Global media had a rare treat on March 18-19, watching the top diplomats from China and the United States depart from normal diplo-speak and score points off each other in Anchorage, Alaska. Accusing each other of violating protocol and etiquette, they squared off over perceived signs of disrespect, hegemonic behaviour, interference in internal affairs, and more. But when the cameras were gone and the diplomats had boarded their planes, their meetings – the public session, plus three private sessions – were described as “a high-level strategic dialogue that both sides believe was timely and helpful and deepened mutual understanding”. What gives? Fans of professional wrestling might recognise the process: “I will pretend that you beat me to a pulp, if you pretend that I took you within an inch of your life.” Both their audiences will be happy. In today’s terms, China has shown itself as standing up to American bullying at long last, and Washington will show it is not going to take Beijing’s aggression and cheating any more. The media and commentators in both countries ate it up. Is US-China friction at Alaska meetings a sign of worse to come or start of something better? So, was it all just a show for home consumption? No, some serious business got done. As China’s Xinhua news service summarised, without being disputed by the US, both sides agreed to follow the spirit of the February 11 telephone call between Presidents Xi Jinping and Joe Biden to “maintain dialogue and communication, conduct mutually beneficial cooperation, avoid misunderstanding and misjudgment, forestall conflict and confrontation, and promote sound and steady development of China-US relations”. Among others, Xinhua added, both sides expressed the hope for more such high-level strategic communication; agreed to establish a joint working group on climate change; and facilitate diplomatic and consular activities as well as adjust travel and visa policies according to the Covid-19 situation. “The US reiterated its adherence to the one-China policy on the Taiwan question,” the news agency said. “They also exchanged views on a series of other topics, including economy and trade, military, law enforcement, culture, health, cybersecurity, climate change, the Iranian nuclear issue, Afghanistan , the Korean peninsula and Myanmar , and agreed to maintain and enhance communication and coordination.” In other words, the Chinese and American diplomats agreed to tackle the range of global and bilateral issues that have bedevilled the two countries’ relationship in recent years. The scope of agreement covers many issues from which the Trump administration had unilaterally walked away, from climate change to closing missions to denying visas for journalists. So, from Beijing’s perspective, a case can be made that the new administration under Biden, despite the vituperation in Alaska, was opening the possibility of retreating to a more pragmatic relationship with Xi’s government. Beijing also showed that the days of perceived unequal relations with Washington, a legacy of 200 years of Chinese weakness, were now behind them. China, too, can now set the terms of the debate. Singapore weighs in on US-China talks, urges Asean to focus on own interests if tensions escalate As headlines arrive daily about China’s economic prowess, growing trade and aid relationships, and new military capabilities, one might miss the key point in the list of “strategic dialogue” accomplishments: Taiwan. The Trump administration pursued a hybrid Taiwan policy. Trump himself did not seem to care much about the place, as the memoir of his national security adviser John Bolton showed. But Trump’s lieutenants pursued an approach intended to strengthen unofficial and official connections with the island, while vaguely assuring Beijing that it was operating within the framework agreed to by previous administrations: to pursue a one-China policy, governed by the Taiwan Relations Act, the three joint communiqués with China, and the unilateral US “six assurances” to Taiwan. Toward the end of the Trump term, then secretary of state Mike Pompeo seemed to be trying to throw the entire history of the relationship out the window as he left office, when he ordered State Department guidelines on business with Taiwan to be discarded. It was important to China to make sure this did not happen. From the earliest days of relations with the US, the Taiwan issue has been front and centre for Beijing. Chinese leaders proved willing over time to be quite flexible on Taiwan with the US for strategic, economic or other purposes, but they could never permit undermining of the ultimate dream of “reunifying” with the island. Doing so would invite domestic destruction of the Communist Party’s pretensions to its claim to realise the dream of Chinese nationalism, a core buttress for their regime. Since Biden was elected, he has also continued some of the hybrid behaviour of his predecessor’s administration. He has echoed the strong views in favour of Taiwan coming from both parties in Congress. In the face of Chinese military patrols near the island, Biden’s spokesperson pronounced support for Taiwan to be “rock solid”. Secretary of State Antony Blinken publicly called on Paraguay’s government not to switch relations from Taipei to Beijing. Taiwan is said to be included in Biden’s planned “summit of democracies” later this year. But, when Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen placed a congratulatory phone call to Biden, Blinken took the call instead, avoiding the controversy incurred when Trump personally accepted a similar call in 2016. In early February, the Chinese news agency reported State Department spokesman Ned Price affirming US support of the one-China policy. US-China relations won’t improve until Beijing ends trade row with Australia, Biden aide says So Biden’s team wants to have its cake – sounding tough on Taiwan – while eating it, too, by not pushing Beijing over the edge by abandoning the one-China policy. Is this a good thing for China but a bad thing for the US? Not in my view. The US needs Biden to repair much of the damage done internationally by Trump, and not to make things unstable in the meantime. Visiting allies; virtually gathering the Quad, namely the loose security grouping of the US, Japan, India, and Australia; restoring American reliability – all these recent actions will help. But the US has to reach deep within itself to deal with the pandemic, right social wrongs, and restore competitiveness. This is the work of years, not days. Keeping the peace in the Taiwan Strait, meanwhile, is not a high price to pay to buy the time necessary. It is statesmanship. Douglas H. Paal is a nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He previously served as an unofficial US representative to Taiwan as director of the American Institute in Taiwan (2002–2006). This essay was first published by the Asian Peace Programme (APP) , which is part of the Asia Research Institute at the National University of Singapore.