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Is the US trying to turn China into a pariah?

Wesley Rahn
March 19, 2021

China tried to frame its first high-level meeting with the Biden administration as a step towards mending ties. But the US has been clear it wants to rally a global alliance to confront "threats" from Beijing.

Yang Jiechi speaks and Wang Yi adjusts his mask
The first high-level talks between the Biden adminstration and China have not gone smoothlyImage: Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images

A two-day meeting between top US diplomats and high-level Chinese representatives got underway in Alaska on Thursday, capping off a whirlwind week of Asia diplomacy for Washington.

After talks with Japan and South Korea earlier this week, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken came away with refreshed commitments to a "shared vision" for a "free and open" Indo Pacific, while slamming China for using "coercion and aggression to get its way."

In Alaska, Blinken was joined by US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan for what turned into an airing of grievances with top Chinese Communist Party diplomat Yang Jiechi and Foreign Minister Wang Yi.

The White House had said ahead of the talks that the Biden administration's first high-level, in-person meeting with Chinese representatives was being held from a "position of strength" and "in lockstep" with allies and partners.

At the meeting, Yang said US had a "cold war mentality" and used its military and economic power to "incite other countries to attack China."

Blinken accused China of "threatening the rules-based order that maintains global stability" with its policies on Hong Kong, Taiwan and Xinjiang.

Partner or Rival: How Dangerous Is China?

The top US diplomat had asked reporters to remain in the room to hear his response to Yang's remarks and US criticism of China's policies. This is not normal protocol at such high-level talks, which are usually held behind closed doors.

Earlier this week, Biden administration officials said the talks were aimed at making sure Beijing knew that US diplomats would deliver the same tough message in private as they have in public.

No thaw for frosty US-China relations

China had portrayed the event as the first step towards a détente, following four years of tension under former US President Donald Trump.

Ahead of the talks, Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said the Chinese diplomats were "invited by the US for a high-level strategic dialogue," which seeks to "bring the China-US relationship back to the right track of sound and steady development."

However, Blinken rejected that notion in front of the House Foreign Affairs Committee last week.

"This is not a strategic dialogue. There's no intent at this point for a series of follow-on engagements," he said.

"Those engagements ... really have to be based on the proposition that we're seeing tangible progress and tangible outcomes on the issues of concern to us with China," he added.

"China continues to push for what it calls a new type of great power relationship," Bonnie Glaser, director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), told DW.

"The 'strategic dialogue' frame fits their notion that the US and China are the leading powers that should make important decisions together about the world. The US shouldn't buy into that," she added.  

Biden continues Trump's hard line on China

However, at this point, "tangible outcomes" from Beijing over Washington's concerns about human rights, democracy and strategic stability seem far off.

The US recently slammed Beijing's crackdown on Hong Kong's pro-democracy movement. This week, the US imposed sanctions on 24 Chinese officials in response to a new election law imposed on Hong Kong by Beijing. The law would all but ensure pro-mainland parties control over the semi-autonomous territory's leadership.

Blinken also did not change the Trump administration's designation of "genocide" applied to China's mass-internment of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang province.

On strategic issues, the US says Beijing continues to defy international maritime law in the South China Sea by claiming sovereignty over most of the waterways and building up the People's Liberation Army to back up these claims.

US military officials are also warning of the threat of military conflict over Taiwan, which Beijing considers a breakaway province, and has long been a sore point in US-China relations.

Last week, China's Foreign Ministry rejected US criticism and demanded Washington "respect China's sovereignty, security and development interests, and stop interfering in China's internal affairs."

The Biden administration looks like it will stay the course on the hardline China policy from the previous administration. However, China's description of the Alaska talks as a "return to dialogue" indicates Beijing had high hopes the US would soften its policy.

"Part of the heated exchange you have in Alaska was due to disappointment on the Chinese side that the US is not seeking that route," Kharis Templeman, a political scientist at Stanford University's Hoover Institute, told DW.

"From their perspective, they think it is the US that should improve the relationship. The fact that the Biden administration is not doing that is upsetting to the Chinese," he added.

Beijing derides US alliance-building

However, unlike the Trump administration, Biden is confronting China without alienating Washington's Asian allies at the same time.

Blinken said during Thursday's talks that countries around the world have a "deep satisfaction that the US is back" and "deep concern" about China's actions, adding that the administration is "committed to leading with diplomacy … and to strengthening the rules-based international order."

"That system is not an abstraction," he said.

On the eve of Thursday's talks, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said it was "useless" for the US to engage in "microphone diplomacy to rally against and put pressure on China."

"Beijing will huff and puff, deride and diminish America's allies. However, they are acutely aware of the power of alliances — it's one of the reasons they spend so much time trying to drive wedges in between relationships," said Roy Kamphausen, president of the National Bureau of Asian Research in Washington.

"While they relish their own strategic freedom of maneuver unencumbered by alliance relationships, they also know that when America acts in concert and partnership with its allies, Beijing is disadvantaged. And the CCP really doesn't like being singled out," Kamphausen told DW.

Glaser from the CSIS said that this week's Indo Pacific meetings have sent a signal to Beijing that the US is not in decline and that Washington's alliances are strong.

"This provides meat on the bones of a policy that seeks to deal with China from a position of strength," she said.

However, there is currently little guarantee that a stronger US-Asia axis will affect how Beijing pursues its interests.  

"There is a lot of work to be done to build back America and bolster alliances before we can alter China's assessment that 'the East is rising and the West is declining,'" Glaser said. 

"And it remains to be seen if that goal is achievable."

With reporting by DW's Taipei correspondent William Yang.