March 19, 2021


US/CHINA: Public theatrics in Alaska may conceal progress behind closed doors

BY Gabriel Wildau

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( 5 mins)
  • A summit of top US and Chinese diplomats in Alaska got off to a rancorous start, with both sides making combative opening statements as cameras rolled.
  • Officials on both sides face pressure to project toughness and nationalism for domestic political audiences, but the dynamic behind closed doors may be more constructive.
  • But the aggressive public statements do not necessarily preclude the possibility of incremental progress towards improved relations and cooperation on select issues.

Expectations for the Alaska meeting started low, then fell even further in the immediate run-up to the event, as Washington imposed fresh sanctions on Chinese officials and issued joint statements with Asian allies and partners that clearly targeted China. The aggressive opening statements on 18 March were quickly followed by accusations from both sides that the other had breached diplomatic protocol. The public posturing confirms that US President Joe Biden’s approach to China will not be “Obama 2.0” and that the administration accepts the previous administration’s basic conception of the bilateral relationship as one of strategic competition. But closed-door talks, which began later on 18 March and continued the following day, were reportedly less hostile and more substantive, leaving open the possibility of progress towards repairing relations.

Events in the week before the meeting left little doubt that US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan held out little hope of a bilateral breakthrough and instead hoped to use their broader Asia trip to build regional support for confronting Beijing. Last week’s virtual summit of the Quad – a recently formed grouping of the US, India, Japan, and Australia – was the group’s first formal meeting at the head-of-state level and signaled that the Quad is becoming a more robust platform for political and economic cooperation. The summit produced an agreement to distribute vaccines to developing countries that was a clear effort to counter China’s vaccine diplomacy.

Next came a meeting with Japan that produced the strongest language on China ever included in a US-Japan bilateral document. One the same day, the top White House official for Asia policy, Kurt Campbell, told Australian media that “the US is not prepared to improve” bilateral relations with China so long as Beijing continues to apply punitive trade sanctions against Australia – a surprisingly rigid benchmark that, taken at face value, looks like an ultimatum to Beijing. A bilateral statement following a meeting with South Korean officials was more circumspect, reflecting Seoul’s greater concern to avoid offending Beijing. But on the eve of the talks in Alaska, the US State Department announced fresh sanctions on 24 Chinese officials over planned changes to Hong Kong’s electoral system that will strengthen Beijing’s control.

Given this context, the angry tone of the opening statements should not be surprising. With cameras rolling, both sides felt the need to project nationalism and toughness to their respective domestic audiences. For Blinken and Sullivan, the priority was apparently to preempt Republican criticism that President Joe Biden is “soft” on China and excessively eager to repair the damage inflicted on the bilateral relationship during the Trump years. The administration’s toughest critics are likely to be in the US Senate, where Majority Leader Charles Schumer, a Democrat, is working to secure bipartisan support for legislation to confront China.

From the Chinese side, top diplomat Yang Jiechi and Foreign Minister Wang Yi felt pressure to demonstrate that Beijing will not yield to US bullying or compromise on core sovereignty issues like Hong Kong and Xinjiang. As previously discussed, China’s more combative diplomatic tone in recent years partly also reflects the career incentives facing Chinese diplomats, who must signal their nationalist loyalty and fighting spirit to President Xi Jinping and the rest of the Politburo.

However, the aggressive public statements do not necessarily preclude the possibility that the summit achieved incremental progress towards improved relations and cooperation on select issues. As we noted following last month’s phone call between Yang and Blinken, even an administration intent on improving relations with China would likely begin by establishing its “tough on China” credentials before pivoting. That phone call was reportedly far lengthier and covered a broader range of issues than the public readouts indicated, suggesting a discrepancy in both tone and substance between the public and private communications. Similarly, reports from closed-door talks in Alaska suggest that they have been less hostile than the public sparring suggests.

Nevertheless, even granting this optimistic interpretation, the Alaska summit is unlikely to produce clear public indications of rapprochement, let alone concrete policy deliverables. The most optimistic scenario is that the talks will begin a process of re-establishing trust and establish a roadmap for future cooperation. Climate change, Covid-19, and cybersecurity are the lowest-hanging fruit in this regard. Mutual recognition of the other side’s vaccines for the purpose of facilitating international travel; collaboration on emissions reductions and related technological research; and an update of the 2015 US-China anti-hacking agreement are all possible starting points for what is certain to be a long and difficult process.

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