The U.S. and China are setting vastly different expectations for their first high-level meeting under the Biden administration, casting a chill on the talks set to begin in Alaska on Thursday.
American officials set to attend the summit — including National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and Secretary of State Antony Blinken — have characterized the meeting as a one-off event where the U.S. will confront the Chinese on a range of security and human rights issues that Beijing will need to address before it can improve relations with Washington.
Chinese officials, by contrast, have spun the meeting as an opportunity for Washington and Beijing to reset their relationship and, as the world’s leading powers, hash out the new international order. China’s Yang Jiechi, a member of the Chinese Communist Party’s Politburo and the country’s top diplomat, and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi will be meeting with Blinken and Sullivan in Anchorage over two days.
Competing statements from both sides last week emphasized the rift: “This is not a strategic dialogue,” Blinken said of the meeting in testimony to the House Foreign Affairs Committee. A spokesperson for China’s Foreign Ministry, Zhao Lijian, quickly contradicted him: “China, invited by the United States, will have a high-level strategic dialogue with the U.S. side in the coming days.”
It’s not the only point of tension. A U.S. official said the Chinese had registered their unhappiness with the possibility of having to submit to coronavirus testing before meeting with their counterparts, a recommended guideline for travelers visiting Alaska. As of Tuesday evening, the delegations were not expected to share a meal together in Anchorage, which would be a normal part of such diplomatic gatherings. “Everything in the schedule is strictly business,” the U.S. official said.
But those details are the least of the countries’ differences. The Biden administration has upheld the determination that China is committing genocide against Uighur Muslims, maintained tariffs imposed as part of former President Donald Trump’s punishing trade war and will not make concessions to Beijing in exchange for more action on climate change, Blinken told Congress last week.
China, meanwhile, is continuing its military buildup in the South China Sea, clashing with Australia over trade, and threatening another U.S. ally, Taiwan, American officials say. Microsoft also attributed a recent cyberattack on its Exchange email service to Chinese state-sponsored hackers. U.S. officials expect all of those topics, as well as China’s crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong, to be discussed during the summit, a senior administration official said on Tuesday.
The exact format of the gathering is still being negotiated, a U.S. official said, but the tentative plan is to hold three 3-hour sessions over two days. There will likely be a maximum of 10 participants on each side, the official added — a relatively small footprint, though it is unclear whether the sparse approach is due to the tense nature of the U.S.-Chinese relationship, concerns about the coronavirus pandemic, or both.
The Biden administration sees the meeting as an opportunity to address Beijing from “a position of strength,” Sullivan told reporters last week. The timing is also highly deliberate: It was scheduled to immediately follow meetings between U.S. officials and key partners and democratic allies in the Indo-Pacific, including Australia, India, Japan, and South Korea.
Current and former U.S. officials said the diplomatic choreography sends a message to China that the U.S. views its network of alliances as a key advantage in its competition with Beijing. The choice of Anchorage was strategic, too: the U.S. wanted the first U.S.-China meeting of the Biden administration to take place on American soil, and on U.S. terms, the senior administration official said.
“The Biden team has focused on getting into position and getting the sequence right in their engagement with China,” said Danny Russel, who served as Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs under former President Barack Obama. “Obviously, the fact that they’re holding this meeting literally on the heels of alliance consultations in Tokyo and Seoul is no accident.”
But it’s not only about choreography, the senior administration official said. “Sequencing is part of the equation, but we are working to strengthen our hand as well,” the official said, adding that the overall goal is to “enhance our leverage and the quality of life in the region in meaningful ways.” The official emphasized that the Anchorage meeting “really is a one-off.”
“This is not a resumption of a particular dialogue mechanism or the beginning of a dialogue process,” the official said, and there will not be a joint statement following the meeting.
The circumstances were different the last time Yang, the top Chinese diplomat, met with the U.S. secretary of State. When Mike Pompeo met with Yang in Hawaii last June, there was no public show of coordination with allies or formal announcement of those talks in advance, and no public back-and-forth between the U.S. and China over expectations for that meeting. The State Department later issued a readout of the session, the brevity of which indicated it did not go well.
Chinese leaders have made it clear that Beijing is hoping to restore normal bilateral ties to Washington. Lijian, the Foreign Ministry spokesperson, said “the two sides should respect and treat each other as equals, enhance mutual understanding through dialogue, manage and dissolve differences and bring China-US relations back to the right track.”
Chinese state media, however, has been less diplomatic, criticizing the U.S. for “exploiting” Indo-Pacific allies as a bulwark against China.
“What Washington sees as a real threat is China’s increasing economic development, and the comprehensive growth that comes with it,” reads an editorial in the The Global Times, an arm of the Chinese Communist Party’s People’s Daily newspaper. “Unfortunately, the U.S. can hardly solve this problem by hearing more comforting words from its allies.”
Republican critics of the new administration and its engagement with China will also be watching the meeting closely, especially those like Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) who have expressed concern over potential concessions to Beijing in exchange for more cooperation on climate change, which is a key priority for the Biden administration.
An exchange during Blinken’s congressional testimony last week highlighted the tension: Rep. Scott Perry (R-Pa.) asked the secretary of State if he was “contemplating concessions to the Chinese Communist Party vis-a-vis the Paris Climate Accord or anything else that we might need to know about.”
“No,” Blinken replied.
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