(Mar. 19) The first face-to-face meeting between the U.S. and China since President Joe Biden took office was bound to be confrontational. The question now is whether the two sides can find a way to cooperate after unloading so many grievances in public.
Top diplomats from the world’s two largest economies criticized each other over everything from trade to human rights in a high-stakes first encounter Thursday in an Alaskan ballroom. U.S. Secretary of State Secretary of State Antony Blinken accused Beijing of undermining global stability, while his counterpart, Yang Jiechi, said the U.S. wasn’t “qualified to speak to China from a position of strength.”
The barbs on both sides appeared intended for domestic consumption, with Biden seeking to show his supporters that he’s tough on China and President Xi Jinping needing to satisfy his own increasingly nationalistic population. Still, the unusually acrimonious exchange showed the world just how hard it will be to repair a relationship that deteriorated rapidly under Donald Trump.
“It’s not surprising for the Alaska meeting to start with a strong smell of gunpowder,” said Zhu Feng, a professor of international relations at Nanjing University. “It is obvious that a new equation for China-U.S. relations is emerging. That is conflict, competition and cooperation.”
The diplomatic blow-up tamped down investor sentiment in China, contributing to a slide of about 3% in China’s CSI 300. Regional shares were already under pressure following an overnight tumble on Wall Street.
The delegations are due to meet for a final time on Friday morning after two rounds of closed-door talks following their initial exchange. While it was unclear whether the private discussions were more productive, a senior U.S. administration official said the talks were “substantive, serious and direct” and went beyond the allotted time.
“Perhaps it will give the Biden administration a little bit of leeway to start actually talking about issues, to start trying to come to some common understanding with the Chinese,” said William Zarit, a senior counselor at the Cohen Group and ex-U.S. minister for commercial affairs in Beijing. “Most of these things are really to show strength in domestic politics here in the U.S.”
Both sides have highlighted numerous areas where they need closer cooperation, including climate change and pandemic relief. Biden administration officials have also expressed openness to relax some visa restrictions on Chinese nationals put in place under Trump, but not his tariffs and sanctions as demanded by China.
Before the meeting, officials in Beijing had raised the possibility of a virtual summit between Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping to coincide with Earth Day next month if the talks went well. But there had been unease among some in the Biden administration about meeting the Chinese side so soon, and the early response was that it may have been a miscalculation, according to one person familiar.
The meeting laid bare a battle between two world views shaking global institutions and disrupting industries from semiconductors to social media. With an economy set to overtake the U.S.’s within a decade and an increasingly modern military, China has decided to draw a line against what it sees as foreign interference. The U.S., meanwhile, has decided it must contain Beijing’s growing global influence.
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