Biden lays groundwork for high-stakes China meeting

President Biden and Secretary of State Anthony Blinken speak with leaders of The Quad
Getty Images

President Biden is preparing to confront China on a range of issues in the coming week as he seeks to reassert America’s position on the global stage.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken and national security adviser Jake Sullivan are set to meet with their Chinese counterparts in Alaska in what will be the first high-level meeting between the two countries since Biden took office.

The meeting will follow an effort by the White House to demonstrate U.S. solidarity with its allies in the Indo-Pacific. Biden is seeking to work in solidarity with other countries to stand up to Beijing, in contrast with his predecessor’s go-it-alone approach.

The president wants to work with China on areas of mutual concern, such as the coronavirus pandemic and climate change, but not without pushing back on its crackdown on human rights, unfair trade practices and theft of U.S. technology.

Balancing those efforts will be challenging, and before he even took office Republicans sought to brand Biden as soft on China in comparison to former President Trump.

Biden on Friday met with the leaders of Australia, Japan and India, which together with the U.S. comprise the “Quad,” as all four nations experience rising tensions with China.

“The four leaders did discuss the challenge posed by China and they made clear that none of them have any illusions about China, but today was not fundamentally about China,” Sullivan told reporters Friday, noting that the focus of the meeting was cooperation on the pandemic and climate change. 

Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin are also slated to travel to Japan and South Korea next week, ahead of the Alaska meeting with Chinese officials.

“The U.S. signal is that U.S. alliances are strong and U.S. commitment to the region is solid,” said Bonnie Glaser, director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “The subtext is like-minded countries will cooperate to push back against China, even as the Quad members don’t label their grouping an anti-China coalition.”

Officials say the meeting in Alaska is about 50 days in the making, a culmination of steps the administration has taken since January 20 to shore up America’s stability at home and reinforce its relationships with allies abroad.

Sullivan argued that Biden officials will enter the meeting next Friday “from a position of strength,” noting the president’s domestic achievement with the signing of his $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief bill, efforts to repair alliances and ongoing work with European partners on a common approach to Beijing.

Officials are expected to raise concerns with the Chinese on multiple topics, such as Hong Kong, Beijing’s lack of transparency on the coronavirus and its treatment of the Uighur population in Xinjiang. Sullivan also indicated Friday that officials would broach issues of concern to members of the Quad, such as China’s incursions near the Senkaku Islands and aggression at the Indian border.

“This is our effort to communicate clearly to the Chinese government how the United States intends to proceed at a strategic level, what we believe our fundamental interests and values are, and what our concerns with their activities are,” Sullivan said.

Biden has tried to both draw a contrast with the former administration’s confrontational approach to Beijing while also firmly pushing back against China’s abuses.

China is also a key partner in the administration’s goal of rejoining the nuclear deal with Iran, including getting Tehran to reverse steps that have put it out of compliance with the accord.

China is one of the signatories to the nuclear deal, formally called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), along with the other permanent members of the United Nations Security Council — France, Germany, the United Kingdom and Russia — and the European Union.

“We’ve been engaged with all of the parties to the JCPOA, to include China… to get their assessments of the prospects of Iran returning to compliance with its obligations, and urging them to use what influence they have with Iran to return to its obligations,” Blinken said during a hearing with lawmakers on Wednesday.

The Biden team is currently reviewing a handful of Trump administration policies related to China, including tariffs imposed as part of the former president’s prolonged trade war to try to change China’s economic behavior. Biden also ordered a Defense Department review of the U.S. military strategy with respect to China last month.

Lisa Curtis, who served as National Security Council director for South and Central Asia under Trump, said that the new administration has somewhat “softened” the last administration’s rhetoric on China while not backing away from its stance against human rights abuses in Xinjiang.

“President Biden’s statement that his administration will pursue ‘extreme competition’ with China has quieted skeptics who feared the new administration might revert to policies pursued in the Obama years that aimed to placate China to get its support on the climate change issue,” said Curtis, who is now a senior fellow at the Center for New American Security.

“While it is too early to determine in which areas the Biden team will try to cooperate with China and how far they might go to obtain Chinese support on climate change, early indications point to a much more skeptical approach to China and a greater awareness of the challenges a rising China poses to U.S. national security than we saw during the Obama administration,” she continued.    

Chinese officials routinely reject criticisms from the U.S. on its government, human rights record, military posture and diplomatic engagement.

“We ask the United States to view China and China-U.S. relations in an objective and rational manner, reject the Cold-War and zero-sum game mentality, respect China’s sovereignty, security and development interests, and stop interfering in China’s internal affairs,” Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Zhao Lijian said following the announcement of the Alaska summit.

“It should follow the spirit of the phone call between the Chinese and U.S. presidents, focus on cooperation, manage differences, and bring the China-US relationship back to the right track of sound and steady development.”

But the U.S. has bolstered its own criticisms with the support of allied countries in an effort to dwarf Beijing’s defenses and effect change.

“The most important first step is to speak up and speak out,” Blinken told lawmakers on Wednesday, regarding the Biden administration’s approach to promoting human rights and democracy.

“We also want to make sure that we’re building coalitions of like minded countries who share these deep concerns about human rights abuses in China, or for that matter anywhere else.”

Most recently the U.S. put out a joint statement with the Group of Seven countries and the EU condemning China for imposing electoral changes in Hong Kong that increase the number of Beijing-sanctioned officials in the territory’s legislature.

Curtis said that, while statements in support of human rights in Xinjiang and Hong Kong may not cause China to immediately change its behavior, they “set the tone globally on these issues.”

“Over time, and with the weight of other international voices, China could come under more pressure to acknowledge the international censure and do something about it,” she said.

Tags Antony Blinken Australia China Climate change Coronavirus coronavirus pandemic Donald Trump India Iran Jake Sullivan Japan Joe Biden Lloyd Austin Russia South Korea The Quad Uighur

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