The United States will take an uncompromising stance in talks with China on Thursday in Alaska, officials have said, in the first face-to-face meetings between senior officials from the two rivals since U.S. President Joe Biden took office.
Beijing has called for a reset to ties, now at their lowest in decades, but Washington has said the Alaska talks will be a one-off, and any future engagement depends on China improving its behaviour.
“We look forward to the opportunity to lay out in very clear terms to our Chinese counterparts some of the concerns that we have about the actions they’re taking,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Wednesday in Tokyo.
Blinken and national security adviser Jake Sullivan will meet China’s top diplomat Yang Jiechi and State Councillor Wang Yi in Alaska, fresh off of visits to allies Japan and South Korea aimed at emphasizing the U.S. commitment to the Indo-Pacific in the face of Beijing’s rise.
In Tokyo on Tuesday, Blinken pledged to push back against Beijing’s “coercion and aggression,” including its expansive territorial claims in the East and South China Seas.
It was a measure of the bluntness that has come to mark the U.S. posture toward Beijing under Biden, as the world’s two largest economies search for a semblance of stable ground on which to base ties, after they sank under former President Donald Trump.
The Anchorage meeting – the first high-level face-to-face exchange since June when Blinken’s predecessor, Mike Pompeo, held a frosty meeting with Yang in Hawaii – is likely to be short on diplomatic niceties, or outcomes.
Due to COVID restrictions, there are no plans for a shared meal, which had been a feature of recent exchanges. And there are indications that the two sides have divergent expectations.
Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian has referred to the talks as a “high-level strategic dialogue”.
China hopes the meeting will help set a broad framework for resuming engagement, rather than resolve specific issues, a person in Beijing familiar with planning for the talks told Reuters.
But Biden officials have been explicit that Alaska is not a return to regular dialogue, which under previous administrations did little to resolve Washington’s concerns with Beijing.
“”We expect that there are parts of the conversation that could be difficult,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters.
A senior U.S. administration official said at a briefing that Washington would be looking at “deeds, not words” if Beijing wanted to change the tone of the relationship.
On paper, at least, the context for bilateral relations has changed for Beijing since Trump, with his go-it-alone “America First” foreign policy. Biden has pledged to restore American alliances, and its partners appear ready to oblige.
The United States, Japan, India, and Australia last week held a leaders’ summit, pledging to cooperate on maritime, cyber, and economic security, issues vital to the four democracies in the face of challenges from China.
And the Biden administration has embarked on a “Europe roadshow”, what U.S. officials have been calling daily engagement with Europe on issues including China’s rise.
Evan Medeiros, an Asia specialist in the Obama administration who now teaches at Georgetown University, called the Alaska talks “the first round of a boxing match” that was unlikely to resolve any major issues, but could lower the chance of future miscalculations between the rivals.
“I think it’s largely going to be an airing of grievances on both sides,” Medeiros said.
On US Soil
Sullivan told reporters last week he didn’t expect Trump’s Phase 1 trade deal, or details on tariffs or export controls, to be a major topic in Alaska, and noted many of the economic specialists needed to reach detailed agreements would be absent.
Sullivan said the United States would use the meeting to convey to China its strategic intention and concerns with China’s actions, including the rollback of democracy in Hong Kong, human rights abuses in Xinjiang, strains across the Taiwan Strait, economic coercion over Australia, and harassment in waters disputed with Japan around the Senkaku islands.
Those are areas where Beijing says Washington shouldn’t meddle.
Biden officials have said it was important to them that their first high-level contact with China happen in the United States, with Alaska a symbolic reference to the country’s enduring Pacific power.
It will be the second consecutive time in less than a year that Yang has flown to U.S. soil. Despite this gesture, seen by Chinese observers as a sign of Beijing’s goodwill, there appears little hope, on both sides, for breakthroughs.
“”Even if there is some initial cooperation on concrete matters like climate change, the positive effect of that is insignificant in the face of relations marked by competition and confrontation on all fronts,” Shi Yinhong a professor at Renmin University in Beijing told Reuters.