiated.

A summary of Mr. Xie‘s remarks to Ms. Sherman sent to reporters in Beijing said the Biden policy of mixing cooperation and adversarial ties was a “thinly veiled attempt to contain and suppress China.”

“It seems that a whole-of-government and whole-of-society campaign is being waged to bring China down,” Mr. Xie told the deputy secretary.

The State Department briefly described Ms. Sherman‘s meeting with Mr. Wang as “a frank and open discussion” — normally diplomatic code for harsh exchanges.

“The deputy secretary underscored that the United States welcomes the stiff competition between our countries — and that we intend to continue to strengthen our own competitive hand — but that we do not seek conflict with the PRC,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said in a statement.

Chinese demands

On the COVID-19 pandemic, Ms. Sherman voiced concerns about China‘s refusal to cooperate with the World Health Organization’s ongoing investigation into the origins of the coronavirus outbreak. But it was the Chinese who gained the upper hand publicly.

During a meeting with Ms. Sherman, Mr. Xie, the vice foreign minister, blamed the impasse in U.S.-Chinese relations on American treatment of China as an “imaginary enemy,” state media said.

“Washington has been trying to contain China, thinking that will solve its problems, as if the only way for the U.S. to become great again is to contain China‘s development,” Mr. Xie said in remarks after the meeting.

The Chinese want the United States to end all visa restrictions and to lift sanctions on Chinese officials and companies, and to halt the extradition of Ms. Meng. Beijing also wants the United States to stop “suppressing” Chinese businesses and hindering Confucius Institutes, Chinese-run cultural centers at American universities that critics say have been used as government influence tools.

Mr. Xie also said Beijing wants the Biden administration to remove Chinese propaganda outlets from the list of foreign missions.

On the dropped prosecution of Chinese researchers, the Justice Department gave no reason in court filings last week why it would not pursue the visa fraud and other charges against researchers in California and India. Scientist Tang Juan, who worked at the University of California, Davis, was scheduled for trial Monday on charges of visa fraud, but the case was dropped over concerns about the validity of the charges and the failure of FBI agents to notify her of her rights against self-incrimination in interviews.

Ms. Tang and another Chinese researcher, Wang Xin, were arrested in July 2020 when their past military ties were uncovered and not reported on visa forms as required. Ms. Tang fled to the Chinese Consulate in San Francisco before her arrest.

The charges led to the closing of the Chinese Consulate in Houston, which U.S. officials said had been used for large-scale intelligence-gathering, including the targeting of medical research. A Justice Department spokesperson could not be reached for comment.

Justice spokesman Wyn Hornbuckle told The Wall Street Journal that unspecified “recent developments” led prosecutors to reevaluate the cases.

“We have determined that it is now in the interest of justice to dismiss them,” he said, but he added that the department continues to make a priority of countering Chinese government threats to American research.

Critics regard the dropping of the criminal cases as a sign that the administration may be backing off the aggressive policies of the Justice Department in pursuing Chinese technology theft.

Joe Bosco, a Pentagon China policymaker in the George W. Bush administration, said the Biden policy of seeking both cooperation and confrontation is not working.

Beijing‘s message, reiterated to Sherman, is clear: China‘s authoritarian policies will remain unchanged, while America must abandon its interests and ideals — that is, stop being America,” Mr. Bosco said in a recent article in The Hill. “The existential challenge could not be more stark, and it is now the Biden administration‘s duty to take it on, more consistently than it has so far.”

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