Today senior US and Chinese officials are meeting for the first time under the Biden administration in Alaska, but the welcome is likely to be as cold as the weather in Anchorage. Both sides have a long list of grievances and demands as a prerequisite for any improvements in relations, with the new President choosing to de-facto continue Trump’s “tough” stance against Beijing. Just days before the summit, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken revealed sanctions on 24 Chinese officials for reforms over Hong Kong’s election system last week. China has insisted the meeting be described as a “strategic dialogue”– but the US has rebuffed such a label and marketed the event on unequal terms, presenting it as Washington drawing a line against Beijing.
As a result, expectations on the public outcome of this meeting are minimal. There may be progress and even long-term results, but it will all be behind closed doors. The idea of one side capitulating to the other’s requests is untenable domestically and policies will not fundamentally change. The Wall Street Journal has claimed that Beijing is seeking a large-scale reversal of Trump’s policies against China, including removal of tariffs, restrictions on Huawei, and more. However, as there is no public source cited, this seems more like a leak designed to make China look as if it is coming grovelling and to paint the outcome as a defeat for them, and a win for US “toughness.” “They came for this, but they didn’t get any of it.” But looking in the headlines for a result would be a mistake, we need to look for the quieter signs as to where this might head, because the bombastic rhetoric won’t change.
The Biden administration, in making a laundry list of demands of Beijing on the surface of this meeting, is 80% talking to the American public and only 20% talking to China. The new consensus in Washington is confrontation with Beijing plays well. Anything less will only draw criticism, especially from the Republican Party, who seek to paint Biden as being “soft on China.” As a result, there is no other feasible way this meeting could be marketed. For example, do you think Blinken can say: “We are going to improve our relationship with China, get back on track and seek win-win cooperation?” Of course he can’t. He has to market this meeting under the premise of “being tough”– “we’re going to berate them, make our demands and give them nothing.” Publicly for the Biden administration, this is not an equal meeting or a “strategic dialogue”; this is a formalized “rebuke.”
But is there any point to this meeting behind the pantomime? Why can’t they just vilify Beijing in public like Pompeo did? Why talk at all if there’s going to be no engagement? Of course, there are mutual interests and a need for underlying stability in the relationship between Washington and Beijing. The Biden administration recognizes that very well, however, it is absolutely blasphemous to say so in public. This is the catch 22 Biden finds himself in.
As a result, important facts about this meeting won’t be what is publicly said, via Washington and Beijing (they will both put their own spin on it once it finishes) but what is said behind closed doors and “off the record.” What the domestic populations and political opponents of both sides cannot see will be where ground, if any, will have been made. As ever, the devil lies in the details, but Joe public will not be privy to them.
This meeting will lead to very few public commitments. The United States will list the same grievances they said they were going in with, they will say they criticized and chastised China harshly over Hong Kong, Xinjiang, the South China Sea, “economic practices” and so on. Those will be the points of emphasis, as was the case in the first Biden-Xi phone call.
In comparison, China will be more optimistic in tone and say the two sides agreed to advance “cooperation” and “stability”. But we won’t see anything like Huawei coming off the Entity List (the State Department blacklist), because Biden doesn’t have the political capital to do so. Any ground given on Huawei would be painted as defeat and capitulation for Washington. Therefore, what will happen is the two powers will make “quiet” agreements in small areas which they will keep in mind and lay the foundations for a bigger event where formalized agreements can be made. This is how backdoor diplomacy works.
In short; don’t expect many changes. The fundamental doctrines of either side cannot change so easily. They may become more considerate of each other and more receptive to the invisible area of “common interests” but publicly will remain hostile. America will set out its core interests, China will set out theirs and both will rebuff any criticism that comes their way.
What happens from here will be only told with time. Without political circumstances and the broader international environment changing, political capital and incentive to alter course will remain illusive for both sides. Biden never shut the door on cooperating with China “when it is in the interests of the United States to do so” but he cannot ever be publicly seen setting the bar for these “interests” too low. Beijing is undoubtedly more eager to reset the relationship, but the compromises they are willing to consider to do so remain very different to those Washington can afford to make.
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