Index > Briefing
Thursday, March 11, 2021
The First Talk Between U.S. and China in 2021 : Unproductive, but Necessary

Senior officials from China and the United States have confirmed talks next week against the backdrop of deteriorating bilateral relations of the two countries. It will be the first high-level, in-person talks between the two since U.S. President Joe Biden took office. The U.S. Department of State stated on March 10 that Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan will meet top Chinese foreign affairs officials in Alaska on March 18 and 19. Following this, a spokesperson for China's Foreign Ministry said on March 11 that at the invitation of the United States, Yang Jiechi, a member of the Political Bureau of the Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee and Director of the Office of the Foreign Affairs Commission of the CPC Central Committee, and Wang Yi, State Councilor and Foreign Minister, will attend the high-level strategic dialogue.

This will be the first high-level, in-person talks between the two countries since U.S. President Joe Biden took office. According to a senior administration official in the U.S., the topics for the talks will include COVID-19 pandemic, climate change, and issues of disagreement including China's stance on Hong Kong and pressure on Taiwan, and the "undeclared economic embargoes" China has placed on Australia. The official added that the U.S. will also discuss certain Chinese practices perceived to harm U.S. workers and farmers, as well as intellectual property theft, forced technology transfer, and human rights.

It is worth noting that the venue for the talks was chosen in Anchorage, Alaska, which is located at the northwestern tip of the North American continent, far away from the mainland of the United States. Geographically, Anchorage is roughly the geographic midpoint between the U.S. and China, and the choice of this location signals that the two sides are "on equal footing", avoiding the impression that one side is making excessive concessions to reach a deal. Some analysts believe that in the current context of U.S.-China relations, the political atmosphere in Anchorage is certainly less "hostile" than in Washington. The choice of Alaska, far from the U.S. mainland, for the U.S.-China talks is also symbolic of how far it will take the U.S. and China to normalize relations in the future.

The world, China, the financial community, and all sectors of society are optimistic about the U.S.-China talks after a long period of suppression, and hope that the two sides can resume the smooth communication of the past.

However, this kind of optimism is likely to be dashed this time, because it is unlikely to happen any time soon.

As an independent think tank, researchers at ANBOUND have the professional responsibility to share some objective views and judgments. First of all, it should be affirmed that it is indeed necessary for the two major countries to return to the negotiating table and start communicating. In today's world, even if the two sides have obvious differences and geopolitical frictions, neither side can ignore and avoid the other. China and the United States must be rational enough to see the bigger picture in their communication, since it would be crucial for the two to break the deadlock and avoid misjudgment. Second, the current situation shows that both China and the United States are struggling to do something even if they know very well the difficulty. Even if the talks yield little or nothing, both countries need to start communicating. It can be argued that both China and the United States, for their own reasons, need a formal negotiation that may not be successful in practice.

In the past few years, China has experienced a major turnaround from hope to disappointment when it comes to relations with the United States. The first phase of the U.S.-China trade agreement has not been fully implemented, possibly the first agreement in the history of U.S.-China relations that was not intended to be fully implemented at the time of signing. This shows that China today is no longer the China that it was after the reform and opening-up. China has completely placed itself as a major power in the world and all it has done is to make the world (especially the U.S.) recognize this. The statement that China "can now stand on equal footing with other countries" drew some attention at the recently concluded "Two Sessions", which could be a reflection of the change in China's mentality and self-confidence after its rise. China may not consider a redefinition of high-level diplomacy between the two countries if the United States does not show equality and respect for the country, although certain issues can be discussed on a case-by-case basis.

As for the United States, it actually needs to hold a talk as well, even if the talk may not be successful. The world, especially Europe, is not impressed by the policies of the Trump administration in the past, and many of America's Allies cannot afford an immediate confrontation with China. Even some domestic industries and strategic research institutions, based on their own interests or judgment, hope that the Biden administration will reverse the policies of the Trump administration. They believe that if the U.S. takes the initiative to "show goodwill" to China, then China will cooperate and everything will gradually improve in the future. Hence, the Biden administration, which has inherited the Trump administration's legacy, has had to show its proper effort in this aspect. In effect, however, it is more likely that some officials in the Biden administration may hope China to harshly reject the U.S. overtures. This would give them sufficient convincing evidence to prove to their allies and anyone with "de-escalation" intentions that dealing with China in this way is not working, and that the United States has no choice but to confront China strategically. This is important to the U.S. relations with its allies, and it is also the key to forcing the U.S. allies to make up their minds.

It is for this reason that one or two months ago, China made an unprecedented list of "not to be touched" talk topics, making it clear that those are China's internal affairs and bottom line, and showing its "tough" stance. The U.S., for its part, has not relented in areas such as trade wars, while still intensifying its "allied solidarity policy", seemingly continuing the Trump administration's policy and adding additional allied geopolitical leverage.

As a result, China and the United States are at a critical juncture. The United States is well aware of the changing domestic situation in China, which faces many problems that a large developing country is bound to encounter as it moves toward a modern society, and China needs unity and cohesion. The United States, on the other hand, faces many problems in post-modern society and needs to act on the basis of consensus. In this context, both countries, for their own reasons, would need a talk, even if the talk may not be successful. As for the future of relations between the two countries, it poses a challenge for diplomats in both countries. The administration currently in charge of U.S. diplomacy lacks talent like Henry Kissinger who can bring breakthroughs to major issues. As for the Chinese side, it is mainly the officials who carry out the policies.

On the whole, improving U.S.-China relations requires both sides to break the deadlock of the past and establish channels and mechanisms for communication. At present, given the problems and circumstances existing in the two countries, the two sides should not hold high expectations for the effective results of the talks. Therefore, a "not very successful talk" is acceptable for both sides.

Final analysis conclusion:

China and the United States will have in-person talks for the first time this year. It is an important talk that must take place and a talk that will not bear much results but one that is still needed to be held between the two countries.

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