Why the U.S.-China Strategic Rivalry Has Intensified

- NATIONAL INTEREST - Mar 22, 2021 -

Paul Heer -

One of the core challenges for U.S.-China relations going forward will be finding the right balance between competition and cooperation.

The outcome of the U.S.-China meeting in Anchorage on March 18–19, which amounted to little more than a mutual airing of grievances and staking out of battle lines, could easily have been predicted based on the way both sides framed the meeting in advance. On the day before, China’s official news service published a commentary saying the “arrival of the long-awaited official dialogue” was an opportunity for Beijing and Washington to “build strategic trust, avoid strategic miscalculation, and manage differences.” The two sides “need to return to normal engagement at all levels.” But the commentary added that this would require Washington to “be more pragmatic” and discard its “deep-rooted prejudices against China.” Reinforcing the latter point, an editorial in a Chinese Communist Party newspaper said “the Chinese public has little expectation that this dialogue can achieve any substantive results” because of “a series of offensive words and deeds” by the United States and the possibility that the meeting would only be “a stage for the US to put unilateral pressure on China.” In anticipation of such pressure, both articles emphasized Beijing’s firm position on sovereignty issues—especially Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Xinjiang—and its rejection of U.S. interference in Beijing’s internal affairs.

For its part, the White House previewed the meeting in a briefing session for journalists that was clearly aimed at similarly lowering expectations. The Anchorage sessions would be “a one-off meeting” rather than the “beginning of a dialogue process.” It would be just an “initial discussion to understand one another’s interests” and priorities, with no expectation of “specific negotiated deliverables.” But the White House also promised a firm U.S. approach: “we’re going to lay down some specific areas where we believe that Beijing [needs] to take some steps to change course” and “be very, very blunt with their principals about the long list of [US] concerns” about Chinese behavior. One of the White House briefers added: “if we happen to have some serious disagreements in Anchorage, I’m not very confident that we’re going to be able to persuade the Chinese of the error of their ways and the righteousness of ours just over the course of a couple of hours’ worth of talks.”

As is now known, that is precisely how it played out, at least during the opening public session of the meeting. During his opening statement, Secretary of State Antony Blinken highlighted Washington’s “deep concerns with actions by China, including in Xinjiang, Hong Kong, Taiwan, cyber attacks on the United States, and economic coercion toward our allies” that “threaten the rules-based order that maintains global stability.” National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan emphasized that these concerns and China’s “assaults on basic values” are “on the minds of the American people” but have also been voiced by U.S. allies and partners and “the broader international community.”

China’s top diplomat Yang Jiechi, responding on the grounds that such harsh messages should have been reserved for the private sessions (a view shared by some experienced US diplomats), delivered a much longer opening statement that mentioned a desire for “sincere and candid” talks but was mostly an invective rejoinder to the presentations by Blinken and Sullivan. Yang criticized what he deemed Washington’s imposition on other countries of “the so-called ‘rules-based’ international order”; the manifest flaws of American democracy; U.S. international behavior that brings “turmoil and instability” to the world; and Washington’s “Cold War mentality and zero-sum game approach.” His colleague, Chinese State Councilor Wang Yi, added that “unwarranted accusations from the US side” have undermined “China’s legitimate rights and interests” and are responsible for the “period of unprecedented difficulty” in U.S.-China relations.

Given this prelude, it is not surprising that the subsequent private sessions apparently yielded little of substance. China’s official news service described the talks as “timely, helpful, candid, and constructive,” and said Beijing is “ready to work with the United States to enhance strategic communication [and] advance mutually beneficial cooperation.” But it also repeated Wang’s reference to Washington’s “irrational suppression of China’s legitimate rights and interests,” and reiterated Beijing’s principled positions on all the issues that were reportedly addressed in Anchorage. Blinken told the press that “we knew going in that there are a number of areas where we are fundamentally at odds” and that “it’s no surprise that when we raised those issues clearly and directly, we got a defensive response.” But he added that the two sides had “a very candid conversation” on a wide range of bilateral and global issues. The two sides reportedly agreed to establish a joint working group on climate change and to discuss some reciprocal arrangements for working-level diplomats and journalists. These are important and constructive steps, but a meager output.



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