China, U.S. Contradict Each Other About Alaska Meeting

China and the United States are set for the first in-person meeting of the Biden administration this week, but a curious contradiction has emerged as officials from Beijing and Washington attribute differing characteristics to the upcoming talks in Alaska.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin are currently in Asia shoring up America's Pacific alliances in Japan and South Korea. Part of the agenda for the sit-down with Chinese diplomats Yang Jiechi and Wang Yi could already be gleaned from Tuesday's joint statement out of Tokyo.

Before embarking on the Asia trip, however, Secretary Blinken had told lawmakers on Capitol Hill that the meeting in Anchorage scheduled for March 18 and 19 was "not a strategic dialogue."

There was "no intent" for any subsequent engagements unless there were "tangible outcomes" on issues of concern, Blinken told the House Foreign Affairs Committee last Wednesday.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs in China offered a different description of the talks the very next day. Spokesperson Zhao Lijian said Politburo member Yang and Foreign Minister Wang would travel to Alaska—at the invitation of the United States—for a "high-level strategic dialogue."

The inconsistent phraseology surrounding the nature of this week's talks was not lost on China policy analysts, a few of whom have speculated that Beijing was using the choice words in order to attach more importance to the meeting on American soil.

Zhao repeated the phrase during a regular press briefing on Tuesday Beijing time, saying a specific agenda had yet to be set, but that the strategic dialogue would hopefully build on last month's two-hour call between Chinese leader Xi Jinping and President Joe Biden.

In Washington, senior Biden officials stressed the practical nature of the upcoming U.S.-China discussions during a press call, also held Tuesday, in which they emphasized the importance of opening channels of communication with Beijing—for areas of both cooperation and contention.

The officials used the term "strategic conversation" to describe the event, and said there were no "unrealistic expectations" regarding the outcome of the "robust and very frank" face-to-face the new administration was about to have with China.

Contrasting descriptions of the Alaska talks notwithstanding, both governments appear to agree that there will be little ambiguity surrounding key talking points, which are expected to include China's policies in Hong Kong and Xinjiang, its political and economic coercion against Australia and Taiwan, and this year's alleged state-sponsored hacking of Microsoft servers.

China expects its diplomats to have "candid talks" with Secretary Blinken and national security adviser Jake Sullivan, according to Zhao, who said Beijing would "make its position clear on relevant issues."

"It is common for Beijing to focus on the optics of encounters such as the meeting that will take place in Alaska," said Ryan Hass, who is Michael H. Armacost Chair in Foreign Policy Studies at the Brookings Institution.

He added: "In this instance, I believe Beijing would like to create an appearance of a return to normal in the U.S.-China relationship, but without making any costly signals to do so. They would like to use the symbolism of the meeting to suggest that it represents a relaxation of tensions in the relationship."

Both Chinese diplomats traveling to Anchorage on Thursday have called for a reset of bilateral ties in recent weeks, starting with the removal of U.S. sanctions on Chinese officials and companies, and tariffs on goods.

Hass, who served as the director for China at the National Security Council from 2013 to 2017, said Beijing's framing of this week's meeting was aimed at two primary audiences.

"The first audience is domestic," he told Newsweek. "Beijing would like to show their citizens that they are competently managing the U.S.-China relationship."

Hass added: "The second audience is regional. Beijing would like to seed a view that Washington places great priority on its relations with China, and implicitly, that regional countries should be wary of relying too heavily on the United States for their needs."

Last Friday, President Biden hosted the first leaders' summit of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue involving United States, Japan, Australia and India—a coalition the Chinese leadership, including Xi, has likened to a "clique."

The landmark virtual meeting was followed by an interview featuring the president's top Asia coordinator, Kurt Campbell, published by The Sydney Morning Herald on Tuesday.

Campbell revealed that U.S. officials had already raised the issue of Chinese tariffs and bans on Australian products, and that a loosening of these import restrictions was necessary for any improvement in U.S.-China ties.

"We have made clear that the U.S. is not prepared to improve relations in a bilateral and separate context at the same time that a close and dear ally is being subjected to a form of economic coercion," the newspaper quoted him as saying.

Campbell's comments suggest "Washington remains foremost focused on strengthening ties with allies, and views competition with China as a long game," according to Hass, whose recent Foreign Affairs essay titled China Is Not Ten Feet Tall encourages the United States to focus on its own strengths instead of reacting to Beijing's growing ambitions.

He said: "The tighter America's relations with allies and partners, the stronger of a position Washington will be in to compete with China over the long term."

Secretary Antony Blinken Meets South Korean Officials
Secretary of State Antony Blinken (L) and South Korean Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong (R) pose for photos before their meeting at the Foreign Ministry in Seoul on March 17, 2021. LEE JIN-MAN/POOL/AFP via Getty Images