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International relations

US deputy secretary of state adds China visit to Asia itinerary

In Tokyo, Wendy Sherman says allies seek 'best approach' to Taiwan Strait deterrence

U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman speaks in Tokyo on July 21. (Photo by Eri Sugiura)

TOKYO -- U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman will visit China this Sunday in a late addition to her Asia itinerary, the State Department announced Wednesday, shortly after she discussed Beijing tensions and Taiwan security with reporters in Tokyo.

A news release said Sherman will be in China on Sunday and Monday, where she will meet officials including Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Tianjin. "These discussions are part of ongoing U.S. efforts to hold candid exchanges with PRC officials to advance U.S. interests and values and to responsibly manage the relationship," the statement said.

"The deputy secretary will discuss areas where we have serious concerns about PRC actions, as well as areas where our interests align." From China, she will jet off to another extra stop, Oman.

Sherman has been in Japan as part of a weeklong tour focused on Indo-Pacific security, with previously scheduled stops in South Korea and Mongolia.

On Wednesday, she sat down with reporters from Nikkei Asia and other Japanese media outlets for a roundtable discussion.

One major subject was Taiwan, with Sherman saying the U.S. is sticking with its longstanding policy but has deepened ties with the island.

"First of all, we are continuing our One China policy," Sherman told the journalists. "That said, we have deepened our unofficial relationship with Taiwan."

She said the U.S. has established a "stronger economic relationship [as well as] a stronger political and security relationship with Taiwan."

China has shown increasing assertiveness regarding its claim to the self-ruled island, including air incursions and the fiery rhetoric of President Xi Jinping's July 1 speech celebrating the Communist Party's 100th anniversary. Xi vowed to crush any attempt to declare independence in Taiwan.

Under the "One China" policy the U.S. has maintained since 1979, Washington "acknowledges" Beijing's position that there is only one China and that Taiwan is part of it, but does not explicitly recognize Chinese sovereignty over the island.

The U.S. continues to tread carefully. Sherman's comments echoed those of President Joe Biden's Indo-Pacific coordinator, Kurt Campbell, who said earlier this month that the administration does not support Taiwan independence and understands the sensitivities but wants "a strong unofficial relationship" with Taipei.

Yet as Beijing escalates its rhetoric and military moves, Washington and its partners are showing a united front and preparing for contingencies. In an usually unequivocal statement, Japanese Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso argued on July 5 that in the event of an attack on Taiwan, "Japan and the U.S. must defend Taiwan together."

Sherman told the roundtable, "We share concerns with Japan about increasing aggressive action and concern given other actions taking place such as in Hong Kong."

"And so we are talking with Japan and other allies and partners about the best approach to ensure deterrence. Everyone wants to ensure peace, security and stability in the Taiwan Strait, and so we will work together to try to do so."

The U.S. is in the midst of large-scale military drills in the Pacific region. It kicked off the biennial Exercise Talisman Sabre with Australia last week, with a number of allies including Japan, South Korea and the U.K. taking part and others such as India and Germany observing.

Earlier this year, the Group of Seven leading democracies mentioned Taiwan in a communique for the first time, underscoring "the importance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait" and encouraging "the peaceful resolution of cross-Strait issues."

Sherman on Wednesday also held a trilateral meeting with Japanese Vice Foreign Minister Takeo Mori and South Korean First Vice Foreign Minister Choi Jong-kun. The trio discussed their commitment to a "rules-based international order" and opposition to "coercive behavior" in the Indo-Pacific, among other issues including North Korean denuclearization.

The meeting came amid mounting speculation about a push to restart nuclear dialogue with the North. But while the White House wants talks with no preconditions, Pyongyang has insisted the U.S. first reevaluate its "hostile" policy.

"We have let the DPRK know that we are open to engage with them, and to try to reach an agreement to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula," Sherman said of North Korea during the roundtable. "We know this may be a long process, but what we are ready to begin the dialogue and we are waiting for their response."

"It's not about [being] optimistic or pessimistic," she said of the prospects. "It's about doing the work and seeing what can be achieved."

The White House, however, has made no secret of the fact that it considers China its No. 1 foreign policy challenge.

Washington is actively striving to shore up ties across the region, pushing back against Beijing.

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin is scheduled to visit Singapore, Vietnam and the Philippines from later this week. Sherman herself had a swing through Cambodia, Indonesia and Thailand just last month, during which she voiced "serious concerns" about a Cambodian naval base undergoing Chinese-backed expansion.

On Monday, the U.S. joined with the European Union, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Japan, Australia and New Zealand to accuse China of launching cyberattacks, including sabotage of Microsoft Exchange email servers discovered in March. A senior American official hinted at coordinated sanctions to follow.

And in addition to its statement on Taiwan, the G-7 called on China to cooperate on probing the origins of COVID-19, while urging Beijing to respect human rights in Xinjiang and freedom in Hong Kong.

Speaking to the reporters on Wednesday, Sherman reiterated the case for democracy.

"We believe as democracies that in order to [have] a stable, prosperous and successful life, one should have freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, universal human rights, live in a rules-based international order -- so everybody's playing by the same rules."

She added that in many countries including China, "those freedoms, that ability to chart your own course does not exist."

Nevertheless, Sherman said the U.S. remains "ready to engage" with Beijing. "It's a multi-faceted relationship. I think it will stay a multi-faceted relationship for some time to come."

Asked about plans to travel to China, she said she had no announcement to make at that time. But she said the U.S. would take on such engagements when it "makes sense to do so." A few hours later, the State Department announced her trip to Tianjin.

Additional reporting by Akane Okutsu.

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