Alaska talks: communication better than confrontation

The two-day dialogue between the top diplomats of China and the United States, which concluded on Friday, proceeded according to the expectations of the two sides and defined bilateral relations in terms of cooperation, competition and confrontation.

Yang Jiechi, a member of the Political Bureau of the Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee and director of the Office of the Foreign Affairs Commission of the CPC Central Committee, Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan attend a high-level strategic dialogue in the Alaskan city of Anchorage, the United States, March 18, 2021. [Photo/Xinhua]

The two-day dialogue between the top diplomats of China and the United States, which concluded on Friday, proceeded according to the expectations of the two sides and defined bilateral relations in terms of cooperation, competition and confrontation.

However, the Alaska talks have yielded more-than-symbolic deliverables. According to Chinese post-dialogue statement, the two sides have agreed to establish a joint working group on climate challenge. And the US statement emphasized that both countries need to maintain cooperation to deal with climate crisis. The difference in the details of announcements show that both sides recognize the urgency to deal with the common challenge facing the humankind but may still differ on the detailed approach.

However, just as US Climate envoy John Kerry said in January that the US must deal with China on climate change as a "critical standalone issue". The climate change can be and should be a front in which both countries begin to reset ties.

In contrast to the US-Japan and US-Republic of Korea 2+2 talks, China and the US were represented by their top officials in charge of security and foreign affairs at the talks in Anchorage, Alaska. While the Chinese side was led by top diplomat Yang Jiechi, a member of the Communist Party of China's top decision-making body, and State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi, the US side was headed by Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan on the US side.

Since late last year, Wang has been asking his US counterpart to adopt the differentia approach the two sides adhered to in Alaska to steer bilateral ties in a positive direction. In Alaska, the two sides agreed to separately prepare a first list of issues of cooperation, a second list of issues of differences, and a third list on how to manage and control those differences.

In a similar vein, Blinken indicated before the Anchorage talks that the US will work with China whenever possible, compete with China when necessary, and fight against China when it must. Although he sounded blunt, he, officially, did not label China as a rival. Instead, US President Joe Biden and his national security team have defined China as a "very serious challenge", while labeling Russia as the US' arch enemy.

China and the US, in addition to cooperating in the fight against climate change, have also agreed to boost global efforts to contain the novel coronavirus pandemic and take necessary measures to restore normal visa issuing facilities. The two sides reportedly also discussed how to resolve the Korean Peninsula and Iranian nuclear issues.

Beijing and Washington are competing in many fields, with trade being the main area of competition. The Biden administration has not reversed its predecessor's trade policies. In particular, it has not withdrawn the tariffs on Chinese goods imposed by former US president Donald Trump. Recently, the Biden administration also urged China to reduce the State's role in the Chinese economy.

Therefore, trade issues will continue to influence Sino-US relations. Sino-US confrontation, especially the mutual charges, at the opening session of Anchorage talks, will continue to haunt both sides for some time to come. Blinken's opening remarks can be interpreted as unwarranted arrogance, inviting strong response from the Chinese side. Fortunately, China views the overall talks as being constructive and candid.

According to prior arrangement, China and the US were supposed to deliver much shorter opening remarks at the Alaska talks. But they spent nearly one hour sharply criticizing each other, casting a shadow on not only the Alaska dialogue but also, perhaps, the talks in the future.

Probably, such frank display of dissatisfaction may become the new normal and, hence, the two sides should not have high hopes from one round of bilateral dialogue. They might be pleased to make any headway at a high-level dialogue given the low level of mutual trust, but the lack of mutual trust could spiral into an unending squabble benefiting neither China or the US nor the rest of the world.

The US needs to understand that it cannot position itself as a preacher of norms and morality, especially at official talks. And the Chinese side should know that, if it doesn't agree with the US, it can adopt an approach of "agreeing to disagree" to keep alive the diplomatic discourse.

But the fact that China and the US are likely to continue engaging in bilateral dialogue in an effort to jointly resolve regional and global issues is far better than the two sides confronting each other on every possible issue during the Trump administration. As long as China and the US keep lower expectations, and cooperate on common global issues, they should be able to arrest the slide in bilateral ties and make renewed efforts to improve the Sino-US relationship.

The author is a professor at and former executive dean of the Institute of International Studies, Fudan University.

The views don't necessarily reflect those of China Daily.


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