Far from being a failure, the Alaska meeting seems to have begun the process of resetting US-China relations in a positive direction once again.
By Manoj Joshi
Battles for dominance are quite common in the animal kingdom. These involve aggression, threat displays and occasional fights in a competition for food and mates. Their goal is to set hierarchies which ensure relative peace for a period of time. The meeting between the top officials of the People’s Republic of China and the United States in Alaska seems to have been a version of this. There were lots of displays of aggression and veiled threats, but you could not escape the feeling that a great deal of it was stylised and aimed at the global and domestic audiences, rather than each other. Far from being a failure, the Alaska meeting seems to have begun the process of resetting US-China relations in a positive direction once again.
China didn’t go into the meeting with any grand design of showing up the US as a declining hegemon, but you can be sure now it is on its way up a few notches in the global totem pole. The US, perhaps, tried too hard to show that it was back in the game and that it had its allies behind them and that they were now dealing from a position of strength. All this could be true in a year or so, but undoing the Trump era is not easy. For example, the joint statement following Secretary of State Blinken and Defence Secretary Austin’s visit to Seoul prior to the Alaska talks, does not contain any reference to China. On the other hand, a similar statement in Tokyo bluntly accused China of a range of wrongdoings.
The opening session last Thursday was marked by what in diplomatese are termed “frank exchanges.” But these were all delivered before the cameras and clearly aimed at specific audiences. US Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken, declared that they would discuss “our deep concerns with actions by China, including in Xinjiang, Hong Kong, Taiwan, cyberattacks on the US, economic coercion of our allies.” These, he said, threatened the “rules-based order” needed for global stability. In turn, Yang Jichei, the senior Chinese official there, nominally the Director of the Central Foreign Affairs Commission, accused the Americans of condescension and hypocrisy and using its military might and financial supremacy to suppress other countries. He even accused Washington of inciting “some countries to attack China” and criticised the US’ human rights record by referencing Black Americans being “slaughtered.”
The were no apparent breakthroughs in the talks — and they were not expected — but clearly a great deal of business was done. Later, speaking to the media, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said he was not surprised at the “defensive response” of the Chinese when issues of human rights abuses, as well as cyberattacks and pressure on Taiwan were raised. “We were expecting tough and direct talks on a range of issues,” said US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, “and that is exactly what we had.”
But Blinken noted that the two sides had intersecting interests on Iran, North Korea, Afghanistan and climate change and presumably these were discussed. It is apparent from his remarks that the Chinese side sought an easing of the tariff regime imposed by the Trump administration. “On economics, on trade, on technology,” Blinken noted, the Americans told their counterparts that “we are reviewing these issues with close consultation of Congress, with our allies and partners, and we will move forward on them in a way that totally protects and advances the interests of our workers and our businesses.”
In essence, what he was saying was that the Biden administration would move to meet the Chinese requests, but it would take a bit of time to undo the various poison pills that the Trump team had left behind.
The Chinese officials said little after the talks, though Yang Jichei later told a Chinese TV network that the discussions had been constructive and beneficial “but of course, there are still differences.” He said that the dialogue was “candid, constructive and helpful, though there are still some important differences between the two sides.”
On Sunday, the office of the State Council (China’s Cabinet) put out a lengthy note detailing the circumstances of the dialogue and providing information about its outcome. The Chinese delegation had apparently led off with complaints about the Trump administration’s “irrational suppression of China’s legitimate rights” which often strayed into attacking China’s core concerns like the “governing status” of the Communist Party of China, the Taiwan issue and the changes in Hong Kong. As well as issues related to genocide in Xinjiang which, the note said, “is the biggest lie of the century.” Further, it hoped that the US would avoid “exploiting Tibet-related issues” to interfere in China’s internal affairs.
But the note also provided information on the outcome, which was not as negative as made out. The two sides would establish a joint working group on climate change. The US had reassured Beijing on its one-China policy on Taiwan. They had also discussed the undoing of restrictions on diplomats and the media that arose in the Trump years. In addition, they discussed a slew of issues relating to trade, military, law enforcement, culture, health, cybersecurity, Iranian nuclear issue, Afghanistan, Korea and Myanmar.
Both sides had obviously prepared carefully for the “encounter.” China decided to put on trial Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, two Canadians who had been detained for more than two years on charges of espionage. This was aimed at signaling China’s tough stance with regard to national sovereignty. The two US officials, on the other hand, made it a point to visit close allies, South Korea and Japan before the Alaska meet to signal that the bad days when allies were ignored were over and that the US planned to deal with China in a way very different from the Trump administration. But, as the South Korean experience revealed, things did not work out too smoothly.
These talks need to be taken up with the simultaneous peregrinations of the US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin. He participated in the “2+2” discussions along with Secretary Blinken in Seoul and Tokyo and then flew on to India. The Biden administration clearly sees New Delhi as the western anchor of its Indo-Pacific strategy, which now involves a whole-of-region approach to out-compete China in humanitarian relief, combating pandemics like COVID-19, critical and emerging technologies, mitigation of climate change and so on.
At the same time, it will seek to de-risk the possibility of inadvertent conflict by engaging Beijing on issues relating to North Korea, Iran, Taiwan and the South China Sea. In many ways both China and the US know that their real priorities are domestic and overseas entanglements are the surest way of undermining their effort. But too much has happened in the last decade to simply sweep under the carpet, and hence the effort is really to work out a new modus vivendi.