• Bloomberg


The U.S. and China laid out differing expectations for a key first meeting next week, showing the domestic pressure on both sides to avoid looking weak while reopening relations.

The encounter in Alaska between U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and national security adviser Jake Sullivan and their Chinese counterparts, Foreign Minister Wang Yi and top diplomat Yang Jiechi, would represent the highest-level meeting between the two sides since President Joe Biden took office. But the two sides quickly disagreed over whether the exchange was a “strategic dialogue,” a reference to regular talks that fell apart under former President Donald Trump.

“This is not a strategic dialogue — there’s no intent at this point for a series of follow-on engagements,” Blinken told members of Congress on Wednesday. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian later released a response to Blinken’s remarks, describing the meetings on March 18 and 19 as a “high-level strategic dialogue” being held “at the invitation of the U.S.”

The posturing illustrates the high stakes for a meeting that could set the tone for the world’s most important diplomatic relationship. While Biden faces bipartisan demands for maintaining much of Trump’s hard-line approach to Beijing, Chinese President Xi Jinping must also contend with deep nationalist support for pushing back against U.S. pressure over issues from trade to Taiwan.

Still, the meeting demonstrates a willingness to re-engage after ties last year sank to their lowest level in decades, with both nations ramping up sanctions and tariffs, expelling journalists and closing consulates. The U.S. and China have both expressed interest in collaborating on global issues such as climate change and indicated an openness to make early goodwill gestures.

“It’s already a good gesture by the Biden administration given the U.S. domestic politics,” said Zhu Feng, a professor of international relations at Nanjing University. “Both sides have insisted the other should right the wrongs. It’ll be a positive result if the two countries could go further than repeating such rhetoric, and start to build back dialogue mechanisms on issues of concerns, such as technology decoupling, Taiwan and trade.”

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang told his annual news briefing Thursday in Beijing that he hoped to see “various levels” of dialogue with the Biden administration. “Even if we cannot work everything out any time soon, such exchange of views will help boost trust and dispel misgivings,” Li said.

The face-to-face meeting will come on the heels of days of high-profile meetings between U.S. officials and key Asia-Pacific partners, including the first-ever state leaders meeting from the Quad grouping of democracies. The schedule — as well as the venue on American soil — allows the U.S. side to project strength.

Blinken told the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee that future engagements with China would happen only if the administration saw tangible progress on the issues of concern. “But this is an opportunity for us to put it on the table,” he said.

The Chinese delegation will arrive in Alaska days after lawmakers in Beijing defied U.S. sanctions to approve sweeping legislation to limit the opposition’s participation in Hong Kong elections. The measure was passed as part of an annual legislative session that ratified a series of plans aimed at expanding China’s economy, modernizing its military and reducing the country’s dependence on American technology.

Both Yang and Wang have suggested in recent remarks that the onus was on the U.S. to repair ties after four years of Trump, and they’ve urged Washington to reopen regular dialogue platforms.

“We demand the U.S. adopt an objective and rational attitude toward bilateral ties, abandon its Cold War mentality and zero-sum mindset, respect China’s sovereignty, security and development interests, and stop interfering in China’s internal affairs,” Zhao, the Foreign Ministry spokesman, said Thursday.

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