The US and China face their first Biden-era head-to-head after a year of mounting tensions
Anchorage (Alaska) is the scene this Thursday and Friday of the first personal meeting between the heads of US diplomacy, Antony Blinken and Jake Sullivan, and their Chinese counterparts, Yang Jiechi and Wang Yi. A rendezvous with swords raised: the new US Administration aims to counter aggressive Beijing diplomacy and overcome its strategic dependence on key supplies; and the Asian giant, not to give up an iota of its sovereignty or security in matters such as Hong Kong or the situation in the Xinjiang region. Human rights, the fight for competition and a tense trade war inherited from Donald Trump set the stage for a new episode in the fight for global supremacy.
Agreed to test each other, and begin to draw the approaches of bilateral ties in the next four years, no one expects significant progress in this first meeting of the Biden era between the two world giants. In the last 12 months they have lived the lowest moments in almost 50 years of relationships, and there is no sign that they will improve radically. The White House is in full 100-day review of its policy toward Beijing. China —convinced that, in the words of its leader Xi Jinping, “the East is on the rise and the West on the decline” – has come to approve a Five-Year Plan with which it plans to shield its economy from excessive foreign dependencies.
At the beginning of the meeting, Blinken said that the US would express its “deep concern” about China’s actions in Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Taiwan, as well as the cyber attacks against its country and the economic coercion of allied nations. Yang responded to the secretary of state by accusing the US of using its military might and financial supremacy to pressure countries and use the defense of national security to threaten the future of international trade.
That expectations are limited is recognized by the stakeholders themselves. “Of course, we do not expect a single meeting to resolve all the issues between China and the United States. That is why we do not have too high expectations, nor do we fool ourselves with that, “says the Chinese ambassador in Washington, Cui Tiankai, in statements published by the state newspaper. China Daily. A senior US administration official has indicated for his part in Anchorage that the talks will be “very tough”, but also that he perceives a genuine attempt by both parties to find areas of common interest.
There will be no final joint statement. Nor is there any social act to break the ice between the two delegations – not even one of the usual dinners in this type of meeting – between the three sessions, of three hours each, provided for in the agenda.
The meeting, halfway between the two capitals at the insistence of Washington, comes after Blinken and Sullivan have completed a tour of Asia that has taken them to Tokyo and Seoul, the first trip abroad since their appointments. Along with the virtual meeting chaired by President Joe Biden last week of the so-called Quad – the informal defensive alliance between the US, Japan, Australia and India – the Anchorage meeting was delayed until the White House could devise a common strategy. with their Asian allies. A gesture with which Washington wants to communicate to China the attention it is going to devote to Asia – and to the rivalry with Beijing – in the next four years.
In general terms, and unlike the encouragement that defines other chapters of his foreign policy (a rereading of the Obama years), the new policy towards China of the Biden Administration inherits the reluctance and misgivings of Trump, and the approach that the confrontation with Beijing is inevitable. But at the same time Blinken and Sullivan arrive in Alaska aware that the Republican Administration’s policy toward China – the tariff war, its attempts to ban Huawei or TikTok, and its determination to call the coronavirus the “Chinese virus” – have not succeeded in twisting or one millimeter the will of Xi Jinping.
Therefore, as Blinken has reiterated, for Washington it is about “putting less emphasis on trying to stop China and more on trying to outrun them”, through greater government investment in research and technologies such as semiconductors, artificial intelligence and Energy. That is, to overcome a strategic dependence on key sectors, as demonstrated by the fight against coronavirus.
But, as in any negotiation that is anticipated long and rugged, neither of the two parties arrives with the intention of yielding; only to expose their positions and demand that the other person take the first step. Without great ambitions even in the longer term: both parties seem to be clear that the rivalry is here to stay and that, at best, it is about agreeing to respect the forms and manage the tensions to avoid a tabernary fight between two powers whose consequences would be catastrophic both for their respective economies – which will remain intertwined for the foreseeable future, despite everything – and for the rest of the world.
The United States has opened the game on the eve of the meeting with a movement that makes it clear: the imposition of sanctions on 24 officials of the Chinese central government and that of Hong Kong for the imminent electoral reform in the former British colony, which will leave a mere role symbolic of the democratic opposition and that in Washington’s opinion it will represent a clear setback in the “broad autonomy” that Beijing promised to grant the autonomous territory until 2047.
China, for its part, has lashed out at what it sees as a Washington-Tokyo alliance to counter it. He has also responded to the declaration of intentions of the Joe Biden Administration to raise in the meeting also claims of his allies Australia and Canada setting a date for the trial of the two Canadian citizens detained for more than two years and accused of espionage in apparent retaliation for the December 2018 arrest in Vancouver of Huawei tech chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou. Former diplomat Michael Kovrig will be tried this Friday; businessman Michael Spavor, on Monday.
Throughout the sessions, issues of global interest in which both have an interest in cooperating will be addressed, such as climate change, the coronavirus pandemic, the situation in Myanmar or the nuclear programs of North Korea and Iran.
Above all, “each country will expose what the other should do to stabilize the relationship,” says Michael Hirson, from the Eurasia Group consultancy, in a note. “That conversation is important, especially to lower the risk (of an outbreak of tensions) in hot spots like Taiwan or the South China Sea.” “But neither party is willing to put serious offers on the table to reduce broader tensions, especially on economic issues,” adds the analyst.
In previous statements by senior officials – including Wang Yi himself – Beijing has already announced that it demands, among other things, the lifting of the punitive measures imposed during the term of Donald Trump, since the sanctions against Huawei and other technology companies. to the increases in tariffs that are levied on the vast majority of its exports.
Something that Washington seems to have little interest in responding to, at least for now. Senior officials from the economic area do not participate in the meeting, although Congress has already approved the appointment of the new US Foreign Trade representative, Katherine Tai, the first Asian to hold this position.
Secretary of State Blinken and National Security Adviser Sullivan will demand gestures from Beijing to reduce pressure on Taiwan, or in favor of human rights and civil liberties in Hong Kong and Xinjiang, where more than one One million members of the Uighur Muslim minority have been interned in re-education camps, according to the UN.
Given the low expectations, a simple lowering of the tone, or the constructive development of the conversations, would already be considered a success. “Both parties probably still have months to go before engaging in substantive discussions on the thorniest issues in their relationship,” says Hirson. “They are more focused on their rivalry to influence third countries, and on internal policies to advance their economic and technological competition.”