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Analyzing the Sino-US Meeting in Alaska

◎ The following analysis was first published in the March 22, 2021 edition of our subscriber-only SinoWeekly Plus newsletter. Subscribe to SinoInsider to view past analyses in our newsletter archive.

The Biden-Harris administration held its first bilateral meeting with the PRC in Anchorage, Alaska from March 18 to March 19. Politburo member Yang Jiechi and PRC foreign minister Wang Yi represented Beijing, while National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and Secretary of State Antony Blinken represented Washington. 

The Biden-Harris State Department billed the meeting as an “initial discussion to understand one another’s … interests, intentions, and priorities, and frankly, to get a bit of an understanding of where the Chinese are at.” In a Congressional hearing, Secretary Blinken said that the meeting was “not a strategic dialogue, there’s no intent at this point for a series of follow-on engagements.” In contrast, the PRC declared the meeting a “high-level strategic dialogue” that the CCP side was attending “at the invitation of the United States.”

Many news outlets described the opening of the meeting as “fiery” and “testy,” with both sides issuing “blunt” statements.  In particular, Yang Jiechi spoke for over 15 minutes, exceeding the two minutes of allotted time for opening remarks. Yang also adopted a brash, and at times sarcastic, tone, and deployed aggressive body gestures. 

Despite media framing, however, a review of the State Department’s transcript of the opening remarks shows that neither side deviated from their respective official lines. 

In keeping with the Biden-Harris administration’s softer, targeted approach towards China, Secretary Blinken talked about strengthening the “rules-based international order” and how the U.S. side planed to “discuss our deep concerns with actions by China, including in Xinjiang, Hong Kong, Taiwan, cyber attacks on the United States, and economic coercion toward our allies.” National Security Advisor Sullivan added that the “overriding priority from the United States’ side is to ensure that our approach in the world and our approach to China benefits the American people and protects the interests of our allies and partners,” and that the U.S. “welcome stiff competition” with China. Neither Sullivan nor Blinken said anything that could be considered anywhere near as provocative as the rhetoric of the Trump administration, such as referring to Communist China as “the CCP” or “the PRC,” differentiating between the CCP and the Chinese people, or raising topics the Party considers most sensitive, like genocide of the Uyghurs or forced organ harvesting of Falun Gong practitioners. 

In response to the moderate remarks from the U.S. side, Yang Jiechi proceeded to: 

  • Play up the PRC’s political system and economic development, including the 14th Five-Year Plan. 
  • Promote Xi Jinping’s political accomplishments, including on COVID-19, “ending absolute poverty,” and making “historic achievements in building the country into a moderately prosperous one.” 
  • Insist that “the Chinese people are wholly rallying around the Communist Party of China.”
  • Sell Communist China as a “democracy.” Yang said, “the United States has its style–United States-style democracy–and China has the Chinese-style democracy.”
  • Deny the CCP’s hegemonic ambitions. 
  • Call on Washington to “abandon the Cold War mentality and the zero-sum game approach.”
  • Oppose “U.S. interference in China’s internal affairs,” including “Xinjiang, Tibet, and Taiwan.” 
  • Criticize the U.S. on human rights, using Black Lives Matter as an example. 
  • Stress that Xi Jinping hopes for “no confrontation, no conflict, mutual respect, and win-win cooperation with the United States.”
  • Blame the U.S. for launching cyberattacks. 
  • Argue that his opening remarks were “slightly different” because Blinken and Sullivan “delivered some quite different opening remarks.” 

Wang Yi expressed “outrage” at recent U.S. sanctions against Hong Kong and PRC officials, and wondered if it was a “decision made by the United States to try to gain some advantage in dealing with China.” But “certainly this is miscalculated and only reflects the vulnerability and weakness inside the United States,” he added. Wang also said that “the international community is following very closely our dialogue for today and tomorrow.” The remarks of Wang Yi and Yang Jiechi were virtually identical to many “hawkish” CCP talking points found in Party and state media. 

In responding to Yang and Wang, Blinken and Sullivan used slightly different wording to:

  • Acknowledge that America was flawed but always confronts her problems.
  • Explain that America works with allies and partners to solve problems. 

Yang Jiechi then accused the U.S. of: 

  • Speaking to Communist China “in a condescending way from a position of strength.” He added, “the United States does not have the qualification to say that it wants to speak to China from a position of strength. The U.S. side was not even qualified to say such things even 20 years or 30 years back, because this is not the way to deal with the Chinese people.”
  • Yang said, “So have the Chinese people not suffered enough in the past from the foreign countries? Well, at times I have not been sure since China started being encircled by the foreign countries. Well, as long as China’s system is right with the wisdom of the Chinese people, there is no way to strangle China.  Our history will show that one can only cause damages to himself if he wants to strangle or suppress the Chinese people.” 

In his concluding remarks, Wang Yi brought up the PRC’s relations with “the United States, with Japan, and with Australia, and said, “we don’t think one should be so testy as to accuse some other country of coercion.”

On March 19, Hu Xijin, the editor-in-chief of Party nationalist propaganda rag Global Times, published a commentary piece about the “really good quarrel in Alaska” between the PRC and the United States. Hu was blunt about where the PRC side was coming from: 

  • “First, the Chinese delegation helped the Chinese public vent the anger that had accumulated for several years.”
  • “Second, Yang Jiechi and Wang Yang have taught a good lesson to the extreme U.S. politicians about the kind of country China really is.” 
  • “Third, the Chinese delegation has shown the few U.S. allies how China is dealing with the United States. China has publicly refuted the U.S., and for those U.S. lackeys who try to bite China, please behave.”
  • “Fourth, after such a public quarrel, I believe the two sides’ subsequent dialogue will be more rational and pragmatic.” 

1. The PRC’s performance at the Sino-U.S. bilateral meeting in Alaska is political theater, propaganda work, and hegemonic signaling rolled into one. 

Both PRC officials would have entered the Alaska meeting prepared to issue a “tongue lashing” regardless of what the U.S. officials said. The rhetoric issued by Yang Jiechi and Wang Yi is derived from Party and state propaganda. Their lecture is also in line with current PRC foreign doctrine, including so-called “wolf warrior” diplomacy and “Xi Jinping Thought on Diplomacy.” 

Yang’s overbearing attitude and speech resemble those that PRC officials historically would have delivered to smaller or weaker countries when it wants to intimidate, lay down a marker, and exercise its “quan wei.” Worth noting is Yang’s remark about the Chinese people “not suffer(ing) enough in the past” under foreign countries, which is simultaneously a rehash of the CCP’s “century of humiliation” propaganda and a subtle jibe at America over the Trump administration’s inability to defeat the PRC. In short, the CCP believes that it is now superior to the United States; Yang and Wang were not reacting to what Blinken and Sullivan said that day, but to the PRC’s analysis of present American strength and approach to China (see point 3). 

The CCP believes that “the East is rising and the West is in decline” (東升西降), and found an opportunity to drive home this point to the rest of the world by deliberately humiliating the U.S. on her own territory. The weak American response to Yang Jiechi’s remarks only reinforces Party propaganda about the inevitability of the PRC displacing the U.S. as world hegemon. The CCP would be hoping to dissuade U.S. allies and partners, as well as countries on the sidelines, from adopting a tough stance to counter China. Further, the CCP is looking to reel in U.S. allies and partner nations, and smaller countries, into its orbit. 

Finally, Yang and Wang’s fierce performance boosts Xi Jinping’s “quan wei” ahead of the 20th Party Congress in 2022. A victorious diplomatic showing against the U.S. adds to Xi’s political accomplishments, and provides him with ammunition to counter those within the Party who believe that several of the CCP regime’s troubles, including the worsening Sino-U.S. relationship, are the direct result of his strongman policies. 

2. Critics of Secretary Blinken and National Security Advisor Sullivan’s performance in Alaska argue that the PRC would not dare to lecture the U.S. on home soil if Trump administration officials were the ones at the table. This analysis is popular among conservatives and Trump supporters, but is not completely accurate. 

First, it is very unlikely that the Trump administration would agree to such a high-profile meeting in the first place given the diplomatic freeze over the CCP’s COVID cover-up and other malign behavior. Even if a meeting was agreed, the Trump administration would very likely have walked away once Party propaganda started billing it as a “strategic dialogue,” so as to avoid giving the CCP any diplomatic victory points. 

Second, Yang Jiechi and Wang Yi would have repeated the same talking points anyway when facing Trump administration officials. Unlike diplomats of regular countries, PRC diplomats have far less autonomy and must stick to the Party line no matter what. With Beijing stressing “the East is rising and the West is in decline” and Xi Jinping needing more political capital back home, Yang has not much leeway to change what he said. 

However, Yang might have adopted a humbler attitude and curbed aggressive body language in pushing the Party line in a meeting with Trump officials, as he did in meetings with former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. The CCP understood that the Trump administration spoke truth to power, however bluntly, and was not embarrassed to take tough action when required. Eventually, the CCP refrained from responding to Pompeo’s speeches, very possibly to avoid calling attention to his exposing the Party’s Marxist-Leninist ideology and ambitions for global hegemony, as well as Pompeo’s condemnation of Communist China’s human rights abuses, including those that the regime deems too “sensitive” to talk about publicly. 

3. The CCP has been pushing the “East is rising and the West is in decline” rhetoric since the 2008 U.S. financial crisis. The election of Joe Biden as U.S. president and his administration’s approach to China would have reinforced the CCP’s belief in the “steady, irreversible structural decline” of America.

The CCP would have noticed: 

  • President Biden won the 2020 presidential election after vote counting stopped on Election Day (Nov. 3, 2020) and irregularities surfaced in six key battleground states. To date, the U.S. government and courts have not seriously looked into election fraud allegations or evidence; the vast majority of court cases filed by the Trump team or his supporters were dismissed on procedural grounds without further examination. In dissenting a Supreme Court decision not to take up an election case brought by the Pennsylvania Republican Party, Justice Clarence Thomas wrote: “We failed to settle this dispute before the election, and thus provide clear rules. Now we again fail to provide clear rules for future elections. The decision to leave election law hidden beneath a shroud of doubt is baffling. By doing nothing, we invite further confusion and erosion of voter confidence.”
  • The Biden-Harris administration calls for “revitalizing” and “defending” American democracy, but has taken one measure after another to erode democratic processes at home. 
  • Efforts by Washington, establishment media, and former intelligence officials to use the Jan. 6 Capitol breach incident to designate one half of the country as “domestic terrorists.” Glenn Greenwald, a journalist on the political left, warned that “the new domestic war on terror is coming.” 
  • The Biden-Harris administration, the Democratic Party, and establishment media outlets and think-tanks are creating racial balkanization in America through the promotion and political protection of radical Marxist movements like Black Lives Matter, as well as “wokeism,” critical race theory, and other postmodernist theories with roots in cultural Marxism.
  • Establishment media and America’s Big Tech increasingly function as the propaganda and censorship arms of the Biden-Harris administration and the Democrats. Matt Taibbi, another journalist on the political left, analyzes establishment media’s “transformation from phony ‘objectivity’ to open one-party orthodoxy” in a piece titled, “The Sovietization of the American Press.” And in a March 19 legal opinion, DC federal appellate judge Laurence Silberman wrote, “Nearly all television—network and cable—is a Democratic Party trumpet. Even the government-supported National Public Radio follows along.” Silberman also noted that Silicon Valley, which has “enormous influence over the distribution of news … filters news delivery in ways favorable to the Democratic Party.”
  • America is having a “reality” problem, with people on both sides of the political aisle being “locked” into information bubbles that reinforce their beliefs, both right and wrong. Americans of different political leanings are also finding it increasingly difficult to agree on even basic facts, with people preferring to accuse the other side of spreading misinformation and disinformation instead of getting to the truth of the matter through open and rational debate. 
  • Americans are increasingly concerned about President Biden’s mental acuity for the job. In one notable episode, Biden appeared to have forgotten his defense secretary’s name (Lloyd Austin) and possibly the organization he headed (the Pentagon).

Specific to China, the CCP would have noticed: 

  • China policy officials in the Biden-Harris administration have compromising connections with the CCP or previously endorsed pro-Beijing policies (see here and here). Moreover, President Biden is compromised through his family and son Hunter, who had questionable business dealings with the CCP.  
  • The Biden-Harris administration retained a handful of the Trump administration’s China policies, but has subjected the bulk of them to review. 
  • During a Feb. 16 CNN town hall, Biden said he “understands” what Xi Jinping is “doing with the Uyghurs in western mountains of China and Taiwan, trying to end the One China policy by making it forceful” because “culturally, there are different norms” that PRC leaders are expected to follow.  
  • A Feb. 17 Washington Post article revealed that U.S. officials in China were being subjected to anal swab testing for COVID-19. 
  • The Biden-Harris administration talks about working with allies and partners on China, but does not wish to appear confrontational, at least officially. Recent joint statements with the Quad and South Korea do not mention China at all (the U.S.-Japan joint statement does bring up China, very possibly because the new Japanese government is publicly tough on Beijing). Further, the Biden-Harris administration is refocusing the Quad on climate change, vaccine distribution, and technology (including supply chains), a clear reversal from former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s vision of institutionalizing the Quad to counter the CCP. 
  • The Hong Kong sanctions imposed on PRC and Hong Kong officials just before the Alaska meeting were the outcome of a legislative process (the Hong Kong Autonomy Act) enacted under the Trump administration. The sanctions also were not expected to impact the targeted officials because they were already hit with tough travel and financial sanctions during the Trump era. 

In view of the above points, it is no wonder that Yang Jiechi saw fit to “lecture” Secretary Tony Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan that “the United States does not have the qualification to say that it wants to speak to China from a position of strength.”  

4. The Sino-U.S. meeting in Alaska indicates that the bilateral relationship is on track to develop per the first or second scenario we outlined in an analysis of the Biden-Harris administration’s interim national security and foreign policy guidances. 

Regardless of how Washington approaches China, governments should continue to counter the CCP through education, counterpropaganda, and targeted policies.

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