The US and China had their first high-level talks since the new Biden administration came into office. What does the meeting mean for the two nation’s regional and global partners, and will the two great powers create lasting change to the current tense situation brewing in the Indo-Pacific?

Evgenii Iastrubinskii, Taiwan Center for Security Studies

The US and China’s officials held the first senior-level meeting since the inauguration of President Joe Biden in Anchorage, Alaska. The US side included Secretary of State Antony Blinken and US national security adviser Jake Sullivan. Their Chinese counterpart envoy included Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Chinese Central Foreign Affairs Commission Director Yang Jiechi.

Prior to the meeting, experts believe that the US and China have many topics to touch upon. As we saw after the second day had ended, the negotiations did indeed cover much ground, some quite rocky. Starting from more general and widely concerned issues like climate change, fighting COVID-19 and global economic recovery and narrowing down to more specific topics like disputes in South China Sea and China’s violation of Human Rights in Hong Kong and Xinjiang. Last week, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has already told Yang Jiechi, that the US would “defend its national interests, stand up for democratic values and hold Beijing accountable for its abuses of the international system”. Earlier in January, Biden’s National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan also said that the US will impose costs on China for its treatment of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang, its crackdown on democracy advocates in Hong Kong and “bellicosity” towards Taiwan.

It was expected that during the meeting both countries will try resetting their pivotal relationship. However, due to their cultural differences, it was foreshadowed that China and the US will focus on different topics of negotiations. China will be willing to discuss the general direction and overall framework of bilateral relations, while the US will try to use the meeting to solve specific issues or even try to “lecture” China how it should behave on the international arena. As we see in hindsight, these speculations have indeed come to pass.

While both countries really need to meet and restart the official channels of communications after the deterioration in relations during the Trump administration, the Biden administration has clearly signaled that it intends to rely heavily on alliances to counter potential threats from China.

It remains to be seen to what extent the Biden administration can enlist Seoul and Tokyo in confronting China, Washington has already made some steps that can help reveal its intentions. Such as the deal between Washington and Seoul for maintaining American bases in South Korea, or the precision-strike missile network currently being established along the first island chain.

In the light of the current events happening prior to the US-China meeting in Alaska, it is obvious that Biden has made confronting China’s military and trade expansion a top foreign policy priority. His administration has continued his predecessor’s hawkish approach towards China with more emphasis on strategic alliances.

Unfortunately, American diplomacy in general is no longer as skillful today as it was in the days of Henry Kissinger – a time when the US was able to put aside specific problems and focus on broader issues of concern to both the United States and China. This meeting in Anchorage will show whether American diplomats are still able to take into consideration other countries national interests and work together with other nations, achieving a win-win result, which the US has not been good at for the past few decades.

Why Alaska?

Why choosing Alaska as a negotiation venue also remains an issue that has been largely subject to speculation. Some experts believe that Anchorage would be a geographical halfway point for the two sides, away from the global media’s glare and thus giving both sides a chance to discuss their strained relationship in a more neutral atmosphere. According to another opinion, choosing Alaska is just a symbolic gesture to show how important that the first meeting between two countries officials will happen on US soil. There is also a reason to believe that choosing Anchorage has a significant meaning for the history of the US-China relations because as some experts observe, in the past, direct flights from Beijing to New York or Washington in the US mainland had to stop at Anchorage. Another reason could be that climate change would be the nexus that will allow China and the United States to continue diplomatic dialogue and work together. In this regard, the choice of Alaska as a place for negotiations is perfect. After all, it is here in the Arctic that dramatic changes in climate are seen better than anywhere else in the world.