March 23, 2021


US/CHINA: Will human rights pressure derail progress on other issues?

BY Gabriel Wildau

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( 4 mins)
  • After a rancorous start, closed-door talks in Alaska between top US and Chinese diplomats
  • But gaps between the US and Chinese accounts of the meeting reflect the formidable political obstacles to repairing relations, especially in Washington.
  • Significant progress towards improved US-China relations will depend on whether Washington insists on intermingling human rights with other issues where compromise is more feasible.



According to the official Chinese readout from the meeting, the two sides agreed to set up a joint working group on climate change, and to hold talks on facilitating reciprocal access for journalists, diplomats, and consular officials. This commitment evidently reflects an effort to reverse the damage from tit-for-tat retaliations under the Trump administration, though the readout did not directly reference last year’s journalist expulsions and consulate closures. The two sides also discussed adjusting travel and visa policies as the epidemic situation improves, with the goal of gradually normalizing person-to-person exchanges, according to Beijing’s statement. These incremental measures towards improved relations reinforce our view that hostile public statements do not necessarily represent the diplomatic dynamic behind closed doors.

On the other hand, the US readout was far shorter and contained no references to the areas of agreement that the Chinese statement mentions. Rather, the US readout focuses on less tractable issues like Xinjiang, Hong Kong, and Tibet. The US statement repeatedly emphasized cooperation with allies and partners, as well as the US’ willingness to confront China on areas of disagreement, though it also acknowledges that interests “intersect” on Iran, North Korea, Afghanistan, and climate issues. White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki also called the talks a “substantive two-day meeting,” despite focus on “public theatrics.” An unnamed US official reportedly said that the Alaska talks produced no formal agreements on new dialogue mechanisms, while acknowledging the possibility of discussing issues “in the normal course of our diplomatic engagements.”

The discrepancy between the two statements reflects the differences between the domestic political pressures that each side faces. While both Washington and Beijing aimed to project toughness, top diplomat Yang Jiechi and Foreign Minister Wang Yi had more to gain from demonstrating clear progress towards repairing relations. For Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, by contrast, the top priority was to avoid any impression that they were seeking a “reset” of bilateral relations to the pre-Trump status quo.

New sanctions on Chinese officials, announced on 22 March, for alleged abuses in Xinjiang further reinforced the dual US message of unity with allies and focus on human rights. For the EU, it was the first set of sanctions targeting China since the 1989 Tiananmen Square incident. Beijing quickly retaliated by sanctioning ten EU individuals and institutions, including members of the European parliament. As previously discussed, any potential improvement in US-China relations will depend largely on whether Washington insists on intermingling human rights issues with other issue areas where cooperation and compromise are more plausible.

One interpretation of the latest sanctions is as a signal that the US and other Western countries do intend to condition improvement in the overall relations with China on human rights. But an equally plausible interpretation is that the sanctions provide domestic political cover for the administration. On this view, the Biden administration is playing a long game, laying the groundwork to reverse at least some hardline Trump administration actions later by enacting its own hardline actions that can serve to insulate Biden from future criticism for going “soft.” In another sign that cooperation may still be possible, Biden’s climate envoy, John Kerry, will join a virtual climate summit on 23 March that includes China, the EU, and Canada. Ultimately, while the Biden team appears fully committed to strategic competition with China, the administration likely also wants to solve problems by finding areas of cooperation.

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