How Diplomatic Snubs Highlight Frayed China-U.S. Ties

How Diplomatic Snubs Highlight Frayed China-U.S. Ties

Forget about a summit between Joe Biden and Xi Jinping: The U.S. and China had trouble even agreeing on the protocol for a meeting between senior diplomats. A spat over who on the Chinese side was an equivalent rank to U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman for her visit to Asia in July became the latest sign of how far relations have plummeted. The dispute betrays deeper concerns and mistrust as well as the murkiness of who’s really important in Beijing.

1. What happened with the visit?

Sherman’s Asia tour has included on-again-off-again plans for China before the State Department confirmed meetings in the port city of Tianjin on July 25 and 26. The U.S. diplomat will meet with officials including State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi. That announcement came after the Financial Times reported that her travel plans were halted because she had been offered a meeting with Vice Foreign Minister Xie Feng, whom the U.S. didn’t consider her counterpart. The wrangle came two months after China’s state-backed Global Times criticized U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin for snubbing an offer to speak with the defense minister. The newspaper cited a source that accused the U.S. of disregarding diplomatic protocol and committing an “unprofessional and unfriendly act” by instead seeking talks with the vice chairman of China’s Central Military Commission.

2. How are counterparts determined?

There isn’t a perfect way, given differences in the two systems of government. The U.S. secretary of state (currently Antony Blinken) is one of the highest-ranking officials in the American government and fourth in the line of succession to the president. Out of deference to that standing -- and the overall importance of Beijing’s relationship with Washington -- China has traditionally granted visiting secretaries of state audiences with the Communist Party’s top diplomatic official and even the president himself. Nations use changes to such precedent as one way to express their satisfaction or dissatisfaction with the state of ties. The latest spat suggests both sides are seeking to recalibrate.

3. Who is each side’s top diplomat?

Blinken, whose agency oversees American embassies around the world and is primarily responsible for foreign policy, is unquestionably the U.S.’s most senior diplomat. Things aren’t so clear in China, where positions in the Communist Party often hold more power than those in government. So while Wang Yi is the foreign minister, Yang Jiechi is the director of the party’s Central Commission for Foreign Affairs and also sits on the party’s 25-member Politburo, making him a higher-ranking official and thus the country’s “top diplomat.”

4. What are both sides saying about the spat?

China and the U.S. have used different language to describe Sherman’s meeting in China, suggesting contrasting views of their importance. The State Department emphasized Sherman will have “senior-level” communications but a statement from China’s Foreign Affairs Ministry emphasized that Sherman “will hold talks” with Xie and after that Foreign Minister Wang will “meet her.”

5. What’s the wider impact?

Some in the White House have expressed concern about a lack of access to key Chinese decision-makers. Kurt Campbell, the top official for Asia in the Biden administration, has said that even top diplomats are “nowhere near, within a hundred miles” of Xi’s inner circle. The dispute shows how much the relationship has changed in recent years, with China keen to assert its position and the U.S. wary of conversations that don’t produce results.

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