GP Insights

GP Insights # 490, 21 March 2021

The US and China: Biden's first dialogue with Beijing
Sukanya Bali

What happened?
On 18 and 19 March, the US and China held their first in-person engagement in Anchorage, Alaska. Antony Blinken (Secretary of State) and Jake Sullivan (National Security Advisor), met Yang Jiechi (China's top diplomat) and Wang Yi (State Councilor and Foreign minister). 

Following the discussion, Jake Sullivan said, "We do not seek conflict, but we welcome stiff competition, and we will always stand up for our principles, for our people, and for our friends." Yang Jiechi said, "China opposes US interference in its internal affairs. We express our staunch opposition to such interference...The United States uses its military force and financial hegemony to carry out long-arm jurisdiction and suppress other countries."

What is the background?
First, the resumption of the US-China dialogue. It was the first high-level, in-person talk since the Biden administration took over. A sharp contrasting tone was seen between the two counterparts in their opening remarks. The talks concluded with a 'tough and direct' sense of disagreement and led to no diplomatic breakthrough. During Trump's presidency, the dialogue between the two nations primarily focused on unfair trade practices, technology, and intellectual theft. Trump's allegation of 'genocide' of Uighurs in Xinjiang and calling of the coronavirus a "Chinese virus" exacerbated the relation.

Second, a non-zero-sum meet. China showed a defensive posture to the US concerns over China's human rights abuses in Xinjiang, Tibet, and Hong Kong, aggression on its neighbours, and increasing cyber-attack. In response, China accused the US of making baseless allegations, pointed at US internal racial divisions and its military and financial supremacy to suppress countries. Nevertheless, the relation indicated a potential for cooperation in areas like Iran, North Korea, Afghanistan, climate change, and coronavirus pandemic.

Third, China and Biden's restructuring of its relationship with the Indo-Pacific. On 12 March, the Quad allies agreed for a free, open, inclusive, healthy Indo-Pacific, anchored with democratic values and unconstrained coercion. The core agenda highlighted a defensive posture of the grouping towards China's expansionist and belligerent approach.  The US envoy also made its first visit to Japan and South Korea before the meet. The US reassured its support to defend and counter the "coercion and aggression" of China. 

What does it mean?
The US and China differences remain on key issues; however, there are also areas that they are likely to cooperate. The Alaska dialogue should be a starting point between China and the Biden administration.

The US, under Biden, seems to be pursuing a larger approach towards East Asia, which is different from Trump. The US officials' recent visits at the highest level to East Asia showcase the Biden administration's foreign policy pitch. Whether the latter is linked with the former remains to be seen.

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