The United States and China will face a new test in their increasingly troubled relations when top officials from both countries meet in Alaska.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrived Thursday in Anchorage for two days of talks after a trip to Japan and South Korea, where discussions about the world’s two largest economies were a major topic.
Blinken and Jake Sullivan, President Joe Biden’s national security adviser, planned to meet with China’s top two diplomats, State Councilor Wang Yi and Chinese Communist Party foreign affairs chief Yang Jiechi.
Difficult discussions are anticipated over trade, human rights in Tibet, Hong Kong and China’s western Xinjiang region as well as Taiwan, China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea and the coronavirus pandemic. No agreements are expected and the White House framed it as an initial chance to address intense disagreements.
US-China ties have been torn for years, and the Biden administration has yet to signal whether it’s ready or willing to back down on the hard-line stances taken under President Donald Trump. Nor has China signaled whether it’s prepared to ease the pressure it has brought to bear.
“We are clear-eyed about Beijing’s consistent failure to uphold its commitments, and we spoke about how Beijing’s aggressive and authoritarian behavior are challenging the stability, security and prosperity of the Indo-Pacific region,” Blinken said before leaving South Korea.
China fired back.
“There’s no room for China to compromise on issues related to sovereign security and core interests, and its determination and will to safeguard its core interests is unwavering,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said.
Blinken joined Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin in Asia, where they promoted the administration’s commitment to its treaty allies.
Just a day before the meeting with the Chinese officials, Blinken announced new sanctions over Beijing’s crackdown on pro-democracy advocates in Hong Kong. In response, the Chinese stepped up the rhetoric opposing US interference in domestic affairs.
China slammed the US criticism of the move to give a pro-Beijing committee power to appoint more of Hong Kong’s lawmakers. That reduces the proportion of those directly elected and ensures that only those determined to be truly loyal to Beijing are allowed to run for office — effectively shutting opposition figures out of the political process.
China’s ambassador to the United States held out hopes the meetings would pave the way for better communication.
“Naturally, we don’t expect one round of dialogue will resolve all the issues between China and the US and we don’t hold overly high hopes,” Cui Tiankai said in a transcript of his comments posted on the embassy’s website.
“My wish is that this can be a start and that the two sides can begin a dialogue process that is candid, constructive and realistic,” Cui said. “If we can achieve that, I think this exchange will be successful.”
Blinken said the US “will push back if necessary when China uses coercion or aggression to get its way.”
“The relationship with China is a very complex one,” he said. “It has adversarial aspects; it has competitive aspects; it has cooperative aspects. But the common denominator in dealing with each of those is to make sure we’re approaching China from a position of strength, and that strength starts with our alliance, with our solidarity, because it’s really a unique asset that we have and China doesn’t.”
Yet the Chinese are not backing down.
On Wednesday at the United Nations, they criticized the US human rights record, citing what they called US failures against COVID-19 that cost “hundreds of thousands of lives,” as well as racial discrimination, police brutality and an “evil past of genocide.” Jiang Duan, a counselor at the Chinese mission in Geneva, voiced the criticism at the UN Human Rights Council.
The administration has held a series of talks with Pacific allies, including Biden’s recent virtual summit with the leaders of Australia, India and Japan.
Trump took pride in forging what he saw as a strong relationship with Chinese leader Xi Jinping. But the relationship disintegrated after the coronavirus pandemic spread from the Wuhan province across the globe and unleashed a public health and economic disaster.
In addition to pushing back on China’s aggressiveness in the Indo-Pacific and its human rights record, Biden faces other thorny issues in the relationship.
But so far, he’s declined to rescind hundreds of billions of dollars in tariffs imposed by Trump against China or to lift bans on Chinese apps.
Biden is, however, looking for China’s cooperation on pressing North Korea’s Kim Jong Un over his nation’s nuclear program.