Ahead of the first face-to-face meeting between the Biden administration and top Chinese officials, experts from GMF’s Alliance for Securing Democracy and its Asia program are available for context and analysis from various angles. Below please find short takes from Noah Barkin on the potential dilemma this poses for Europe; Lindsay Gorman on why Beijing’s “divide-and-conquer strategy” won’t stand; Bryce Barros on why a reset is unlikely; and Andrew Small on why tone matters to allies.
The Biden administration has adopted a more ally-centered approach to its China policy, seeing this as the best way of maximizing U.S. leverage in the bilateral relationship. The administration made a visible point of consulting with partners in the Indo-Pacific and Europe, at the highest levels, before taking any meetings with Chinese officials. Now those allies will be watching the meeting in Alaska closely to see: whether the tone of an in-person meeting reflects even a moderately different emphasis to the administration’s approach, which has so far staked out very sharp, critical positions on China; whether Beijing will put anything on the table as a means of reducing tensions, and what priorities it will signal; whether this will simply be an exchange of positions or if some limited areas of cooperation or efforts at stabilizing the relationship will emerge in nascent form. No-one wants or expects a reset, but they will hope for more clues on the shape of the bilateral relationship than has been possible from policy statements alone.
In diplomacy, timing is no accident. The Biden administration has carefully choreographed this meeting with Chinese officials to take place after high-level meetings with key democratic allies in the region. The message is clear: Beijing’s divide-and-conquer strategy won’t stand.
The U.S. network of robust alliances is a key competitive advantage vis-à-vis China and resurgent global authoritarianism. The new administration has consistently signaled its ally-centric view of the world across a range of hot button issues from economic aggression to emerging technologies like AI and 5G. And the meeting comes at a time when the U.S. and China are competing heavily for global leadership in future technology industries and their foundations in semiconductors and microelectronics. Just last week, Australia, Japan, India, and the U.S. (“the Quad”) formed a Critical and Emerging Technology Working Group to coordinate on supply chains, principles, and global standards for technology and to strengthen their collective hand.
Beijing on the other hand is seeking a rapprochement. So watch, too for the divergent ways the U.S. and China message the meeting—the public opinion war is one China takes very seriously.
European capitals are slowly awakening to the reality that the Biden team, while starkly different in tone, is not backing away from the hard China line adopted by the prior administration. Kurt Campbell’s message this week that the U.S. cannot have good relations with Beijing so long as it is employing economic coercion with allies like Australia got people’s attention in Berlin and Brussels. So did Jake Sullivan’s courtesy calls to the big European capitals ahead of the Anchorage meeting. This is a departure from “America First” and a return to smart diplomacy. The Europeans will welcome the readiness of the Biden team to sit down with its Chinese counterparts at such an early stage. But there are no illusions that this Alaskan get-together will ease geopolitical tensions or deliver concrete results—beyond perhaps some symbolic statements on cooperation around the pandemic. Biden’s crystal-clear messaging towards Beijing on human rights and security issues, combined with his targeted outreach to allies is shaping up as a potential dilemma for Europe. It was easy to say no to Trump on China. It will be much harder to push back against an administration that is sending all the right signals.
With the upcoming Alaska meeting between Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, and China’s top diplomat Yang Jiechie and Foreign Minister Wang Yi, it is most important to watch for a cooling-off of rhetoric between representatives on the Chinese and American sides. Yang has engaged in some outreach to members of the China-specialist community in the U.S. expressing how he feels that there can be a “reset” in U.S.-China relations. However, that does not seem to be realistic given how much the tenor in American policymaker, public intellectual, and government officials circles has changed drastically before, during, and after the Trump administration. Also of interest will be whether the U.S. raises issues related to Taiwan, including economic coercion and military excursions by People’s Liberation Army sorties into Taiwan’s airspace.