Yellen sees progress in US-China ties at end of Beijing visit

US treasury secretary says 10 hours of bilateral meetings with top Chinese officials have helped stabilise relations between Washington and Beijing.

U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen speaks during a press conference at the U.S. embassy in Beijing, China,
US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen speaks during a press conference at the US embassy in Beijing, China, July 9, 2023 [Thomas Peter/ Reuters]

United States Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen has said her talks with top Chinese officials in recent days were “direct” and “productive” and helped put the US-China relationship on “surer footing”.

Yellen, who departs Beijing on Sunday, told a news conference that the US and China remained at odds on a number of issues but expressed confidence that her bilateral meetings, which totalled about 10 hours, had advanced Washington’s efforts to stabilise fraught relations between the world’s two biggest economies.

“The US and China have significant disagreements,” Yellen told reporters at the US Embassy in Beijing, citing her government’s concerns about what she called “unfair economic practices” and Beijing’s recent punitive actions against US firms.

“But President [Joe] Biden and I do not see the relationship between the US and China through the frame of great power conflict. We believe that the world is big enough for both of our countries to thrive,” she said.

Yellen’s four-day visit is Washington’s latest attempt to repair US-China ties, which have been battered over issues from Taiwan to technology and that have drawn allies into their rivalry, affecting companies and trade ties.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited Beijing last month in the first visit by the top US diplomat of the Biden presidency, while climate envoy John Kerry is expected to visit China this month.

The US diplomatic push comes ahead of a possible meeting between Biden and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, as soon as September’s Group of 20 summit in New Delhi or the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation gathering scheduled for November in San Francisco.

While Yellen’s trip did not produce specific breakthroughs, China’s official Xinhua news agency said late on Saturday that the secretary’s meeting with Vice Premier He Lifeng yielded an agreement to “strengthen communication and cooperation on addressing global challenges”.

Both sides also agreed to continue exchanges, the readout added.

Decoupling would be ‘disastrous’

Yellen said on Sunday the objective of her visit was to establish and deepen ties with China’s new economic team, reduce the risk of misunderstanding and pave the way for cooperation in areas such as climate change and debt distress.

“No one visit will solve our challenges overnight. But I expect that this trip will help build a resilient and productive channel of communication,” she said, adding that she expected increased and more regular contact at the staff level.

She said Chinese officials raised concerns about an expected executive order restricting outbound investment but she assured them any such measure would be narrow in scope and enacted in a transparent way, through a rule-making process that would allow public input.

Yellen said she told Chinese officials they could raise concerns about US actions, so Washington could explain and, “possibly in some situations, respond to unintended consequences of our actions if they’re not carefully targeted”.

She reiterated that Washington was not seeking to decouple from China’s economy as doing so would be “disastrous for both countries and destabilising for the world”.

But she said the US wanted to see an “open, free and fair economy”, not one that forces countries to take sides.

Yellen said she stressed that Washington’s trade curbs, including on China’s access to advanced technology such as semiconductor chips deemed crucial to national security, “are not used by us to gain economic advantage”.

“These actions are motivated by straightforward national security considerations,” she said.

The Treasury secretary also said she had raised her “serious concerns” over what she called “unfair trade practices” by Beijing, citing barriers to foreign firms entering the Chinese market as well as issues around the protection of intellectual property.

“I also expressed my worries about a recent uptick in coercive actions against American firms,” she said, referring to a recent national security crackdown on US consulting firms in China.

“Healthy economic competition is only sustainable if it benefits both sides,” she said.

Yellen also discussed Russia’s war in Ukraine with her Chinese interlocutors and said it was “essential” that Chinese firms avoid providing Moscow with material support for the war or evading sanctions.

Deepened communication

Both sides have downplayed expectations for breakthroughs during Yellen’s talks while hailing the opportunity for face-to-face diplomacy. Al Jazeera’s Katrina Yu said whether the Treasury secretary’s visit could be considered successful depended on the metric it was being measured through.

“If you look at whether Janet Yellen was able to deepen communication, pave the way for more conversations going forward and meet the new economic team in China, then tick, tick, tick. Yes, she did all of those things,” Yu said from Beijing.

“However, as to whether she was able to complete this very tough task of convincing Beijing that national security measures imposed by the Biden administration on Chinese firms, measures that have strangled its access to semiconductors, that this is just for national security and not about containing China, it seems that she was less successful on that front. According to a Chinese readout, Beijing mentioned that national security should not be used essentially as an excuse or a political tool,” said Yu.

“Also, whether she was able to convince them that derisking is different from decoupling – she herself mentioned during the press conference that there was still some scepticism there. And finally, as to whether any major agreement was made in terms of this long list of disputes – certainly it doesn’t seem like there was any concrete agreement reached.”

Analysts in China meanwhile said Beijing’s attitude towards Yellen’s visit appears “more enthusiastic” than Blinken’s trip as he is considered more hawkish.

“Yellen is seen as a professional in the eyes of the Chinese and her attitude towards China-US economic and trade relations is relatively rational,” Wu Xinbo, director of the Center for American Studies at Fudan University, told the AFP news agency.

Looking ahead, “any concrete key breakthroughs and major deliverables presumably will be reserved for the two top leaders to announce,” said Yun Sun, director of the China program at the Washington-based Stimson Center.

“The two sides have not had this level of communications and consultations for a number of years,” she told AFP, adding that success will lie in the starting or restarting of this process.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies