Far from paving the way for a smooth “reset” in US-China relations, the much-anticipated high-level meeting in Anchorage, Alaska, seemed instead to confirm the fact that the two superpowers are locked in a de facto “New Cold War.”
The “two plus two” meeting between US State Secretary Antony Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan with their Chinese counterparts Wang Yi and Yang Jiechi got off to a tumultuous start, as both sides took uncompromising positions before the cameras.
Instead of exploring common ground and heading off the dangerous escalation of various bilateral tensions, each side played to their domestic audience by taking a maximalist position.
As promised, the US officials ignored China’s “red lines” by directly raising sensitive human rights issues in China, including in regard to the treatment of Uighur Muslim minorities in Xinjiang and the suppression of democratic protests in Hong Kong.
China’s two most decorated diplomats, who as ambassadors in the past played a pivotal role in restoring fraught relations with the US (Yang) and Japan (Wang), fired back in their now characteristic “wolf warrior” fashion.
China led off by accusing their American hosts of violating protocols and delaying the start of talks. Soon thereafter fireworks erupted, with some participants obviously going off-script with spontaneous posturing before cameras.
Despite Wang’s warning, Blinken stuck to his promise of raising “red line” issues, including Chinese cyberattacks, its treatment of Uighur minorities in Xinjiang and the quashing of democratic protests in Hong Kong.
“The alternative to a rules-based order is a world in which might makes right and winner takes all and that would be a far more violent and unstable world,” Blinken said provocatively.
Yang immediately fired back in a lengthy monologue, accusing the US of being the “champion” of cyber-attacks and questioning its moral ascendancy to speak on human rights and democracy issues.
“Many people within the United States actually have little confidence in the democracy of the United States,” he said, citing police violence against African Americans and the ensuing Black Lives Matter protests in the country.
The former ambassador to the US went on to lambast Blinken’s remark as not “normal”, while curiously making a disclaimer that neither was his diatribe.
Then, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan made a rejoinder in an unmistaken criticism of China’s authoritarian system by stating “a confident country is able to look hard at its own shortcomings and constantly seek to improve, and that is the secret sauce of America.”
Yang shot back by stating, “Is that the way you had hoped to conduct this dialogue?”, according to his delegation’s translator, sarcastically lamenting, “I think we thought too well of the United States. The United States isn’t qualified to speak to China from a position of strength.”
Soon, journalists were asked to leave the room, as both superpowers shifted to several rounds of private meetings over two days. Earlier closed-session talks were reportedly “substantive, serious and direct”, according to US officials.
The private talks are expected to zero in on a number of deliverables, potentially paving the way for a high-profile summit between US President Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping next month, likely on Earth Day (April 22) to highlight their shared efforts to combat global climate change.
Both sides are also exploring institutionalized high-level dialogue to facilitate the management of bilateral tensions. The Biden administration is considering to propose several low hanging fruits, of which China can promise immediate concessions short of any radical change in its political system or foreign policy.
For its part, China reportedly wants concrete changes in US policy, including the reversal of Trump era sanctions on Chinese companies and individuals. In particular, Beijing wants the Biden administration to:
(i) drop export restrictions, including on key technological inputs, to Chinse national champions such as Huawei Technologies as well as Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corp;
(ii) reverse visa restrictions on certain members of the Chinese Community Party as well as Chinese state-media journalists and students in sensitive science and technology fields; and reopen the Chinese consulate in Houston.
In exchange, China could also lift sanctions on US industrial and agricultural exports as well as make certain adjustments in its industrial policy to appease fears of predatory investment practices.
China also seems intent on establishing a reciprocal “vaccine passport” mechanism, which will partly legitimize its own Covid-19 vaccines, which are yet to be approved by major Western countries.
Both sides expressed low expectations for any breakthrough ahead of the meeting. Nonetheless, they signaled their commitment to making the most out of the “one off” confab through extended discussions in several rounds of likely more productive closed-door meetings, which were set to finish at 10 pm local time on Friday.
Shortly following the US elections in November, China started reaching out to President-elect Biden’s aides in an effort to reverse festering bilateral tensions under the former Donald Trump administration.
The Alaska meeting, according to China’s Foreign Ministry, was the new US administration’s idea, with Biden signaling a new era in US foreign policy and rejecting the “America First” unilateralism of his predecessor.
“The US side proposed to hold this high-level strategic dialogue, which we think is meaningful…[so that] the two sides can have a candid dialogue on issues of mutual concern,” the Chinese Foreign Ministry told The Wall Street Journal ahead of the meeting.
China made it clear that it hoped the meeting will provide an opportunity to “get China-US relations back on track.”
As for the Biden administration, it welcomed the meeting as a platform to enhance bilateral cooperation on climate change and global public health, especially in terms of Covid-19 vaccine provision to developing countries.
However, in a preview of the diplomatic meltdown on early display in Alaska, top officials on both sides lobbed undiplomatic salvos ahead of the meeting.
On Tuesday, the White House press secretary Jen Psaki admitted that they expect “parts of the conversation…could be difficult.”
Another top US official said, “We don’t have any unrealistic expectations…We’re of course coming to these discussions with a very clear-eyed view about [China’s] pretty poor track record of keeping its promises.”
State Department spokesman Ned Price upped the ante by making it clear, “We will certainly not pull any punches in discussing our areas of disagreement.”
The Biden administration promised to frankly raise its concerns over China’s human rights record as well as its expanding naval footprint in Asian waters and perceived as predatory trade and investment practices.
Blinken also called for the “immediate and unconditional” release of two Canadians, Michael Spavor and former diplomat Michael Kovrig, currently detained in China under what many see as politically-motivated charges.
For his part, China’s ambassador to the US, Cui Tiankai, admitted that “We don’t have high expectations or fantasy,” and warned “The prerequisite for dialogue and communication between any countries is that both sides should have the spirit of equality and mutual respect.”
China’s foreign minister warned Washington earlier about certain “red lines”, including discussion of domestic political affairs.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian called on the Biden administration to “stop interfering in China’s Hong Kong affairs and refrain from going further down the wrong path.”
It’s almost certain that the Alaska meeting will not resolve any of these key issues behind closed doors. But despite the public fireworks the meeting still has the potential to help break the ice in bilateral relations after four years of acrimony under the Trump administration.