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Wendy Sherman, No. 2 At The State Department, Visits China Amid Rising Tensions


The nation's No. 2 diplomat came on the line this morning as she circled the world.

WENDY SHERMAN: From Japan to Korea to Mongolia to China to Oman to Switzerland.

INSKEEP: Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman had meetings in all those places. We asked about the stop in China. President Trump started a trade war with China. President Biden has kept those tariffs in place for now as part of his approach. Sherman says when she met Chinese diplomats, she named every single American or Canadian currently detained in China, part of a tough discussion.

How different is it to deal with Chinese diplomats today than it was years ago?

SHERMAN: It's quite different, actually. Things have changed decidedly over the years. Early on, as a diplomat, the Chinese were actually very reserved and often had to go back to Beijing to get instructions to be able to take the next step in any discussion. But now China feels it is a very confident and strong nation and is really going its own way in a lot of regards. They feel that the United States is on the downward trajectory and they are on the upward trajectory, and as a result, they're rather fierce.

Many people talk about the Chinese as wolf warriors. I would say in my encounter with them in Tianjin, there was some of that. But quite frankly, we also had substantive and constructive conversations - very tough, very demanding and, clearly, both of us operating from a position of strength and confidence - but the United States really being quite clear about the need for China to respect the rules-based international order from which they have greatly benefited and been able to develop their country.

INSKEEP: Broadly speaking, the United States has said that the U.S. wants to cooperate with China but also compete. And I understand that. But the Chinese foreign ministry spokesman after your meeting said, quote, "It simply won't work when the U.S. seeks cooperation with China while harming China's interests." Is this approach going to work?

SHERMAN: I think we have to insist that this is a very complex relationship that involves competition, cooperation and times where it's adversarial and we're going to challenge what China does. China takes a very transactional approach - basically, you have to let us do whatever we want to do if you want us to cooperate. And that's just not - represent what American values are. We expect that all nations will respect the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

As I said to the Chinese, this is not about their internal matters; this is about a Universal Declaration of Human Rights that they signed up to and that they are responsible for. And they're deciding that, in fact, the agreement they made with the British about Hong Kong, to allow Hong Kong to have autonomy for 50 years and to have its own system, they have undermined that commitment. They are really committing atrocities against Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities. They are not respecting Tibet and its cultural and ethnic heritage. And they certainly are taking aggressive action against Taiwan, which they insist should be reunified with China, along Chinese characteristics. So we are at a very tough place with the Chinese.

On the other hand, we will not be able to deal with the climate crisis we are all facing without China taking action. So this is a very complex relationship with a lot of nuance, and it takes a very sophisticated approach to take action and to have some success.

INSKEEP: Of course, if you insist on competing and pushing back on China, you do run the risk of having no agreement for some long period of time with China. Do you believe the United States is in a strong enough position in the world that it would be acceptable to have no new agreements with China until they're ready to meet U.S. demands?

SHERMAN: Well, I think one of the things that President Biden and Secretary Blinken have been very clear about is that we want to strengthen our relationship with allies and partners so that we can all move in a concerted way.

INSKEEP: I think you're telling me the United States wants to marshal the power of many allies to confront China where necessary so that it is not necessary to give in to China - is that what you're saying?

SHERMAN: I think we want to do that. But it's not so much an anti-China coalition; it's really trying to help us all to move forward into the kind of future that we want. And we hope China comes along with that future as opposed to going its own way, setting its own rules and its own standards. We have a rules-based international order that was built after World War II. China was part of building that rules-based order and, in fact, has been able to develop into the strong nation that it is as a result of that rules-based order. We want to compete with China but do so on a fair playing field, and if there isn't a fair playing field, we're going to take action to insist that China agree to how we all should approach things.

INSKEEP: Can you give me a specific example of an occasion where the United States has cooperated more effectively with Europe, for example, to put pressure on China?

SHERMAN: I think certainly when it comes to what's happening in Tianjin, we have worked with the Europeans to put sanctions on China for their actions. And clearly, China took notice because they sanctioned and did visa bans on European parliamentarians, which only made those European parliamentarians and those European countries be more in concert with the United States' approach. So I think it makes a difference. When the world speaks, China takes notice. Xi Jinping doesn't want to be completely isolated from the world community because even though Xi Jinping wants to go his own way, he has to deal with the world, and that means this competition for the future.

INSKEEP: I want to note that before you met the Chinese diplomats, the United States and the European Union, together with NATO, accused China of being behind a hack of Microsoft. How, if at all, did they respond to that accusation when you saw them?

SHERMAN: Well, certainly, I reminded them of what had happened and that, in fact, they had to take responsibility for this. You know, they are certainly, in these meetings, in full denial of such accusations, but that doesn't mean it doesn't have an impact, and it doesn't mean that we don't have to proceed with confronting them with what's going on in our relationship. So this is tough going.

INSKEEP: Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman. Thanks so much.

SHERMAN: Sure. Thank you. Take care, Steve.

INSKEEP: She spoke this morning as diplomatic meetings took her around the world.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHELIAN'S "WITHERING FLOWER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.