US, China Officials to fly down all the way to Anchorage, to disagree

As the US warns China to brace for “difficult” issues when they meet in Anchorage on Thursday, Beijing has reiterated the US must give up the anti-China Cold War mentality. Some Chinese commentaries are even saying the two countries’ top officials likewise met in June year too. And, they had agreed to disagree. Early reactions in Beijing should leave no one in doubt the two sides have already agreed to disagree in Anchorage too.


At last, the Biden administration has made the first move to initiate a dialogue with Beijing. Not that Beijing is complaining. As a matter of fact, Beijing has long been asking the new US administration to come to the negotiating table. For in China’s diplomacy-speak, to come to the table means a relationship is being “managed” well, even if the participating sides are uncharitable to each other! At the same time, despite everyone around the globe expecting a high-level get-to-know-each-other between the world’s two largest economies to take place sooner than later, reactions in Beijing and Washington, as also from Tokyo to London, it is known to all this top officials’ tete a tete will further get shrouded with intangibles than result in anything tangible.

Alaska meet to test Biden’s first balancing act with Beijing, the Washington Post pronounced within hours of Secretary of State Antony Blinken unveiling the news during a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on last Wednesday. I added ‘first’ to the headline, for I thought the newspaper might have inadvertently missed it. The Chinese language reported in the morning, Washington local time, on the same day, “US-China to hold Biden administration’s first high-level meeting” (my translation). The two rival nations will meet for the first time to hammer out differences to come to the negotiating table, it further said. Japan’s NIKKEI Asia first repeated the Financial Times report of Wednesday, saying “US and China lay groundwork for 1st high-level meeting under Biden.” However two days later, calling the development a fierce psychological warfare over how to define the bilateral relationship, the Japanese daily headlined it as “US and China play mind games over how to frame Alaska meeting.”

Wondering who invited whom? And whether the get-together in Anchorage is a meeting or a strategic dialogue, perhaps Nikkei Asia was echoing similar views expressed in a Chinese commentary a day earlier, which categorically stated that “it will be a dialogue that will explain each other’s positions, attitudes, and principles. Therefore, it can be expected this dialogue will fail to define Sino-US bilateral relationship.” (Emphasis added)

Earlier on, though Premier Li Keqiang did make China’s position clear by stating “China wants ‘mutual respect’ from ahead of Alaska talks.” What Li was actually conveying to Washington was Beijing’s firm stance on what are the tangibles in Beijing’s view. Beijing’s position is clear and well-thought out, or else why would Premier Li say “want” instead of “expect,” according to a Chinese commentary. What is Beijing’s “firm stance?” As is typical of Beijing foreign policy narrative, the top leaders leave the “real” job of detailing to the foreign ministry spokespersons or to authoritative IR scholars. As this is what precisely Li Guangman does in his commentary mentioned above. Guangman lists five points explaining what China wants: the US must view China and Sino-US relations in an objective and rational manner; the US must give up the Cold War and zero-sum game mentality; the US must respect China’s sovereignty, security, and development interests; the US must stop interfering in China’s internal matters; and the US must focus on cooperation, manage differences, and push Sino-US relations back on the right track of sound and steady development.

The last point as put forward by Guangman does not match with the 5-points advocated by the Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian. The spokesperson’s point number five is: the US should follow the spirit of the phone call between the two presidents. Let me quickly touch upon two other relevant points related to Zhao Lijian’s remarks before returning to a few early commentaries in Beijing on the talks being held in Alaska. First is the controversy which NIKKEI Asia has called “psychological” warfare, i. e. who most wants the meeting to be held; and second is the difference in perceptions. While Blinken, who was the first to break the news of high-level summit, simply called Anchorage meeting an opportunity to set the tone for US-China relations during the Biden era, in which the two sides will face off on everything from national security and trade to the economy and human rights. “This is not a strategic dialogue. There’s no intent at this point for a series of follow-on engagement,” Blinken making it clear stated.

On the other hand, Zhao Lijian posted his remarks on the foreign ministry website next day – last Thursday – saying “China, invited by the United States, will have a high-level strategic dialogue with the US side in the coming days (Emphasis added).” Interestingly, while Beijing is yet to officially clarify the gaffe of calling it “strategic dialogue,” a commentator in Beijing attributed the difference in the wordings to the time gap between Washington and Beijing. Of course, no one will buy it. Let’s wait and watch to see if and when Zhao Lijian retreats his words. Meanwhile, ideological factionalism has surfaced in Beijing on what to make of the prospective meeting with Washington, irrespective of its nomenclature.  

First reactions from Beijing’s (leftist leaning) commentariat to the news that the US and China will hold high-level first strategic dialogue in Anchorage are not only dismissive but also condescending. Dismissive because the tete-a-tete in the capital of Alaska is being viewed as the unproductive repeat of a similar futile exercise which was held last June in Hawaii between Mike Pompeo, the then Secretary of State who was seen by Beijing as the most rabid, most evil anti-China Trump administration official and Yang Jiechi – the CPC Politburo member and head of the Party’s Foreign Affairs Office. Condescending because the Chinese leftists look at both the US and China’s pro-US elite with scorn.

The Global Times, which is labeled by the leftist IR scholars in China as “pro-America,” did welcome in a report it published on March 11 on Premier Li Keqiang’s press conference at the conclusion of “two sessions,” the great news of the world’s two biggest economies’ decision to take the first step to reset their problematic ties. Admiring the unusual gesture of China’s Premier to announce the Alaska meet – according to GT, Premier Li departed from the routine post-NPC press meet tradition which focuses on issues related to national economy and people’s livelihood – the pro-Beijing English daily wrote: “Normally, the Premier’s press conference after the closing of the annual session of the National people’s Congress would focus on broad issues…But since China-US relations are the most consequential ties in the world and will have an impact on China’s own development, Premier Li’s remarks on the upcoming meeting [in Alaska] reflects China’s sincerity to fix its ties with the US.” (Emphasis added

Interestingly, Premier Li on his part, has displayed his astute political character while disclosing the news of a “2+2” meeting between the two countries’ chief diplomats next week. Maintaining intricate balance between views of leftists and non-leftists both inside the party and within academia, Li Keqiang proclaimed: “China and the US could engage in multi-faceted and multi-tiered dialogue. Even if consensus cannot be reached for time being, we can exchange views, increase trust and explain confusions, which will help manage and resolve differences.” (Emphasis added)

Finally, why meet in Alaska? According to White House press secretary Jen Psaki, “It was important for us to that this administration’s first meeting with Chinese officials be held on American soil.” NIKKEI Asia interpreted Psaki’s remarks as playing to the domestic constituency. Whereas writing in the “liberal” Chinese digital news platform which is widely read in China, the US affairs correspondent seemed unaware of any “spin” or “home audience” angle in choice of venue. Citing the views of Chinese Social Science Academy’s Professor Liu Weidong, She opined: “Anchorage is a good choice as the venue and it is ‘midpoint’ from both Washington and Beijing.” To sum up, there is clear indication of what is the mood in Beijing in what a veteran US affairs commentator wrote: “Now the US has a new president. But America is not new, it is the same old [Trump’s] America. The US character has not changed. The US position and consensus on encircling, containing and attacking China has not changed. It will not change.” Therefore, China must stop fantasizing about the Unites States, he warned. Strong words, indeed. Surely, not his alone! 

Hemant Adlakha
Hemant Adlakha
Hemant Adlakha is professor of Chinese, Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. He is also vice chairperson and an Honorary Fellow, Institute of Chinese Studies (ICS), Delhi.