ISSN 2330-717X

Sparks Fly In The Alaska Snow – OpEd


By Andrew Hammond*

The most important meeting in international relations so far this year took place last Thursday and Friday, with the diplomatic mood as frosty as the freezing Alaska weather.

Expectations around the US-China session were played down, but the diplomatic sparks when US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and national security adviser Jake Sullivan met their Chinese counterparts Wang Yi and Yang Jieci will help shape the tone of the world’s most critical relationship for the next four years. This is because, while economic and security fundamentals will largely determine the course of ties, personal chemistry — or its absence — could also be key.  

The importance of this personal factor was shown during the Trump era, when the president’s erratic nature accentuated the natural volatility in ties. During the Obama years, by contrast, relations remained generally cordial, reflecting the commitment of Barack Obama and Xi Jinping to bilateral stability.  

Obama pursued a strategy that promoted cooperation on softer issues such as climate change, while seeking constructive engagement on vexed, harder issues such as South China Sea tensions. Moreover, Xi outlined a desire to fundamentally redevelop a new type of great power relationship with the US to try to avoid the great power conflict patterns of the past.

Biden was a key part of the Obama team, however, and he knows that the dynamics of the relationship have changed significantly since then, and not just because of extra uncertainty injected by Trump. 

Many of China’s policies that the US finds troubling, including Hong Kong, heightened rhetoric against Taiwan, and actions in the South China Sea, were a lower-level feature of the Obama era too. And the Obama team’s constructive engagement with China did not produce many of the desired results in terms of shaping Beijing’s behavior.

Both sides put these issues on the table in Alaska, and although Blinken said the session was “not a strategic dialogue,” Washington and Beijing would ultimately prefer to work toward a framework to underpin a renewed basis for relations into the 2020s if this is possible. They know that this could have a broader benefit for international relations, and forestall significant further tensions.

The inbuilt hazards in the US-China landscape that could cause tensions in coming years include new US legislation such as the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act. This legislation, which has infuriated Beijing as an “intervention” in its affairs, will require an annual check on whether Hong Kong has sufficient political autonomy from Beijing to qualify for continued special US trading consideration that enhances its status as a world financial center, creating a yearly mechanism around which tension could coalesce.

With the two sides far apart on many key issues, the Alaska session was a chance to size each other up and gauge intent.  This is true just as much for the Chinese officials as for Blinken and Sullivan, as Beijing tries to get a better sense of what Biden’s election means for relations. 

For all of the new US president’s indications that he might reverse some of Trump’s overt hostility to China, he has yet to backtrack on any of his predecessor’s policies. Indeed, he has reaffirmed many of them, including sanctions in response to human rights abuses in western Xinjiang and Hong Kong and rejecting nearly all of China’s maritime claims in the South China Sea.

Amid all the disagreements, what remains unclear is the degree to which the Biden team may seek to work with Beijing in areas where there are clearly defined common interests, such as climate change. Tackling global warming is a key political priority of both nations and there may be a window of opportunity for a US-China initiative in this area before the UK-hosted UN climate summit in November.

It is sometimes forgotten that a key precursor for the Paris deal in 2015 was a US-China agreement. So, with climate-skeptic Donald Trump out of the White House, this could become a rejuvenated topic of conversation for Beijing and Washington. 

Another possible area of collaboration, building on the Stage 1 trade deal negotiated in 2018 and 2019, is the possibility of further economic agreements between the two. The scope for this is underlined by the fact that the Trump agreement covers few of the areas where China is often accused of misdemeanors, from currency manipulation to intellectual property theft. 

If the two sides can find such areas of agreement, it will demonstrate that the direction of Washington’s relations with Beijing need not inevitably be a force for greater global tension. Moreover, this may even provide a pathway toward a deeper, strategic partnership that underpins relations in the post-pandemic era. 

  • Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics

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