The United States will take an uncompromising stance in talks with China on Thursday in Alaska, officials have said, in the first face-to-face meetings between senior officials from the two rivals since U.S. President Joe Biden took office.
Beijing has called for a reset to ties, now at their lowest in decades, but Washington has said the Alaska talks will be a one-off, and any future engagement depends on China improving its behaviour.
"We look forward to the opportunity to lay out in very clear terms to our Chinese counterparts some of the concerns that we have about the actions they're taking," U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Wednesday in Tokyo.
Blinken and national security adviser Jake Sullivan will meet China's top diplomat Yang Jiechi and State Councilor Wang Yi in Alaska, fresh off of visits to allies Japan and South Korea aimed at emphasizing the U.S. commitment to the Indo-Pacific in the face of Beijing's rise.
In Tokyo on Tuesday, Blinken pledged to push back against Beijing's "coercion and aggression," including its expansive territorial claims in the East and South China Seas. read more
It was a measure of the bluntness that has come to mark the U.S. posture toward Beijing under Biden, as the world's two largest economies search for a semblance of stable ground on which to base ties, after they sank under former President Donald Trump.
The Anchorage meeting – the first high-level face-to-face exchange since June when Blinken's predecessor, Mike Pompeo, held a frosty meeting with Yang in Hawaii – is likely to be short on diplomatic niceties, or outcomes.
Due to COVID restrictions, there are no plans for a shared meal, which had been a feature of recent exchanges. And there are indications that the two sides have divergent expectations.
Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian has referred to the talks as a "high-level strategic dialogue". read more
China hopes the meeting will help set a broad framework for resuming engagement, rather than resolve specific issues, a person in Beijing familiar with planning for the talks told Reuters.
But Biden officials have been explicit that Alaska is not a return to regular dialogue, which under previous administrations did little to resolve Washington's concerns with Beijing.
"We expect that there are parts of the conversation that could be difficult," White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters.
A senior U.S. administration official said at a briefing that Washington would be looking at "deeds, not words" if Beijing wanted to change the tone of the relationship. read more
'FIRST ROUND OF A BOXING MATCH'
On paper, at least, the context for bilateral relations has changed for Beijing since Trump, with his go-it-alone "America First" foreign policy. Biden has pledged to restore American alliances, and its partners appear ready to oblige.
The United States, Japan, India, and Australia last week held a leaders' summit, pledging to cooperate on maritime, cyber, and economic security, issues vital to the four democracies in the face of challenges from China. read more
And the Biden administration has embarked on a "Europe roadshow", what U.S. officials have been calling daily engagement with Europe on issues including China's rise. read more
Evan Medeiros, an Asia specialist in the Obama administration who now teaches at Georgetown University, called the Alaska talks "the first round of a boxing match" that was unlikely to resolve any major issues, but could lower the chance of future miscalculations between the rivals.
"I think it's largely going to be an airing of grievances on both sides," Medeiros said.