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CvT: Unproductive Alaska Talks Take US-China Tensions to New Heights

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Setting the stage with little hope for immediate progress

On March 18 and 19, top Chinese diplomat Yang Jiechi and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi met with US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan in Anchorage, Alaska. The two days of talks marked the first talks between China and the US since Biden took office.

Expectations were low leading into the talks, with a senior official stating there would be no joint statement and that no major decisions or announcements were expected. Instead, the talks were anticipated to be a way to test the state of US-China relations under the new Biden administration. While China characterized the meeting as a “high-level strategic dialogue,” the US emphasized that it would be more of a forum to discuss some of China’s concerning behavior. Despite low expectations, there was still some hope that the talks could lead to a resetting of US-China relations after the tumultuous state of the relationship under the Trump administration.

Thus far, the Biden administration has not made many decisive moves to indicate its approach towards China. While it has placed many Trump-era China policies under review, ranging from the trade war tariffs to visa restrictions on Chinese students in the US, it has not revoked any of Trump’s hawkish China policies. Furthermore, it has suggested that it will maintain the previous administration’s more pro-Taiwan stance and efforts to thwart Huawei’s involvement in 5G infrastructure and access to US microchips.

Relations then took a turn the week before the talks, when the US State Department announced that it would impose sanctions on 24 Chinese officials involved in a recent decision to further erode Hong Kong’s electoral system. Wang Yi denounced the move at the Alaska talks, saying it was “not supposed to be the way one welcomes his guests.” The mood was decidedly tense before the officials even arrived in Anchorage, and would not improve once the talks were underway.

Tense talks define the “discussion”

Many major news outlets have described the talks as unproductive, frosty, and indicative of the heightening tensions within the US-China relationship. The opening session on March 18 saw both sides make public denunciations of the other. Yang delivered a sixteen minute speech in which he accused the US of condescension, international bullying, and hypocrisy. He cited the US’ treatment of Black Americans as proof that the US cannot handle its own human rights abuses, claimed that even US citizens are losing faith in American democracy, and suggested that the US address its own problems before criticizing others. He also reiterated China’s commitment to its national sovereignty, security and development interests, indicating that the country is unwilling to back down from its controversial actions and territorial claims.

In response, Blinken stated that the US would not back down from criticizing Beijing’s treatment of Uighur Muslims, its undermining of Hong Kong’s autonomy, and other actions that threaten the rules-based international order. Both sides accused the other of grandstanding for their respective domestic audiences and hindering productivity.

To the media, Blinken further commented that the Chinese officials provided a defensive response on many topics, and that the two governments are “fundamentally at odds” on many issues. As anticipated, there were no major developments or commitments to cooperate, even in areas of mutual concern such as rolling back North Korea’s nuclear arsenal or combating climate change.

Despite the pointed criticisms and testy opening remarks, Blinken maintained that it was valuable for both sides to clearly lay out their priorities and differences. Similarly, other Biden administration officials said the talks provided insight into Beijing’s perspective that would be helpful as the administration crafts its strategic approach to China.

A range of frost-tipped takeaways

The first talks between Chinese and American officials under the Biden administration provided no surprises, but they do indicate that the tensions underlying the bilateral relationship will not subside with the change in US administrations. Indeed, it seems that the US’ damaged international status and China’s growing confidence have only exacerbated tensions – and perhaps even increased the likelihood of future conflicts over hot button issues. Furthermore, any hopes that the talks would allow the US and China to reset their relations have been squashed.

It is troubling that the talks appear to have been characterized by accusations and complaints instead of a cooperative search for ways the two countries can cooperate on major issues of mutual concern, such as combating climate change, though it is worth mentioning that the two sides had agreed to participate in climate-specific discussions after the fact. Overall, the lack of substantive results from the Alaska talks is certainly disheartening and suggests a grim outlook for the ability of the two countries to cooperate over the coming years.

One clear takeaway is that China’s perceptions of itself within the US-China relationship have shifted. Beijing is no longer speaking from an assumed position of relative weakness; its growing strength, expanding influence, and opportunistic behavior to fill the vacuum in global leadership left by four years of US isolationism have contributed to a newfound confidence – which enabled Beijing to express itself more frankly, and aggressively, during the Alaska talks than it ever had done in the past.

Yet, while Beijing’s directness may open doors for unmasked dialogue and progress in the bilateral relationship, it has also led to obstinance on issues ranging from human rights to territorial claims, which has in turn led to increased conflict amid global condemnation and economic and diplomatic pressures. All in all, the Alaska talks only mainly served to recognize the cascading peaks impeding the path forward for US-China relations.

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