US-China tensions run high ahead of critical meeting

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Tensions are running high as Biden cabinet officials prepare to meet with the Chinese in Alaska on Thursday, setting the stage for what is likely to be a contentious first high-level engagement between the new administration and Beijing.   

Secretary of State Antony Blinken and President Biden’s national security adviser Jake Sullivan will huddle for the first time face-to-face with Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi and top Chinese diplomat Yang Jiechi in Anchorage in what Biden administration officials expect to be a “one-off” meeting. 

In a move that is likely to rattle the Chinese, Blinken announced late Tuesday that the U.S. is sanctioning 24 Chinese officials over an overhaul of election laws earlier this month, accusing Beijing of an effort to “unilaterally undermine Hong Kong’s electoral system.” 

The decision was a clear signal of the new administration’s plans to put pressure on China over actions it views as violations of international rules and norms, despite Beijing’s criticisms that Washington is interfering in its domestic affairs.  

Blinken will also arrive in Alaska following his first trip abroad engaging U.S. allies Japan and South Korea, part of the administration’s strategy to approach the Chinese from a position of strength in lockstep with key allies in the region. 

The trips to Tokyo and Seoul were the first face-to-face meetings for the administration. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin was also part of that delegation. Both Blinken and Austin criticized China for what they described as aggressive, coercive and destabilizing behavior in the region.

“The relationship with China is a very complex one: 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 – the alliance, the cooperation among like-minded countries,” Blinken said in an interview with Japanese broadcasting network Nippon TV during his overseas trip.

“And when we’re working together, when we’re acting together, when we’re making clear our concerns together, that carries a much heavier weight than any one of our countries acting alone,” Blinken said. 

Biden met virtually last week with the leaders of Australia, India and Japan, part of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue. Administration officials stressed the meeting was not meant as a specific counter to China, though all share concerns about Beijing’s actions in the region. 

“We have had early and intensive engagements, virtually and now in person, to move out aggressively with our allies and partners,” a senior administration official said in a briefing with reporters Tuesday evening.

“And this is about working with our allies and partners on our shared interests and our shared values, but also in terms of understanding where we face similar challenges, including from China.”

A senior administration official also noted the importance of Blinken and Sullivan meeting together with the Chinese to demonstrate that the administration is “unified” when it comes to policy towards China, describing a track record by China of trying to “play favorites” and pit officials against one another.

Another core aspect of the Biden administration’s approach to China is presenting the U.S. as overcoming the challenges posed by the pandemic, dealing with the economic recession and the efforts to vaccinate the country. 

Administration officials stressed that passage of the president’s $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package was key in setting up the U.S. to compete with China economically and announcements on ramping up vaccine accessibility as beating back COVID-19 at home.

“We’ve got more work to do, but we feel like we are off to a pretty good start with the domestic efforts that are going to give us the sources of strength that we need to compete with China and to have an affirmative approach to the Indo-Pacific region,” a senior administration official said.The administration has set low expectations for the meeting, saying it would not include a deliverable or a joint statement by both sides and that there aren’t expectations for follow-on meetings. 

“This is very much about sitting down, getting an understanding of each other, and then taking that back and taking stock,” the senior administration official said.

Biden officials are expected to press China over human rights and economic issues as well as its aggressive actions in the Indo-Pacific. They may also discuss issues of potential cooperation like climate change and nuclear nonproliferation. Notably, China is a party to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal that Biden is seeking to restore to curb Tehran’s nuclear ambitions. 

Biden has tried to lower the temperature with China in comparison to the previous administration’s confrontational rhetoric by framing the U.S. as in stiff competition with Beijing and focusing on the need to rebuild America domestically to counter China. Still, the Biden administration has taken a firm stance against China’s human rights abuses and unfair trade practices. 

The new financial penalties announced overnight Tuesday related to Hong Kong, are likely to further put China on the defensive against the U.S.

Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Zhao Lijian reacted to the sanctions as a “severe violation of international law and norms governing international relations, and grave interference in China’s internal affairs.”

He further laid out Beijing’s stance ahead of the Alaska meeting, saying, “We believe that China’s determination to safeguard its sovereignty, security and development interests is crystal clear to the U.S. side.”

The Biden administration says its actions are about safeguarding “international rules, norms, and universal values.”

The administration is undertaking a review of many of the Trump administration’s policy moves on China, including tariffs targeting Chinese products and the first trade deal with China. The Pentagon is also reviewing the U.S. military posture towards Beijing. 

Biden also is facing pressure from some circles to lay out a more formal approach to China. 

The National Association of Manufacturers sent a letter to Biden on Wednesday urging him to publicly release a formal strategy aimed at strengthening the U.S. ability to compete with China and in particular help level the playing field for American manufacturers. 

“As you and your administration have rightfully signaled, we need a new approach to China — strong and strategic, rooted in American strengths and values and coordinated with our allies. And the time is now: China is not sitting still, signaling new trade and investment agreements with key allies in Europe and Asia just in the past few months,” Jay Timmons, the group’s president and CEO, wrote on Wednesday.


Tags Antony Blinken China Hong Kong India Jake Sullivan Japan Joe Biden Lloyd Austin Pentagon State Department
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