US-China High Level Talks in Alaska Paint Contrasting Worldviews, with a Caveat
Despite multiple dramatic moments for the cameras from the bilateral talks in Anchorage, Alaska, media outlets followed up on the meeting with rather different narratives on the outcome of the talks.
Richard Chen and Jaime Ocon, Taiwan Center for Security Studies
After days of heavy lifting during Sec. Blinken and Sec. Austin’s first international tour through the Asia-Pacific, top diplomats from the US and China met for a two-day high level talks in Anchorage, Alaska on March 18th. The significance of the meet in Alaska was interpreted through bifurcated lenses from Beijing and Washington; as well as the international community covering the talks. Such a rift can be felt during the opening session of the talks, as fiery back and forth between the two sides kicked off the two-day conference.
Since the meeting, narratives from both sides have been spun in all directions. What remains unchanged for both China and the US is that both sides were, as NSA Jake Sullivan would put it, “clear-eyed coming in and clear-eyed coming out”. Coming out of the meeting, it would be fair to say that the relationship of the two nations have decisively and permanently shifted from the decades-old model of engaging and assimilating China, to strategic engagement on an issue-by-issue relationship.
According to the US, “there are a number of areas where we are fundamentally at odds [with China]”. However, senior officials from the Biden administration also noted that once the cameras finally left the room, the parties continued on working through the proposed issues on the agenda. Civil, candid and substantive discussions followed the fireworks display in the opening session. Which included non-proliferation, Iran, North Korea, and keeping each other informed of their approach in dealing with the crisis in Myanmar.
During the meeting, US Secretary of State Blinken defined the relationship with China to be “competitive where it should be, collaborative where it can be, and adversarial where it must be”. These three dynamics show the evolution of US foreign policy towards China, vis a vis the previous US administration—which internalized competition and adversarial attitudes to a fault. Biden’s team is seemingly cognizant of the need for cooperation around certain crucial issues, in lieu of Trump’s going-at-it alone tendencies during the past four years.
On the other hand, China’s state-run media, Xinhua News, fully pushed the narrative that the talks in Alaska went well and concluded with promises to reconvene in the future. Even going as far as to suggest that the two leaders would meet during the US-proposed Leaders’ Climate Summit in April, coinciding with Earth Day.
Whether it is state media or the foreign ministry, the Chinese official narrative of the meeting in Alaska overwhelmingly stated that by the end both sides had accomplished much in an array of areas. These include (1) setting up a joint working group on climate change, (2) reciprocal arrangements for the vaccination of each other’s diplomats and consular officials, and as previously mentioned (3) enhancing communication and coordination on other topics, such as Myanmar and others. The Chinese continuously pushed the phone call between presidents Xi Jinping and Joe Biden over the Lunar New Year last month as the essence of bilateral relations, and often cited the “spirit of the telephone conversation”. It is clear that Beijing wishes to move forward with China-US relations with formalized and official channels of “high-level strategic communication”, similar to past arrangements under the Obama administration. This is something which the US has yet to agree upon.
What stood out as a caveat was a noticeable disconnect between how Washington and Beijing view the current world order, and whether or not the so often quoted diction of a “rules-based world order” is one led by the spirit of liberal democracy. According to Yang Jiechi, Director of the Central Foreign Affairs Commission Office of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP): "What China and the international community follow or uphold is the United Nations-centered international system and the international order underpinned by international law, not what is advocated by a small number of countries of the so-called rules-based international order”.
Ultimately, the exchange in Alaska is a necessary first step towards a more clarified and transparent relationship between the two major powers on the world stage. Even if both countries took the opportunity to air some dirty laundry, the theatrics may often overshadow real-world solutions that are simply much more mundane.
The Quad Under the Shadow of China’s Power
The Quad undeniably has a vision with its regional projects and intentions. However, focusing too much on counterbalancing China's rise could jeopardize its true purpose.
Elpeni Fitrah – Taiwan Center for Security Studies
After successfully convening the first-ever head of government's summit meeting two weeks ago, the Quad leaders, as represented by Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, believe the Quad can lead a multi-layered recovery in the Indo-Pacific. Nevertheless, when those agendas are infused with "cold war mentalities" in their rhetoric, then it loses focus on the primary goal of restoring regional stability. That's probably why many experts do not share the same optimism, knowing that China's rise is unfolding. Trying to halt China's aggressiveness in expanding its influence toward global competition is indeed a big challenge for this new bloc. On the other hand, the internal cohesiveness of the Quad still needs much solidification.
The bilateral meeting of the US and China's top diplomats in Anchorage, Alaska, last Thursday was marked by bickering between the two delegates in front of the media, further proving that the two global powers' relationship is indeed very problematic and prone to conflicting interests. Therefore, the diplomatic initiative of the building as many political alliances as possible with like-minded partners around the world is believed to be a brilliant step to strengthen the Biden administration's regional strategy and reset its dominance in the region. For that reason, China considers the Quad as a US-led attempt to contain Beijing. Some even perceive it as a NATO-Esque security forum in Asia.
Furthermore, many experts recently questioned whether the US and the Quad really have a strategic action plan on pre-empting China's emergence as the region's hegemon. It’s because, at the same time, China has already taken advantage of the current pandemic situation to expand its influence to the world, especially to Southeast Asia, through "vaccine diplomacy" as a soft power instrument. As a result, some ASEAN countries had already begun administering Chinese or Russian vaccines -with significant countries within the region, such as Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand, entrust Sinovac and Sinopharm vaccines from China and Sputnik V from Russia to accelerate the post-pandemic recovery process.
This factor seems to be the trigger why the Quad Coalition has thoughtfully designed a vaccine coordination mechanism to provide more than 1 billion doses of Covid-19 vaccine to partner countries in the Indo-Pacific region, with a particular focus on members of the ASEAN. Apart from undertaking to regain trust and restore its credibility in Southeast Asia, the US and its ally partners believe that this is an open arena that symbolically reflects its strategic competition against China.
The competition has become increasingly fierce as China has become the largest trading partner of almost all US allies in the Asia Pacific region. ASEAN, as a prospective partner of the Quad, received wide-ranging benefits to its close trade bilateral with China through ASEAN-China Free Trade Area (ACFTA) since 2010. Therefore, it's difficult for the US to compel its allies to give up their vast economic benefits in relations with China, which not all states are willing to bear the cost of.
Furthermore, it's pretty challenging for the Quad to comprehensively implement its vision since each member has unique sets of outlooks, perceptions, and interests for the Indo-Pacific region. Japan prefers to put forward the concept of the "confluence of two seas" (reflecting the Indian and Pacific oceans) as a medium to establish a democratic arc of prosperity in the region. Meanwhile, Australia is in dire need of regional security infrastructure to protect its national interest in the expansion of global capitalism. On the other hand, India is not a formal treaty ally of the US like Japan or Australia. It has more strategic autonomy and maintains a complex set of relations with Russia and China, as seen from Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. For now, India is trying to build its construction of Indo-Pacific strategies by initiating new alliances with other European powers like France and Russia. India also reported discussing partnerships with ASEAN, the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA), and the Indian Ocean Commission. Furthermore, in the upcoming month, India is slated to host the 2021 BRICS Summit, a somewhat different grouping where China and Russia are members, alongside Brazil and South Africa. Speculative reports indicated that China's President Xi Jinping might attend the meeting. This conference is believed to potentially change the political dynamics and constellation in the global arena.
On the one hand, the contestation between the two hegemons has presented a favorable balance of power in the Indo Pacific. However, there is still much room that requires constructive cooperation between the two parties to restore regional stability, for example, post-pandemic recovery and climate change issues, as well as stressing values of democracy and human rights for the substantial rule-based international order.