The frozen relationship between the United States and China began to thaw after President Joe Biden and President Xi Jinping spoke on the phone on the eve of the Chinese New Year. Though the two leaders did not address specific issues in the relationship, the timing of the call was interpreted as a friendly gesture to the Chinese, which helped restore confidence between the governments. In diplomacy, such niceties matter.
On March 18 and 19, the first high-level diplomatic meeting since Biden’s election took place in Anchorage, Alaska. The highly anticipated meeting, which ended without substantive achievement, reveals the difficulty in improving relations as both sides are willing to depart from diplomatic protocols.
The opening session was marked by heated exchanges of rebukes of each other’s policies, instead of the usual pleasantries on such occasions. Fortunately, the ensuing rounds witnessed much calmer and more constructive discussions, which suggests that the two sides were serious about seeking opportunities for cooperation despite disputes.
But that is not going to be easy. There was no joint statement or press conference, no hand-shaking photo op, and not even a welcoming or farewell reception during the Anchorage meeting — very rare for such an important meeting. In fact, Yang Jiechi, a member of the powerful politburo of the Chinese Communist Party and head of the Chinese delegation, mentioned that he just had instant noodles before walking into the meeting room, which led some commentators to jeer at the U.S. side for being a cold and inhospitable host. The Chinese must have felt snubbed even before the meeting.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken was already on China’s doorstep while visiting Tokyo and Seoul before heading back and making a stop in Alaska. Yang Jiechi and Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi had to fly all the way to Anchorage to meet with Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake SullivanJake SullivanUS tensions with China risk fueling anti-Asian harassment at home An anti-US alliance in the making, as Russia and China move ever closer together Biden warns China’s Xi sees autocracy as wave of the future MORE. Blinken could have flown to Beijing from Seoul for such a meeting. Unfortunately, frosty bilateral relations and a poisoned political atmosphere in Washington would not permit him to do so. If he did, he would have been accused of kowtowing to Beijing.
Obviously, the Chinese made concessions and traveled to Alaska, eager to reset the relationship. But the Chinese will probably be disappointed since the Biden administration is apparently in no hurry to reverse Trump’s China policy any time soon.
President BidenJoe BidenDemocrats see Georgia as opening salvo in war on voting rights MLB could move All-Star game from Georgia after controversial new voter restrictions Biden fires majority of DHS advisory council members MORE announced loudly that “America is back.” But it is back to a changed world due to shifting power dynamics. Among other things, China, whose economy is over 70 percent of the U.S. economy, has become increasingly confident and assertive, and is more willing than before to push back U.S. actions and rhetoric deemed hostile to China’s interests. Yang and Wang urged the United States to change its “old habit” of interfering with China’s internal affairs and reminded the U.S. of having no qualifications to speak to China from “a position of strength.”
As expected, the two sides publicly sparred over human rights. The Biden administration was boxed in by former Secretary of State Mike PompeoMike PompeoPompeo in Iowa slams Democrats over ‘raw power grab’ Will diplomacy work with Iran? Blinken and Sullivan stand up to China — will Biden back them up? MORE who, on his very last day in office, declared that the Chinese government committed genocide and crimes against humanity in Xinjiang. Answering questions from combative members of Congress during his confirmation hearing, Blinken said he agreed with Pompeo’s genocide determination. The Biden administration has yet to produce evidence to support such an allegation. Meanwhile, the Chinese government has asserted that the Uyghur population in Xinjiang more than doubled in the past 40 years, refuting the genocide charge.
Yang pointed fingers at U.S. officials for attacking China’s human rights record while ignoring America’s own racial problems. The death of six Asian-Americans as a result of ruthless and senseless shootings in Atlanta just days before the Alaska meeting made it difficult for U.S. officials to mount any convincing rebuttal against the Chinese.
Perhaps the most significant outcome of the Alaska meeting is that both sides are further aware of the vast differences on a wide range of issues. How to manage such a complex relationship tests the diplomatic skills and political wisdom of both sides. With Congress fervently anti-China and the Chinese public highly nationalist, neither government can afford to appear weak. Yet, other than working together despite differences, what are the better options?
That this meeting took place in Alaska, roughly equal distance from Beijing and Washington, provides the answer to the question of how the two powers can move forward: meeting each other halfway. Instead of smearing each other to deflect their own problems, the United States and China should, while acknowledging their imperfections at home, learn to appreciate the fact that both have played positive roles, in different ways. They’ve often worked together in concert, to promote common interests of the international community, and they should continue to do so.
Zhiqun Zhu is Professor of Political Science and International Relations at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania.