Sparks fly in the first-ever high-level meeting between the US and China since the start of the Biden Administration.
By: Fiona Guo
U.S. and Chinese officials meet in Anchorage, Alaska (via Financial Times)
A Contentious Start
In Anchorage, Alaska, on March 18th and 19th, U.S. and Chinese officials met and held the first high-level discussion between the two countries following the election of President Biden. Washington called the meeting “tough and direct”, as it consequently laid the depth of tensions between the world’s two largest economies at the onset of the Biden-Harris administration. American officials attending the talk include U.S. Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, and National Security Advisor, Jake Sullivan. Chinese officials attending the meetings include Politburo of the Chinese Communist Party member Yang Jiechi and Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi. The Alaska Talk unfolded many issues at hand, including long-standing disputes regarding domestic sovereignty and global stability, as well as contemporary concerns about the spread of COVID-19.
On one hand, according to the Chinese officials, after years of rocky relations under the Trump administration, the talks in Alaska provided a potential “diplomatic breakthrough” between the U.S. and China. On the other hand, U.S. leaders saw this as an opportunity to clearly lay out American priorities and share concerns about China’s actions. Nonetheless, the unusual level of public exposure to this contentious meeting makes it difficult to analyze what exactly the outcomes will be from discussions between both parties. What was initially meant to be a four-minute press conference and photoshoot after the closed-door meeting on March 19th, ended up being an hour-long dialogue as both sides discussed issues from U.S.-China relations to concerns regarding Washington’s allies. Reporters were told not to leave the press conference as both sides added their rebuttals.
What was discussed? More importantly, how does the Alaska talk fit into the broader scope of U.S.-China strategic competition?
Before diving into the specific issues that were discussed in the meetings, it is necessary to note the diplomatic meetings with other countries both prior and after the Alaska talk.
Events Surrounding the Alaska Talk
Not long before the Alaska talk, the U.S. Secretary of Defense and Secretary of State traveled to South Korea, Japan, and India. According to Washington, the U.S. - Japan “2+2 talk” began with a discussion between U.S. defense, state secretaries and Japanese foreign ministers regarding not only the importance of strengthening the U.S. alliance system but also regarding the Japanese relationship with China. At the press conference, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken stated that “our meetings are to make sure that [the U.S.] has the capabilities and the operational plans to be able to offer global stability.” Despite that China and Japan have had disputes regarding commercial trade, they share a common interest in managing these disputes. Though the Alaska talk sheds light on the core of the U.S.-China relationship, diplomatic visits prior to and after the meeting could be essential in analyzing the future and present dynamics between the two powers.
Similarly, on March 22nd, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov arrived in Beijing, just two days after the Alaska Talk. The timing of Lavrov's visit is noteworthy, as it means Russia is the first country China shares information and opinions with after the China-US face-to-face communication. According to Zhao Lijian, the spokesperson of the Chinese Foreign Ministry, the meeting was to “discuss bilateral relations and recent high-level exchanges and exchange views on international and regional issues of common interest. ” Though the transcript was not publicized to the general population, it is evidential to take into consideration the shift of dynamics between the U.S. and China.
On Thursday, according to a transcript of the talk in Alaska, Wang Xi, the Chinese Foreign Minister, stated that “China’s legitimate rights and interests have come under outright suppression, plunging the China-U.S. relationship into a period of unprecedented difficulty. ” Moreover, Chinese officials “urge the U.S. to fully abandon the hegemonic practice of willfully interfering in China’s internal affairs.”
In responses, U.S. Secretary Antony Blinken responded that regardless of Chinese officials’ dissatisfaction, many diplomats from Japan and South Korea are supportive of U.S. concerns with China. Blinken, “Our intent is to be direct about our concerns, direct about our priorities, with the goal of a more clear-eyed relationship between our countries moving forward.”
It is noteworthy that the center of this dispute lays on the legality and transparency of many Chinese actions, both domestically and internationally. While Chinese officials are eager to advocate their right to maintain national sovereignty, the United States is demanding transparency and an end to alleged human rights abuses.
On Concerns of International behaviors: Global Stability
At the international level, U.S. and Chinese officials laid out many issues including cyberattacks on the United States and economic and military coercion towards allies. While both have stated that they do not seek conflict over issues mentioned above and that they share the same goal of providing global stability, the contentious conversation that played out in front of the journalists may further impede the road to mutual cooperation.
On March 19th, U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan elaborated that “we’ll make clear today that our overriding priority on the United States side is to ensure that our approach in the world and our approach to China protects the interests of our allies and partners.” Moreover, according to Blinken, the U.S. holds zero tolerance for any actions aiming to disrupt global stability.
Responding to this statement, Chinese Director of the Central Foreign Affairs Yang Jiechi pointed out that “the Western world does not represent the global public opinion, and we hope the U.S. side will think about whether it feels reassured saying those things because the U.S. does not represent the world.”
While both the U.S. and China hold different views on the protection of global stability, it is noteworthy that behind the disagreement with specific approaches, they both aim to maintain global stability. Therefore, it could be argued that the shared goal may guide the two powers to further cooperation, particularly on the issue of climate change.
On Values and Democracy
Throughout the two-day meeting, there were several debates over Chinese overwhelming governmental control on individuals’ behaviors. It is well known that the U.S. and China have rarely come to agree on both sides’ governmental approaches. What’s more, talks in Alaska have brought light again to such an issue.
According to Wang Xi, though the Chinese government does not practice democratic values, their leaders have a “wide support of the Chinese people.” Moreover, he claims that the United States should “stop advancing its democracy onto the rest of the world.” On the contrary, Blinken responded that the United States government is “aware of its flaws.” Moreover, Blinken stated that “we are not trying to ignore them, not trying to pretend they don’t exist. Most importantly, not trying to sweep them under the rug.”
Nonetheless, it is the first official meeting that openly discussed the issue of authority in the U.S. and China after years of social media attacks on the political ideologies of the two countries.
Disclaimer: All quotations are from a video-taped transcript of the meetings in Anchorage, though only a portion of the meetings are publicly available to the general population, as much of the discussion was held behind closed doors. Analysis and commentary in this article only reference the primary source transcript.