China should brace for ‘difficult’ issues during Alaska meeting, US says

Mark Magnier
·6-min read

The Chinese delegation should expect direct, unfettered talks when it meets with its US counterparts in Alaska next week, and Beijing is advised to do its part in addressing strained relations, the State Department said on Thursday.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken confirmed this week that he and the White House national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, would meet China’s most senior foreign policy official, Yang Jiechi, and Chinese State Councillor Wang Yi on Thursday in Anchorage. It will be the first in-person meeting between the countries of the Biden administration.

State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters on Thursday that it would be a “difficult” conversation. “We’ll be frank, and explain how Beijing’s actions and behaviour challenge the security, the prosperity, the values of not only the United States, but also our partners and allies,” he said.

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“When it comes to this bilateral engagement, what we expect is for Beijing to demonstrate seriousness, to demonstrate seriousness regarding its own oft-stated desire to change the tone of our bilateral relationship.”

In a separate daily briefing, White House press secretary Jen Psaki added that US officials would address the “genocide” of China’s Muslim Uygur minority during the talks. Up to 1 million Uygurs are suspected of being held in camps that Beijing has characterised as employment centers.

“Certainly the position of the United States is that what is happening is genocide, and we will look for opportunities to work with other partners on putting additional pressure on the Chinese,” Psaki said. “But we will also raise it directly. It will be a topic of discussion next week.”

Price said Washington has made progress toward its goal of approaching China from a position of strength after it confers with like-minded allies also frustrated by Beijing.

Blinken discusses China-related issues with fellow ‘Quad’ diplomats

To this end, Blinken has spoken to foreign ministers representing numerous partners and allies. Last month, he participated in the European Union Foreign Affairs Council and he will make his first diplomatic trip to Japan and South Korea next week.

The Biden administration has also re-engaged with the Paris climate accord, sought to reassert core democratic values, and attempted to get its own house in order, Price said, including early steps to strengthen supply chains – all steps aimed at pushing back on assertiveness by China.

“We have consistently, and oftentimes in harmony with our allies and partners, spoken up in defence of our allies and to condemn the PRC’s affront to many of these shared and even universal values, whether that’s in Xinjiang, whether that’s in Hong Kong … whether that’s in Taiwan, anywhere around the world,” Price said.

These issues will likely be topics of discussion in Alaska, he said. “There is a long litany of disagreements,” he added. “We will certainly not pull any punches.”

US President Joe Biden speaks from the White House Oval Office on Thursday. Photo: Reuters
US President Joe Biden speaks from the White House Oval Office on Thursday. Photo: Reuters

At the same time, the administration recognises areas of potential collaboration in the “multifaceted” relationship, including climate change, provided that Beijing follows its words with deeds, Price said.

“Any follow-up engagements with the Chinese officials after Anchorage have to be based on the proposition that we’re seeing tangible progress and tangible outcomes on the issues of concern,” he added. “We’re not looking to engage in talks for the sake of talks; we are looking for Beijing, again, to demonstrate that seriousness of purpose.”

China’s foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said at a regular press conference on Friday that China wants to use the meeting as a chance for enhancing understanding between the two countries, but will be firm on issues like Hong Kong and Xinjiang.

“The two sides are still deliberating on the agenda items. We hope we can have candid dialogues on issues of mutual concerns. The Chinese side will present our position. Both sides should have an accurate understanding on each other’s policy intention, manage our differences and to bring Sino-US relations back on the right track.”

“The Chinese side’s position on Hong Kong and Xinjiang has been clear and consistent,” he said, saying that both are China’s internal affairs and that Beijing opposes interference from the US.

Analysts said the best that can be hoped for is a modest easing of tensions.

“I don’t see the possibility of a US-China reset at this point,” said Elizabeth Economy, a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. “I’d say it’s an opportunity for some recalibration.”

The Biden blitz is coming

Analysts say the location, far from either nation’s capital on the outer reaches of US territory, suggests that Beijing pushed for the meeting and the US agreed without much enthusiasm. And with US public opinion toward China at record lows in recent surveys, and Republicans eager to jump on any move to “go soft” on China, the administration can take its time.

“The Biden administration is not eager to significantly improve the bilateral relationship. From the US domestic perspective, it is neither possible nor desirable, at least in the short term,” said Xiaoyu Pu, associate political-science professor at the University of Nevada, Reno.

That said, the administration also wants to draw a line between the name-calling, openly confrontational approach pursued of the Trump administration and its own, more nuanced, potentially more effective approach, analysts added.

In message to China, Biden to meet fellow Quad leaders on Friday

“I’d expect the Alaska meeting – done following substantive discussions with allies – to put a floor under China-related risk for the near term. It should be a workmanlike conversation,” said Kevin Nealer, a principal with the Scowcroft Group consultancy and former State Department official.

It’s also an opportunity to push back on Beijing’s side of the blame game and “put the Chinese side on notice that their narrative blaming the US for the downturn in relations is both wrong and unproductive”, added Nealer, who then referred to Chinese leader Xi Jinping. “Fresh from discussions with our allies, the US side can credibly say that China is worse off in the region today because of Xi’s policies, quite apart from any US actions.”

Additional reporting by Owen Churchill, Jacob Fromer and Catherine Wong

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