Relations between China and the United States are so fraught that no single meeting of diplomats could bring about a prompt turnaround. Talks held recently by State Councillor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi and foreign vice-minister Xie Feng with American Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman in the Chinese city of Tianjin would therefore have seemed mostly about keeping open channels of communication. But Beijing has also used it as an opportunity to take a more pragmatic approach, giving Washington lists of demands and defining lines never to be breached. How US President Joe Biden ’s administration responds will set the direction. The measured tones of the talks were in stark contrast to the ill-tempered sparring of the nations’ top diplomats when they met in Alaska in March. Those discussions were meant to smooth relations, but the nature of the discourse and subsequent tit-for-tat actions made the situation tenser. Sherman’s visit was aimed at resuming working-level dialogue and its taking place proved a willingness to improve ties. But moving to the next stage with higher-level negotiations that eventually lead to the goal of a face-to-face meeting between President Xi Jinping and Biden is, for now, no nearer. Beijing made a concession to the US by acceding to its request for Sherman to meet Wang, a higher-ranked diplomat. Their meeting was briefer than the one with Xie; the foreign minister drew three red lines: that the US should not challenge or try to subvert China’s system of governance, it refrains from trying to thwart the country’s development, and it respects Chinese sovereignty and territorial integrity. The foreign vice-minister put forward two “to do” lists, one setting out “wrongdoings” Beijing wanted Washington to correct, and the other of issues China is worried about. China’s US envoy Qin Gang strikes conciliatory note on arrival Among the former items, all attainable if the Biden administration has the will, were lifting visa restrictions on Communist Party members and their families and students, ending sanctions imposed on leaders, officials and government agencies, and cancelling a request for Canada to extradite Huawei Technologies executive Meng Wanzhou. The list of concerns included anti-Chinese and Asian sentiment in the US and violence against Chinese citizens. The day after Sherman left, China’s new ambassador to the US, Qin Gang, departed Shanghai to take up his post. With Biden’s administration showing no let-up in its hardline approach, his job will be challenging. Top American officials are in Asia shoring up alliances to counter China, Secretary of State Antony Blinken being in India and Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin visiting Singapore, Vietnam and the Philippines. Beijing has made its position clear; Washington has to make the next move.