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Foreign Policy

Consensus in Alaska?

Mar 30, 2021
  • Nie Wenjuan

    Deputy Director of Institute of International Relations, China Foreign Affairs University

China and the U.S. met for a high-level strategic dialogue in Alaska on March 18 and 19. The verbal swordplay in the opening remarks of the diplomats on both sides — in the presence of journalists — generated pessimistic opinions both about the talks and the future orientation of China-U.S. relations. An expert for The Economist magazine was blunt in announcing that the talks had collapsed in an astounding manner, and there would be little room for improving the relationship.

I’m of the opinion that instead of amplifying the initial sound bites we should analyze the meeting from the perspective of the overall situation. That both sides went to the meeting at all with a certain willingness for communication and sincerity about collaboration showed at least that the overall situation in China-U.S. relations remains in a stage of constructive engagement — which represents a big adjustment from the anti-China policies characterizing the Donald Trump administration. The meeting itself, in a sense, signaled an improvement in China-U.S. relations.

As the first high-level, face-to-face strategic dialogue since Joe Biden won the White House, its purpose was obviously to explore each other’s stance, bottom lines and policy goals, not some sort of ultimate trouble-shooting. It is thus too early to conclude that there is little room for improving relations.

Of course, it is equally baseless to be overly optimistic. Since the meeting was essentially about exchanging ideas, attention should be on how much the parties knew about each other, what sorts of consensus they reached or in which areas they might have exchanged ideas in closed-door talks from an academic perspective.

First, both sides got a basic idea of the other’s attitude. Since Biden assumed office, the administration has declared that the U.S. will deal with China diplomatically from a position of strength. It followed up with a series of moves, including the announcement of sanctions against 24 Chinese officials connected with Hong Kong affairs, and a series of public relations maneuvers before the meeting regarding the U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy. Then there were Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s arrogant, baseless accusations regarding Chinese domestic affairs in his opening remarks.

Yang Jiechi, a member of the Politburo of the Communist Party of China, pushed back in an unusually harsh manner, which was meant to tell the U.S. that China wants to deal on equal footing and isn’t afraid of competition. Nor does it exclude collaborating with the U.S. But in either case, equality is the foundation and starting point for constructive relations.

This was a strong message, and Yang sent it at the beginning of the talks. It had strong resonance at home. Of course, it’s another matter whether the U.S. will accept it, but at least it now understands China’s basic attitude, which is of far-reaching strategic significance for the future of interactions.

Second, the two sides reached consensuses on some specific matters. I believe they may have exchanged ideas on a series of significant strategic issues. The Chinese side defined it as a high-level strategic dialogue, so they obviously would have communicated some of their strategic concerns.

To China, relations with the U.S. are important because they not only concern the interests of the people of both countries but also world peace, stability and development. President Xi Jinping said in his speech at the virtual Davos World Economic Forum that the No.1 subject of our time is enhancing the coordination of macroeconomic policies. Humanity is in the most serious economic recession since WWII, and leading the world economy out of the shadow of crisis is imperative.

The two sides may have communicated on the topic behind closed doors. China and the U.S. may have different concerns about macroeconomic policies, but the interdependence of their economies requires them to seek points of convergence, even while engaging in competition, to facilitate economic development both at home and around the world. Based on this, it seems necessary for the two parties to reach some principled agreements.

Third, both parties agreed to sustain the high-level strategic communication. I believe they may have explored the possibility of a leaders’ summit based on the Alaska meeting. Looking back at history, after the Cold War, presidents George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump all visited China in the first year of their presidency. Only Bill Clinton did not. Although this isn’t compulsory, for the four years of Biden’s present term of office, direct talks with the Chinese leader are an important item on the agenda that he must consider. China and the U.S. are at a historic turning point, and only a leaders’ summit can establish a macro-strategic framework for bilateral relations and promote healthy development of bilateral ties.

Even from a pessimistic perspective, it would be a significant event in the annals of the 21st century, involving rule-making and drawing boundaries to deal with China-U.S. competition. It is thus also a necessity for the two parties to explore for consensus with regard to a leaders’ summit.

To sum up, the world has entered a new stage, and the China-U.S. relationship has taken on fresh implications for both parties. How to deal with each other on an equal basis and how to cooperate while competing are prime topics for the 21st century. Politicians on both sides are constantly making adjustments, and divergences and quarrels are inevitable. But in the end they will reach a consensus on a new type of China-U.S. relations.

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