US-China talks in Alaska — how far can they go?

Top officials in the Biden administration and the Chinese government are meeting in Alaska this week for what has been touted as the first high-level contact between the two countries under the new US administration and one to watch. Can this meeting turn the page on testy US-China relations? Yu Zeyuan gives a preview.
(left to right) China's top diplomat Yang Jiechi, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and US national security adviser Jake Sullivan. (Photos: Pool, AFP, Reuters)
(left to right) China's top diplomat Yang Jiechi, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and US national security adviser Jake Sullivan. (Photos: Pool, AFP, Reuters)

Top officials of China and the US are slated to meet on 18-19 March in Anchorage, Alaska. The Chinese team will be represented by Yang Jiechi, Politburo member and director of the Office of the Central Commission for Foreign Affairs, along with State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi. On the US side, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and national security adviser Jake Sullivan will lead the delegation. This is the first time that high-level officials of China and the US will be meeting in person since the Biden administration assumed office in January this year. It is also the first such meeting since Yang met then-US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Hawaii last June. 

The seven-hour meeting between Yang and Pompeo last June proved futile as both parties were not on the same page and did not reach a consensus on various issues including the Covid-19 pandemic, Hong Kong, and the economy and trade.

Former US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Orlando, Florida, US, 27 February 2021. (Octavio Jones/Reuters)
Former US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaking at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Orlando, Florida, US, 27 February 2021. (Octavio Jones/Reuters)

Following that meeting, the Trump administration continued its confrontational stance; not only did China-US relations not improve, they deteriorated. Last July, the US ordered China to close its consulate in Houston, following which in retaliation, China ordered the US consulate in Chengdu to close. That same month, Pompeo made a pointed speech at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library in Yorba Linda, California, declaring the policy of engagement employed by successive US governments towards China since Nixon’s visit to China in 1972 a failure and attacking the Communist Party of China head-on. Chinese state media, on the other hand, labelled Pompeo the “common enemy of mankind”.

The road to acrimony

During the remaining period of Trump’s term, high-level political exchanges between China and the US completely stopped. The US sent high-level officials such as the health and human services secretary to Taiwan, and Pompeo even announced that he was lifting all “self-imposed restrictions” on interactions between US officials and their Taiwanese counterparts. On its part, China announced the day after the Trump administration stepped down that it would be imposing sanctions on Pompeo and several others, prohibiting them and their immediate family members from entering the mainland, Hong Kong, and Macau, and restricting them and companies and institutions associated with them from doing business with China.

A man (left) speaks to a lady looking after a stall with a banner that reads "Support the NPC's Decision on Improving Elections" in Hong Kong on 11 March 2021, after China's parliament voted overwhelmingly for changes to Hong Kong's electoral system. (Anthony Wallace/AFP)
A man (left) speaks to a lady looking after a stall with a banner that reads "Support the NPC's Decision on Improving Elections" in Hong Kong on 11 March 2021, after China's parliament voted overwhelmingly for changes to Hong Kong's electoral system. (Anthony Wallace/AFP)

Amid worsening China-US relations, China passed the Hong Kong national security law last year. This month, striking while the iron is still hot, it completely removed “anti-China rabble-rousers” from Hong Kong’s regulatory framework by changing Hong Kong’s electoral system, thereby reducing the bargaining chips the US and other Western countries have to fight against China over the Hong Kong issue.

But until today, China and the US have not taken practical steps to ease their tense relations, and the US is still applying pressure on China on Hong Kong, Xinjiang, the South China Sea, and other issues.

A thawing of relations?

After the Biden administration assumed office, the top leaders of China and the US spoke on the phone for the first time, and US senior officials such as Blinken expressed that there remained room for cooperation between both countries. But until today, China and the US have not taken practical steps to ease their tense relations, and the US is still applying pressure on China on Hong Kong, Xinjiang, the South China Sea, and other issues. China-US relations remain at a low point.    

This is because, following the machinations of the Trump administration in recent years, US political circles and public opinion have largely taken China to be America’s top strategic competitor. The Biden administration can only make its moves against this backdrop. Besides, having learnt the lesson of a Trump that fought alone, the Biden administration is paying more attention to uniting its allies to deal with China. For example, the recent Quad Summit between leaders of the US, Japan, Australia, and India is poised to become a multilateral mechanism that targets China.

But it is also difficult for the Biden administration to simply continue with the Trump administration’s approach of containing and not cooperating with China. After all, China’s economy is vastly changed from what it used to be in terms of scale, strength, and growth potential, while the level of integration of China’s economy with the Western economy and its influence on the global economy is also very different from that of the Soviet Union during the Cold War. If the US is bent on keeping China down, not only will that hurt its own interests, but many of its allies may not be in step.

anchorage
A view of Anchorage, February 2018. (Wikimedia)

Deep-seated issues remain

However, there remain many obstacles to China and the US resuming cooperation, which first calls for a reduction in mutual hostility — this high-level meeting between China and the US is the first step to reducing hostilities and showing amity.

One should say, as a world leader, the US holds the initiative in China-US relations. The “2+2” meeting in Anchorage was clearly initiated by the US, and the chosen location being in between the US mainland and Asia is in itself a show of goodwill in consideration of China, which would of course not say no, since it has always advocated China-US dialogue.

But China and the US have different definitions of this meeting. China’s foreign ministry spokesperson has called the meeting a “high-level strategic dialogue”. On the other hand, testifying before the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee, Blinken stressed that “this is [was] not a strategic dialogue” and would be unlike previous regular strategic dialogues between China and the US.

But criticism and containment does not mean rejecting dialogue and cooperation. That the US initiated the Anchorage meeting shows the willingness of the Biden administration to restart China-US cooperation, otherwise there would be no need to do so.

Blinken’s response indicates that the meeting may not be a fixed occurrence; if the US is not satisfied with the results of the meeting, it will not be continued.

blinken
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken testifies before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs on the Biden administration's priorities for US foreign policy on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, US, 10 March 2021. (Ken Cedeno/Pool via Reuters)

Given that the US senators from both the Democratic and Republican parties are generally hostile towards China, Blinken made those comments to show the Biden administration’s firm stance towards China. The fact is, when it comes to relations with China, the Biden administration is wary of being tagged as “weak”, which is a key reason for its criticism of China and ramping up the suppression of Huawei and other China enterprises before the meeting in Anchorage.

Meet-up still a good sign

But criticism and containment does not mean rejecting dialogue and cooperation. That the US initiated the Anchorage meeting shows the willingness of the Biden administration to restart China-US cooperation, otherwise there would be no need to do so.

As for the substance of the meeting, naturally China and the US would each have their own agenda. On 11 March, White House spokesperson Jen Psaki told the media that the US would not hold back on their concerns on issues such as Hong Kong, Xinjiang and economic relationships. They would also raise issues of transparency over Covid-19. Opportunities and areas of cooperation would also be discussed.

xinjiang
A gate of what is officially known as a vocational skills education centre is photographed in Dabancheng, in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, China, 4 September 2018. (Thomas Peter/Reuters)

Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said that the topics were still under discussion, and that China hoped that there would be a frank dialogue on common concerns and it would state its position clearly during the dialogue. Zhao said that “no foreign country has the right to interfere” in “Hong Kong issues [which] are purely China’s internal affairs”. On Xinjiang, he stressed: “In the face of facts and truth, all kinds of anti-China lies and false information fabricated by international anti-China forces will collapse on itself.”

The meeting is not foreseen to be amicable and it will be difficult to bridge the huge differences between both sides on issues such as Hong Kong and Xinjiang. But the fact that the top leaders of China and the US can sit down and have a conversation is itself a positive signal that both countries can and should work together. Therefore, the importance of this dialogue cannot be dismissed.

Related: Is China indeed the biggest threat to the US? | Survey: China the most influential and distrusted power in Southeast Asia | Biden presidency a turning point for China-US relations? | The Chinese are hopeful about Antony Blinken’s appointment as the US’s top diplomat | Is there a genocide in Xinjiang?