Yellen’s China Visit Aims to Ease Tensions Amid Deep Divisions

The last time a U.S. Treasury secretary visited China, Washington and Beijing were locked in a trade war, the Trump administration was preparing to label China a currency manipulator, and fraying relations between the two countries were roiling global markets.

Four years later, as Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen prepares to arrive in Beijing, many of the economic policy concerns that have been festering between the United States and China remain — or have even intensified — despite the Biden administration’s less antagonistic tone.

The tariffs that President Donald J. Trump imposed on Chinese goods are still in effect. President Biden has been working to restrict China’s access to critical technology such as semiconductors. And new restrictions curbing American investment in China are looming.

Treasury Department officials have downplayed expectations for major breakthroughs on Ms. Yellen’s four-day trip, which begins when she arrives in Beijing on Thursday. They suggest instead that her meetings with senior Chinese officials are intended to improve communication between the world’s two largest economies. But tensions between United States and China remain high, and conversations between Ms. Yellen and her counterparts are likely to be difficult. She met in Washington with Xie Feng, China’s ambassador, on Monday, and the two officials had a “frank and productive discussion,” according the Treasury.

Here are some of the most contentious issues that have sown divisions between the United States and China.

Chinese officials are still smarting at the Biden administration’s 2022 decision to place significant limitations on the kinds of advanced semiconductors and chip-making machinery that can be sent to China. Those limits have hampered China’s efforts to develop artificial intelligence and other kinds of advanced computing that are expected to help power each country’s economy and military going forward.

And the Biden administration is mulling further controls on advanced chips and on American investment into cutting-edge Chinese technology.

Semiconductors have always been one of the biggest and most valuable categories of U.S. exports to China, and while the Chinese government is investing heavily in its domestic capacity, it remains many years behind the United States.

The Biden administration’s subsidy program to strengthen the U.S. semiconductor industry has also rankled Chinese officials, especially since it includes restrictions on investing in China. Companies that accept U.S. government money to build new chip facilities in the United States are forbidden to make new, high-tech investments in China. Beijing swiped back on Monday, announcing that it will restrict the export of certain minerals used in the production of some chips.

And while Chinese officials — and some American manufacturers — were hopeful that the Biden administration would lift tariffs on hundreds of billions of dollars of Chinese imports, that does not seem to be in the offing. While Ms. Yellen has questioned the efficacy of tariffs, other top officials within the administration see the levies as helpful for encouraging supply chains to move out of China.

The administration is employing both carrots and sticks to carry out a policy of “de-risking” or “friend-shoring” — that is, enticing supply chains for crucial products like electric vehicle batteries, semiconductors and solar panels out of China.

Companies doing business in China are increasingly worried about attracting negative attention from the government. The most recent target was Micron Technology, a U.S. memory chip maker that failed a Chinese security review in May. The move could cut Micron off from selling to Chinese companies that operate key infrastructure, putting roughly an eighth of the company’s global revenue at risk. In recent months, consulting and advisory firms in China with foreign ties have faced a crackdown.

American officials are growing more concerned with the Chinese government’s use of economic coercion against countries like Lithuania and Australia, and they are working with European officials and other governments to coordinate their responses.

Businesses are also alarmed by China’s ever-tightening national security laws, which include a stringent counterespionage law that took effect on Saturday. Foreign businesses in China are reassessing their activities and the market information they gather because the law is vague about what is prohibited.

“We think this is very ill advised, and we’ve made that point to several members of the government here,” said R. Nicholas Burns, the U.S. ambassador to China, in an interview in Beijing.

In the United States, companies with ties to China, like the social media app TikTok, the shopping app Temu and the clothing retailer Shein, are facing increasing scrutiny over their labor practices, their use of American customer data and the ways they import products into the United States.

China’s currency, the renminbi, has often been a source of concern for American officials, who have at times accused Beijing of artificially weakening its currency to make its products cheaper to sell abroad.

The renminbi’s recent weakness may pose the most difficult issue for Ms. Yellen. The currency is down more than 7 percent against the dollar in the past 12 months and down nearly 13 percent against the euro. That decline makes China’s exports more competitive in the United States. China’s trade surplus in manufactured goods already represents a tenth of the entire economy’s output.

The renminbi is not alone in falling against the dollar lately — the Japanese yen has tumbled for various reasons, including rising interest rates in the United States as the Federal Reserve tries to tamp down inflation.

Chinese economists have blamed that factor for the renminbi’s weakness as well. Zhan Yubo, a senior economist at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, said the decline in the renminbi was the direct result of the Fed’s recent increases in interest rates.

At the same time, China has been cutting interest rates to help its flagging economy. The interest rate that banks charge one another for overnight loans — a benchmark that tends to influence all other interest rates — is now a little over 5 percent in New York and barely 1 percent in Shanghai. That reverses a longstanding pattern in which interest rates were usually higher in China.

The Fed’s rate increases have made it more attractive for companies and households to send money out of China and invest it in the United States, in defiance of Beijing’s stringent limits on overseas money movements.

China pledged as part of the Phase 1 trade agreement with the United States three years ago not to seek an advantage in trade by pushing down the value of its currency. But the Biden administration’s options may be limited if China lets its currency weaken anyway.

China has provided more than $500 billion to developing countries through its lending program, making it one of the world’s largest creditors. Many of those borrowers, including several African nations, have struggled economically since the pandemic and face the possibility of defaulting on their debt payments.

The United States, along with other Western nations, has been pressing China to allow some of those countries to restructure their debt and reduce the amount that they owe. But for more than two years, China has insisted that other creditors and multilateral lenders absorb financial losses as part of any restructuring, bogging down the loan relief process and threatening to push millions of people in developing countries deeper into poverty.

In June, international creditors including China agreed to a debt relief plan with Zambia that would provide a grace period on its interest payments and extend the dates when its loans are due. The arrangement did not require that the World Bank or International Monetary Fund write off any debts, offering global policymakers like Ms. Yellen hope for similar debt restructuring in poorer countries.

Tensions over national security and human rights have created an atmosphere of mutual distrust and spilled over into economic relations. The flight of a Chinese surveillance balloon across the United States this year deeply unsettled the American public, and members of Congress have been pressing the administration to reveal more of what it knows about the balloon. Mr. Biden’s recent labeling of China’s leader, Xi Jinping, as a “dictator” also rankled Chinese officials and state-run media.

American officials continue to be concerned about China’s human rights violations, including the suppression of the democracy movement in Hong Kong and the detention of mainly Muslim ethnic minorities in the Xinjiang region of northwestern China. A senior Treasury Department official, speaking on the condition of anonymity before Ms. Yellen’s trip, said the United States had no intention of shying away from its views on human rights during the meetings in China.

Chinese officials continue to protest the various sanctions that the United States has issued against Chinese companies, organizations and individuals for national security threats and human rights violations — including sanctions against Li Shangfu, China’s defense minister. The Chinese government has cited those sanctions as a reason for its rejection of high-level military dialogues.

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