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China and the US exchange heated words as experts hold low expectations for the Alaska summit

After China and the U.S. finished the first day of their summit in Alaska, experts think the meeting shows that both sides are in the early stage of figuring each other out. While they don’t have too much expectation for the outcome of the summit, they think recent statements and gestures reflect Washington’s determination to prioritize Indo-Pacific region in its foreign policy strategies.

Following the heated exchange between high-level officials from China and the U.S. in Alaska on Thursday, some experts think it reflects the low expectations that both sides have about reaching any consensus by the end of the two-day summit.

Kharis Templeman, a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institute, said since both sides don’t have high expectations going into the summit, it isn’t surprising that both sides had some heated exchanges while delivering their opening remarks.

“What’s important is the space that those words were delivered, which was public and there were media,” Templeman said. “There were some grandstanding and there were some playing for audiences who were not in the room.”

Wen-Ti Sung, a lecturer at the Australian National University’s College of Asia and the Pacific, said that based on U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan’s public statements in recent days, it shows that the Biden administration is focusing on consolidating legacy from the Trump era.

“Blinken and Sullivan are trying to hold onto a lot of those new anchors and baselines that the Trump administration has set up,” said Sung. “We can expect that it makes sense for the Biden team to be tough towards China from the get-go to accumulate more leverage towards China.”

China and the U.S. are “feeling each other out”

Prior to the summit in Alaska on Thursday, U.S. Secretary of State Blinken and U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin met with their counterparts from Japan and South Korea in each country. In the joint statement issued by Washington and Tokyo, they condemned Beijing’s illegal demands and behaviors in the South China Sea and said China’s move to allow coast guard ships to open fire around disputed islands in the East China Sea is concerning.

Templeman thinks these are carefully choreographed trips and statements leading up to the summit in Alaska, as they show that the Biden administration is not intended to reverse the Trump-era policies that Beijing doesn’t like immediately.

“Part of the heated exchange was due to the disappointment on the Chinese side because they think the U.S. is the one that should improve the bilateral relationship,” Templeman said. “The fact that the Biden administration is not doing that is upsetting to the Chinese.”

However, Templeman thinks that the heated exchanges also show that they are still “figuring each other out.” “ I think they are in the early stage of feeling each other out,” said Templeman. “There are still possibilities for them to agree on things like restarting trade talks at the WTO, climate change, nuclear non-proliferation, and environmental disaster relief.”

Sung thinks that climate change could be one of the areas where the two countries can potentially initiate some cooperation, and when it comes to economic decoupling, the Biden administration might adopt a different process to approach the issue.

“We will see a de-escalation of the tariff war and part of the economic confrontation,” said Sung. “However, in terms of highly sensitive sectors like 5G or cyber-security or educational exchanges on hard sciences, those restrictions are unlikely to be softening down from the Trump era immediately.”

The Indo-Pacific region remains a foreign policy priority for Washington

Based on the strategies and statements showcased by the U.S. over the last week, Templeman thinks early signs are suggesting that the Biden administration is setting Indo-Pacific as one of the top foreign policy priorities. He points out that the one foreign policy consensus in Washington is that the U.S. needs to take China more seriously as a systemic competitor if not an existential threat.

“The only way in the long run to meet the China challenge was to recommit to our alliances and partners in the region,” said Templeman. “I think the Biden administration has gotten the hierarchy right and they are pursuing it in a way that makes a lot of sense, particularly re-emphasizing that the U.S. has longstanding partnerships and alliances [in the Asia Pacific.]”

Sung thinks that since China has been defined as the greatest defining geopolitical challenge by the Biden administration when the U.S. is approaching China in the Indo-Pacific, they can’t do it alone. Rather, Sung thinks it’s important for Washington to rely on its multilateral alliance in the region while seeking help from other parts of the world. For the U.S., that means seeking help from European countries.

“At the beginning of March, we saw the UK, France, Germany, and the Netherlands all issued statements saying they are going to send naval ships to the South China Sea as part of the operation, which means greater European interests in the region,” said Sung.

“On the other hand, UK has expressed interest in joining the QUAD, and some members of QUAD are also reaching out to European countries. With greater European interests in the region, it definitely makes it easier for the U.S. to maintain its current security posture towards China.”

Templeman thinks that since the Alaska Summit is only a chance for China and the US to grandstand a little bit and feel each other out, both countries might begin to sit down and talk about more practical matters over the next six months.

“Now, the Secretary of State is talking to the foreign minister, so we know there is going to be some grandstanding and positioning for future interactions,” Templeman said. “Right now, both Wang Yi and Blinken are representing their respective government and they don’t have a lot of room to maneuver. I have very low expectations about what might come out of this meeting.”

This piece was first published in Mandarin on DW’s Chinese website.


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