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

Forget about a summit between Joe Biden and Xi Jinping: The U.S. and China can’t even agree 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.

Sherman halted her travel plans after being offered a meeting with Vice Foreign Minister Xie Feng, whom the U.S. didn’t consider her counterpart, the Financial Times reported on July 16. 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. There isn’t a perfect way, given differences in the two systems of government. The U.S. secretary of state is one of the highest-ranking officials in the American government and fourth in the line of succession to the president.