China Snubs Top U.S. Diplomat As Joe Biden Readies Sanctions Over Hong Kong

China has reportedly refused to grant Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman a meeting with her counterpart during a proposed visit. The meeting would have been the first senior-level talks between the two superpowers since a frosty meeting in Alaska in March.

The move comes as a report from Reuters indicated Washington is preparing to impose fresh sanctions on Beijing over its interference with democracy in Hong Kong.

Citing four anonymous sources, the Financial Times reported on Friday that Washington had stopped plans for the diplomat to travel to Tianjin after China refused to agree to a meeting with her counterpart, Le Yucheng. China, instead, offered a meeting with Xie Feng, the number five foreign ministry official who is responsible for U.S. affairs, in the latest diplomatic snub between the two superpowers.

The State Department on Thursday confirmed that Sherman planned to visit after a trip to Japan, South Korea and Mongolia, but made no mention of China. After the announcement, sources told Reuters that Washington was preparing to impose sanctions on Chinese officials over Hong Kong and issue a warning to international businesses operating there about worsening conditions.

The last time two senior members of each administration met was at a two-day meeting in Alaska in March, which ended in a row between Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Yang Jiechi, the top Chinese foreign policy official. Privately at end of the meeting, Yang told Blinken that he would welcome a follow-up in China, to which the secretary of state said "thank you." When Yang asked if that meant he would visit, Blinken said "thank you means thank you," indicating that the U.S. was not prepared to hold another meeting. Just before that Alaska summit, China expressed anger at U.S. sanctions.

There were similar diplomatic snubs earlier in 2021, where Beijing has declined several requests for Lloyd Austin, the secretary of defense, to meet General Xu Qiliang, China's most senior military official. China previously offered a meeting with the defense minister, who is less senior in its governmental system.

Evan Medeiros, a China expert at Georgetown University, told the Financial Times that Beijing was "playing games" with Washington since the history of diplomatic meetings made it clear Sherman should be meeting with counterpart Le, who is also the number two foreign ministry official.

"China's move is a dangerous one. It increases distrust, tension and the risk of miscalculation during an already fraught period," Medeiros said.

China had originally suggested that Sherman could also hold a videocall with Wang Yi, the Chinese foreign minister, during her visit to Tianjin,

On May 26, Kurt Campbell, White House coordinator for the Indo-Pacific, said Washington was frustrated that China refused to arrange meetings with officials who are close to Xi Jinping. He said that Yang and Wang were "nowhere near within a hundred miles" of the Chinese president's inner circle and that the period of engagement between the two countries had come to an end.

Newsweek has contacted the State Department and Chinese embassy for comment.

President Joe Biden is due to hold his first meeting with Xi at the G20 summit in Italy in October.

Tensions have been fraught between Washington and Beijing. On Tuesday, the U.S. Department of Labor and five other agencies accused China of carrying out crimes against humanity including "imprisonment, torture, rape, forced sterilization and persecution" against Uyghurs and other ethnic and religious minorities in Xinjiang.

The same day, former Vice President Mike Pence said the Biden administration's "weakness" enabled China's growth, which he said was the "greatest threat on the face of the Earth."

Wendy Sherman returns from Switzerland
Then-Under Secretary for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman arrives on April 3, 2015 at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland. Sherman, now Deputy Secretary of State, will be visiting Asia next week. Brendan Smialowski/Getty