US confirms high-level meeting with Chinese officials in Alaska next week

Robert Delaney
·7-min read

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken will hold talks with top Chinese officials next week in Anchorage, Alaska, the State Department announced on Wednesday, a meeting that America’s top diplomat said would not herald further high-level talks unless it could yield “tangible outcomes”.

Blinken and White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan plan to discuss “a range of issues” with Yang Jiechi, China’s most senior foreign policy official, and Foreign Minister Wang Yi, the department said, confirming a report by the South China Morning Post on Tuesday that the meeting would take place in a location roughly halfway between Washington and Beijing.

Yet despite the equidistant nature of the location, White House press secretary Jen Psaki on Wednesday emphasised the fact that the meeting was taking place in the US.

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“It was important to us that this administration’s first meeting with Chinese officials be held on American soil and occur after we have met and consulted closely with partners and allies in both Asia and Europe,” Psaki told reporters.

The meeting, slated for Thursday of next week, will take place after US President Joe Biden takes part in a summit with the leaders of Japan, India and Australia, which together with the US form an alliance known as the Quad.

Blinken and Sullivan will use the meeting with Yang and Wang to address a range of issues, including those where the two sides have “deep disagreements”, Psaki said. “We’ll be frank in explaining … our concerns about challenges they pose to the security and values of the United States and our allies and partners.”

Among the topics will be Washington’s commitment to standing up for “the rules-based international system and a free and open Indo-Pacific”, she said.

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Yang, the head of the Communist Party’s foreign affairs office, and Wang are China’s most senior diplomats and among Xi’s most trusted lieutenants. Beijing has yet to confirm the plans; a foreign ministry spokesman said earlier on Wednesday that he had “no information to offer” when asked about the Post’s report.

Blinken will stop in Anchorage on his way back from Seoul and Tokyo next week, a trip he will take with US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin “to reaffirm the United States’ commitment to strengthening our alliances and to highlight cooperation that promotes peace, security and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region and around the world”, the State Department said.

“This is an important opportunity for us to lay out in very frank terms the many concerns that we have with Beijing’s actions and behaviour that are challenging the security, the prosperity and the values of the United States and our partners and allies,” Blinken said on Wednesday during testimony before the House Foreign Relations Committee, which lasted more than four hours.

“We’ll also explore whether there are avenues for cooperation, and we’ll talk about the competition that we have with China to make sure that the United States has a level playing field and that our companies and workers benefit from that,” he added.

China’s treatment of Uygurs and other Muslim minority groups in its northwestern region of Xinjiang will be one item Blinken’s delegation will speak about “forcefully”.

“We should make sure that we are not exporting – and others are not exporting – to China any products that can be used for the repression of their people and their minorities,” he said. “Similarly, we shouldn’t be bringing into this country products that are created by forced labour, including from Xinjiang.”

Blinken’s comments came after the recent reintroduction of legislation that would ban the importation of any goods sourced from Xinjiang into the US over concerns of widespread, state-backed forced labour in the region.

Passed by the House during the last congressional session by an overwhelming majority before stalling in the Senate, the Uygur Forced Labour Prevention Act would constitute a significant escalation of existing restrictions on Xinjiang imports, currently limited to tomatoes, cotton and goods produced by certain entities.

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Looking ahead to next week’s meeting, Blinken said it was not designed to be the start of a series of bilateral negotiations unless Beijing took steps that Washington considered to be an improvement in the areas to be discussed.

The Anchorage meeting “is not a strategic dialogue”, he said. “There’s no intent at this point for a series of follow-on engagements. Those engagements, if they are to follow, really have to be based on the proposition that we’re seeing tangible progress and tangible outcomes.”

The most obvious outcomes would include market purchase targets for the phase one trade agreement that former president Donald Trump’s administration struck with Beijing in January 2020, said Sourabh Gupta, resident senior fellow at the Washington-based Institute for China-America Studies.

Yang and Wang would also need to offer assurances of Beijing’s commitment to accede to the International Labour Organization’s anti-forced labour convention, and “to flesh out its 2030 climate change peaking goal by way of actionable implementation targets”, Gupta said.

Yang Jiechi with Joe Biden, then the US vice-president, in Los Angeles in 2012. Photo: AFP/Getty Images/TNS
Yang Jiechi with Joe Biden, then the US vice-president, in Los Angeles in 2012. Photo: AFP/Getty Images/TNS

The meetings in Tokyo, Seoul and Anchorage will be the first diplomatic travels for Blinken since the inauguration of Biden, whose administration has vowed to shore up military alliances with Japan and South Korea as a way to check China’s growing economic and military influence in the region.

Yang said last month that the US under former president Donald Trump had followed “misguided policies”, and called on the new administration to change course – even as Biden’s advisers, including Blinken, echoed their predecessors’ tough tone on Beijing.

Blinken and Austin will start their trip with a meeting of the US-Japan security consultative committee, which will include their Japanese counterparts Toshimitsu Motegi and Nobuo Kishi. The two US officials will then attend a US-South Korea foreign and defence ministerial meeting hosted by counterparts Chung Eui-yong and Suh Wook.

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The trip comes as the Biden administration has tried to highlight Washington’s alliances as an essential part of its strategy to counter a rising China – a contrast to the Trump administration’s more transactional approach to those relationships.

Even still, at the House Armed Services hearing on Wednesday, a top Pentagon official overseeing China policy insisted to lawmakers that the US was not asking any countries in the region to “choose” between Washington and Beijing.

“We welcome and encourage all nations across the Indo-Pacific to maintain peaceful, productive relations with all of their neighbours, China included,” said David Helvey, the acting assistant secretary of defence for Indo-Pacific security affairs.

Instead, Helvey said, the fundamental choice for nations now is between two different international orders: the existing one that is free and open, and another, pushed by Beijing, that is authoritarian and closed.

National security adviser Jake Sullivan at the White House last month. Photo: AFP
National security adviser Jake Sullivan at the White House last month. Photo: AFP

“The People’s Republic of China seeks to use all elements of its national power to reshape the world order into one that’s consistent with its authoritarian model and its national goals,” Helvey said.

In particular, China’s actions in Hong Kong have put a chill on many of its other relationships in the region, added Admiral Philip Davidson, the top US naval commander in the Pacific.

Terry Haines, an independent policy analyst, said the meetings next week “should be taken more as a harbinger of a continued US-China ‘cold peace’, and more of a 21st century version of the 19th century ‘Great Game’ than the brinkmanship of the US-Soviet Union Cold War.”

“This is a tangible indication that Biden and, more broadly, the US political establishment, concludes that an era of great power conflict is here to stay and makes necessary ‘playing the long game’, as a Biden adviser put it to the press in February,” he said.

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