U.S. Deputy Secretary Wendy Sherman confronted China this week in Tianjin at the two sides' first high-level talks held in person since the senior-level meeting in Alaska four months ago.
There was no mention of a possible Biden-Xi summit nor of any specific outcomes.
During the talks, the U.S. brought up the issues of human rights in Xinjiang, Tibet and Hong Kong, cyber hacking as well as the Taiwan Strait and the East and South China Seas, to name a few.
Defining their relationship as "competitive," Sherman said the U.S. does not seek conflict with China.
"We do not seek to hold China down or to contain it, but we do expect China to operate by the international rules-based order."
China, on the other hand, relayed its own redlines as its foreign minister Wang Yi made three "primary demands" to the U.S. during the talks, urging them not to challenge China's socialist system nor interrupt its progress in development.
They also demanded that the U.S. not infringe on China's sovereignty or territory.
Despite those contentious issues, the two sides also affirmed areas for cooperation, including climate, North Korea and Iran.
Experts say this shows the complicated relationship between the U.S. and China, but they don't necessarily see these disagreements affecting cooperation.
"There's a tendency that we try to relate the ongoing conflict regarding the South China Sea to the nuclear issue of Iran and North Korea. However, there are two different stories. Nuclear issues of these countries have been dealt with in a multilateral context, not at the bilateral level."
In the meantime, Pentagon chief Lloyd Austin also took aim at Beijing during his trip to Southeast Asia, where several countries have competing claims with China in the sea.
Speaking in Singapore on Tuesday, Austin said Beijing's claims in the South China Sea have "no basis in international law."
He vowed to continue supporting the region's coastal states in upholding their rights.
The Defense Secretary emphasized that Washington will not flinch if its interests are threatened, but added that he is committed to pursuing a "constructive, stable" relationship with Beijing.
Yoon Jung-min, Arirang News.