WASHINGTON/BEIJING (Reuters) – 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 behavior.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and national security adviser Jake Sullivan will meet China’s top diplomat Yang Jiechi and State Councilor Wang Yi in Anchorage, 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.
Blinken blasted China on Wednesday for its aggression while in Japan, and urged South Korea to work with the United States to prevent a “dangerous erosion of democracy” in the region.
“China is using coercion and aggression to systematically erode autonomy in Hong Kong, undercut democracy in Taiwan, abuse human rights in Xinjiang and Tibet, and assert maritime claims in the South China Sea that violate international law,” Blinken said at the start of a meeting with South Korean Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong.
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, and outcomes.
Due to COVID restrictions, there are no plans for a shared meal, which had been a feature of recent exchanges. And the two sides clearly have divergent expectations.
On Wednesday, the United States issued a flurry of actions directed at China, including a move to begin revoking Chinese telecoms licenses, subpoenas to multiple Chinese information technology companies over national security concerns, and updated sanctions on China over a rollback of democracy in Hong Kong.
On Twitter, China’s ambassador to Washington, Cui Tiankai, urged that the Alaska meeting be the start of constructive bilateral communication, while adding: “Unilateral pressure and sanctions only lead to a dead end.”
Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian has referred to the talks as a “high-level strategic dialogue” and a person in Beijing familiar with planning for the talks told Reuters China hopes they will help set a broad framework for resuming engagement, rather than resolve specific issues.
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 spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.
A senior U.S. administration official said Washington would be looking at “deeds, not words” if Beijing wanted to change the tone of the relationship.
‘FIRST ROUND OF A BOXING MATCH’
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.
Last week Biden and the leaders of Japan, India and Australia pledged at a summit to cooperate on maritime, cyber, and economic security, issues vital to their 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 U.S. SOIL
Sullivan told reporters last week he did not 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.
He said the United States would 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 of Australia, and harassment in waters disputed with Japan.
Those are all areas where Beijing says Washington should not meddle.
Biden officials have said it was important that their first high-level contact with China happen in the United States, with Alaska a symbolic reference to enduring U.S. 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 either side, 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 Beijing’s Renmin University, told Reuters.
(Reporting by Michael Martina, David Brunnstrom, Steve Holland, David Shepardson and Chris Sanders in Washington; Humeyra Pamuk in Seoul; and Yew Lun Tian and Gabriel Crossley in Beijing; Editing by Michael Perry, Lisa Shumaker and Richard Pullin)