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Yang Jiechi, right, director of the Central Foreign Affairs Commission Office for China, and Wang Yi, left, China's foreign affairs minister, arrive for a meeting with US counterparts at the opening session of US-China talks at the Captain Cook Hotel in Anchorage, Alaska. Photo: AFP

Is US-China friction at Alaska meetings a sign of worse to come or start of something better?

  • Analysts in Asia say both Washington and Beijing are hesitant to give ground on issues that divide them, like the South China Sea
  • But others see possible areas of cooperation, such as over Myanmar, climate change and the coronavirus pandemic
The testy start to the Alaska meetings between the United States and China has taken analysts by surprise, with some pointing out that it does not augur well for US-China relations but others expressing cautious optimism that relations could return to an even keel despite the initial friction.

Chong Ja Ian, a political science professor at the National University of Singapore, said that while some discord was foreseen, “the degree of stridency was somewhat unexpected and has echoes of some of the early Cold War meetings between the former Soviet Union and the US”.

Chong said tensions were expected to continue under the Joe Biden administration, although he added it was unlikely that either side wants to see a complete breakdown in relations.

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“Until then, other parties in Asia and beyond will have to face the challenge of having to constantly adjust to developing circumstances,” Chong said.

James Chin, Asian studies professor at the University of Tasmania in Hobart, Australia, said the inauspicious start indicated that both the US and China would “disengage for a little while and try to come back at a later time”.

“But in the immediate future, it will be very difficult for both sides to give in” on the issues that divide them, Chin said, adding that there was also concern among the Association of Southeast Asian Nations that Washington could take steps to confront Beijing in the South China Sea.


Gloves off at top-level US-China summit in Alaska with on-camera sparring

Gloves off at top-level US-China summit in Alaska with on-camera sparring

“A bipolar world may even emerge if these bad feelings [between US and China] cannot be resolved”, Chin warned.

During the face-off in Alaska between the US team of Secretary of State Antony Blinken and national security adviser Jake Sullivan, and China’s team of senior foreign policy official Yang Jiechi and Foreign Minister Wang Yi, Beijing accused Washington of inciting other countries “to attack China”, while Washington said China had “arrived intent on grandstanding”.

The US also expressed concerns with Chinese policies in Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Taiwan, as well as over cyberattacks on the US and the economic coercion of US allies. Meanwhile, China accused the US of using its military might and financial supremacy to suppress other countries.

Describing the start of the talks as “pretty extraordinary”, Andrew Gilholm, director of analysis for Greater China and North Asia at global risk consultancy Control Risks, said the “two sides talked past each other, loudly, to domestic audiences, with no real expectation of exiting a largely negative bilateral trajectory.”

Noting that both sides were convinced that blame and the responsibility to make concessions lies with the other, Gilholm said bilateral tensions were unlikely to be smoothed in the short term.

China’s two top foreign policy officials would not be in Alaska now if positive prospects were unlikely. They don’t walk into traps
Josef Gregory Mahoney, East China Normal University

“They are going to keep playing out with actions like the ones we’ve seen in recent months, albeit with less bombast and more consistency than the previous administration,” Gilholm said, referring to the greater technological competition between the two, and Washington’s efforts to build an “anti-China” coalition.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak, political science professor at Thailand’s Chulalongkorn University, noted that while the Chinese team in Alaska had an edge over the US negotiating side due to the continuity and experience of its officials, the US team’s pushback against China at the talks appeared more professional and less dramatic “in tone and measure”.

He expressed hope that both the US and China would cooperate in bringing an end to the coup in Myanmar

Josef Gregory Mahoney, a professor of politics at East China Normal University in Shanghai, said that even though there were genuine frustrations and posturing by both sides at the talks, the two countries had compelling reasons to improve relations on multiple fronts.

US national security adviser Jake Sullivan, right, speaks as US Secretary of State Antony Blinken looks on at the opening session of US-China talks in Anchorage. Photo: AFP

“We might not see a lot of public movement on more contentious issues in the next few weeks, but I suspect the groundwork will be laid in this meeting, perhaps quietly, for resolving the trade war, drawing clearer lines on tech competition, and a mutual understanding if not respect for each other’s red lines related to security concerns,” Mahoney said.

“China’s two top foreign policy officials would not be in Alaska now if positive prospects were unlikely. They don’t walk into traps,” Mahoney added.

Wang Huiyao, president of the Centre for China and Globalisation, a Beijing-based think tank, said it was important for both countries to cooperate in fighting the Covid pandemic as well as tackling climate change and global recession issues.

“President Joe Biden and President Xi Jinping will probably meet at the April Earth Day climate change summit,” Wang said, referring to a summit meeting of world leaders set to convene on April 22. “We hope that both countries can work on these urgent issues rather than geopolitical issues to fulfil their global moral responsibilities.”


Earlier this week, accompanied by US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin, Blinken also visited Japan and South Korea, where Washington criticised Beijing for its “coercion and aggression”, including in its expansive territorial claims in the East and South China Seas.

While Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi agreed that China’s behaviour was “destabilising”, South Korean Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong did not mention China by name.

Explaining that Seoul did not want the meeting to be seen as “explicitly anti-China”, Lee Seong-hyon, the director of the Centre for Chinese Studies at the Sejong Institute in Seoul, said the trips by the US officials had, at least, brought Japan and South Korea closer together.

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Before Blinken’s visit, Lee said that Tokyo had been “cold-shouldering” Seoul, and had not responded to Chung’s condolence message on the anniversary of Japan’s Fukushima earthquake. But after Blinken’s visit to Tokyo, Motegi replied to Chung, and this exchange, Lee said, was the first between the two foreign ministers since Chung took office in early February.

Ties between the two East Asian neighbours have been on a downward slope since a South Korean court ruled in November 2018 that Japanese companies must pay compensation to victims of forced labour during the Japanese occupation. Japan retaliated by imposing trade restrictions on exports.

Kim Youngjun, a national security affairs professor at South Korea’s National Defence University, said that Seoul needed Beijing’s support to resolve denuclearisation and other issues relating to North Korea.

This, Kim said, partly explained Seoul’s “strategic ambiguous position” on the Quad alliance – which comprises the US, Japan, India and Australia and is widely seen as a coalition against China. There had been speculation at one time that Seoul would be asked to join the grouping.

Jonathan Berkshire Miller, a senior fellow at the Japan Institute of International Affairs, said that South Korea’s reluctance in joining the Quad also stemmed from its reservations that the grouping had its “intellectual origins in Japan”, referring to how former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is widely seen as the brainchild of the Quad.