A chance for détente: U.S. and China meet in Alaska

U.S. and China meet in Alaska

In Alaska, the first talks between China and the U.S. since the change of the U.S. administration begin. The two sides are preparing for two days of discussions, demonstrating opposing approaches to the meeting – Beijing sees the talks as a chance to reset relations, while Washington insists on the one-time nature of the event. The U.S. and China also have different plans for the dialogue: the U.S. side expects to go over China’s pain points, while Beijing intends to push through the lifting of the White House sanctions.
The U.S. and China are preparing for their first high-level meeting under U.S. President Joe Biden. Negotiations should take place on March 18 in Anchorage in the U.S. state of Alaska. The U.S. side will be represented by Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and Jake Sullivan, Assistant to the U.S. President for National Security, and the Chinese side by Wang Yi, China’s Foreign Minister and Yang Jiechi, member of the Political Bureau of the Communist Party of China Central Committee and head of the Office of the CPC Central Committee Foreign Affairs Commission.

In the run-up to the negotiations, the sides put forward very different demands on each other.

The United States promises to confront China on a range of security and human rights issues for which Beijing needs to change its course in order to cooperate with Washington. China, on the other hand, sees the meeting as an opportunity to reset relations between the parties, which is necessary to strengthen the international order.

For instance, Blinken characterized the upcoming two-day meeting as a one-time event without any joint statement following it. Moreover, the head of the State Department pointed out that this was not a strategic dialogue between the U.S. and China.

At the same time, Beijing gives a different assessment of the talks. According to Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian, the U.S. invited the PRC to Alaska to hold a high-level strategic dialogue.

“Both sides should respect and treat each other as equals, enhance mutual understanding through dialogue, manage and resolve differences and put Sino-US relations back on the right track,” Lijian stressed.

Mikhail Karpov, associate professor at the Department of World Economy and World Politics at the National Research University Higher School of Economics, told Gazeta.Ru that it is understandable why the U.S. says this is a one-time meeting while China claims a strategic dialogue.

“China needs Washington far more than the U.S. side needs Beijing. China depends on the U.S.; they understand that they will be the losing side in the event of a U.S.-China confrontation.

So the PRC is trying to move the dialogue into a strategic plan, and the Americans are looking at how much they need it. I think it is quite possible that this format of meetings could become strategic. And if not, Biden and Xi Jinping still has a number of channels for fine-tuning relations,” the expert added.

Negative background
The difference in perceptions of future negotiations is only part of the problem for China and the U.S. Relations between the parties have been going through perhaps their worst times in recent years. The change in the U.S. administration does not appear to have affected the confrontational course set under Donald Trump.

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For example, even after Biden’s inauguration, Washington had time to directly accuse Beijing of genocide against Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang, refused to walk away from tough tariffs as part of a trade war with China, and refused to make any concessions in exchange for additional measures to combat climate change by the PRC.

China, on the other hand, did not refuse to strengthen its forces in the South China Sea, despite active criticism from the U.S., continued its policy of economic restrictions against Australia, as well as threats over the Taiwan track, in opposition to American tutelage over the island.

According to Politico, the Biden administration expects to begin negotiations with the PRC from a position of strength, as the meeting kicks off after a series of visits by U.S. officials to Indo-Pacific countries – Washington sees its network of alliances as a key advantage in competition with Beijing.

The choice of venue for the meeting fits into this, as it takes place on U.S. soil and U.S. terms.

U.S.-China Plans
Chinese and U.S. plans for the upcoming talks are also seriously at odds with each other. According to the Wall Street Journal, Beijing plans to have sanctions against Chinese entities and individuals imposed under Trump lifted. In addition, the PRC expects to resume bilateral high-level meetings, including a climate conference in April with Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping.

As for the sanctions track, the sources note that the main goal of Beijing is the removal of restrictions on Huawei and SMIC, as well as the reopening of the Consulate General of the PRC in Houston. A separate factor is the discussion of vaccination passports to establish the flow of tourists between the states in a pandemic.

In turn, the U.S. side is going to touch upon the issues of restrictions on freedoms in Hong Kong, China’s alleged aggressive actions in the South China Sea, Chinese pressure on U.S. allies, and cases of Chinese intrusion into U.S. cyberspace. In addition, Washington is ready to talk about the interaction of the parties on climate and health issues.

From the point of view of Mikhail Karpov, we should not expect any major breakthroughs from the talks between China and the United States at the moment, including a qualitative improvement in relations between the parties.

“Most likely, this meeting may lead to some détente without deepening the U.S.-China confrontation. Given that the Biden administration has very good channels for fine-tuning the parties’ relations, which are already involved,” the expert summarized.