March 20, 2021

CNAS Responds: Washington, Beijing Clash at First Meeting

By Richard Fontaine, Lisa Curtis, David Shullman, Carisa Nietsche, Jason Bartlett, and Katie Galgano

This week, senior officials from the United States and China gathered in Alaska for the countries' first high-level meeting of the Biden administration. The meeting was marked by fiery public public exchanges and ended without any joint statement of cooperation. In the advisory below, CNAS experts unpack the key developments and possible outcomes for journalists to watch for. To arrange an interview, contact Cole Stevens at cstevens@cnas.org.

  • Richard Fontaine, Chief Executive Officer: "Those fearing a U.S.-China reset can rest easy. Where Henry Kissinger and Zhou Enlai once jawed over the French Revolution, in Alaska the Americans endured a Wolf Warrior-inflected harangue aimed more at Zhongnanhai than the U.S. delegation. Diplomacy, a sober and sometimes dull sport, quickly became the stuff of viral video as tensions rose. The Americans ably defended U.S. interests and stuck to their guns both before and after the rhetorical fusillade.

    "And what a barrage it was. Countries shouldn't interfere in each other's internal affairs, the Chinese side said, before discussing at length the poor state of America's internal affairs. U.S.-supported "universal values" do not exist, they added, but the Communist Party of China stands for freedom and democracy. And cyberattacks? The United States is "the champion in this regard." The Americans did well to get in a few words by way of postscript.

    "More important than the barbs, however, was what did not take place. No negotiations, no deals, no agreements. Instead, once the cameras departed, it appears that the administration articulated its baseline, laid out its thinking and concerns, demonstrated resolve amid competition and endeavored to identify areas of cooperation. Building a shared understanding of each other's positions, rather than seeing those positions somehow converge, was the objective. And in that, it seems, mission was accomplished."
  • Lisa Curtis, Director of the Indo-Pacific Security Program: "It is not surprising that Chinese officials lashed out at their U.S. counterparts during Thursday’s talks in Alaska. The Chinese appeared to be on the defensive following last week’s highly successful first-ever Quad summit and the visits by the U.S. Secretaries of State and Defense to Japan and South Korea earlier in the week. Secretary of State Blinken had a powerful response to his Chinese counterpart’s criticism of the state of Black rights in America when he highlighted the ability of the United States to admit to its problems and strive to overcome them. This is in stark contrast to the Chinese system, which punishes those who dare to criticize the communist party leadership or its authoritarian policies.

    "Given the numerous challenges China poses to United States interests—human rights in Xinjiang, Tibet, and Hong Kong; aggressive military behavior throughout the Indo-Pacific; and economic coercion of U.S. allies–it may be a good thing that the two sides did away with the diplomatic niceties and got straight to the heart of their differences.
  • David O. Shullman, Adjunct Senior Fellow for Transatlantic Security: "While China's belligerent approach to dialogue with the United States in Alaska reflects mounting confidence in China's strengths relative to the United States—a shifting power dynamic underway for years—it was less a demonstration of self-assuredness than of Beijing's growing concerns about the Biden team's approach to emerging strategic rivalry.

    "Director Yang's rhetorical flourishes, in particular, were meant to publicly rebuke expected strong statements from Secretary Blinken and National Security Adviser Sullivan on the heels of fresh U.S. sanctions and avoid the appearance of weakness at home, but his comments also reflect Chinese leaders' recognition that the new administration, far from initiating a desired "reset" in relations, is mobilizing a strong, principled and comprehensive approach to competing with China, and doing so in concert with its allies."
  • Carisa Nietsche, Associate Fellow for Transatlantic Security: "Working with U.S. allies and partners is the centerpiece of the Biden Administration’s approach to competition with China. At this week’s meeting, Beijing claimed that “the Western world does not represent the global public opinion” and admonished the United States for expressing concerns on behalf of U.S. allies and partners. This statement comes on the heels of the European Union’s decision earlier this week to sanction Chinese individuals and an entity for human rights abuses against China’s Uighur Muslim minority. The Chinese delegation’s rhetoric signals Beijing’s goal to fracture the transatlantic alliance on China policy. This goal underpins Beijing’s efforts to pick off U.S. allies in Europe through the recently concluded Comprehensive Agreement on Investment."
  • Jason Bartlett, Research Assistant for Energy, Economics, and Security: "As the past four years have tested the resolve of the U.S.-ROK alliance, it is imperative that President Joe Biden selects an ambassador to South Korea who can improve public trust. Especially considering the recent murders of six Asian women in Atlanta, four of whom were of Korean descent, Biden should consider individuals who possess an equal level of subject matter and cultural or linguistic expertise related to South Korea. This will demonstrate to Seoul, and the general Korean public, that the U.S.-ROK alliance is about more than just curbing North Korea and China; it’s about brotherhood."
  • Katie Galgano, Executive Research Assistant: "Promoting and safeguarding democratic values and the rule of law is a central aspect to the Biden administration’s foreign policy strategy. To be effective and make substantial progress on protecting and reinforcing a liberal rules-based order, the U.S. will need to be consistent in upholding these values and reproaching authoritarian attempts to undermine them. It’s encouraging that the administration is already confronting China about its attacks on democracy in Hong Kong and abuse of the rule of law in Xinjiang. Continuing to challenge China’s authoritarian actions is a critical component in the endeavor to prevent other countries following China’s example."

To arrange an interview, contact Cole Stevens at cstevens@cnas.org.

Authors

  • Richard Fontaine

    Chief Executive Officer

    Richard Fontaine is the Chief Executive Officer of the Center for a New American Security (CNAS). He served as President of CNAS from 2012-19 and as Senior Advisor and Senior ...

  • Lisa Curtis

    Senior Fellow and Director, Indo-Pacific Security Program

    Lisa Curtis is a Senior Fellow and Director of the Indo-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS). She is a foreign policy and national securit...

  • David Shullman

    Former Adjunct Senior Fellow, Transatlantic Security Program

    David O. Shullman is Senior Advisor at the International Republican Institute, where he oversees IRI’s work addressing the influence of China and other autocracies on democrat...

  • Carisa Nietsche

    Associate Fellow, Transatlantic Security Program

    Carisa Nietsche is the Associate Fellow for the Transatlantic Security Program at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS). She specializes in European security; China’s ...

  • Jason Bartlett

    Research Assistant, Energy, Economics, and Security Program

    Jason Bartlett is a Research Assistant for the Energy, Economics, and Security Program at CNAS. His research focuses on sanctions policy and evasion tactics, counterproliferat...

  • Katie Galgano

    Executive Research Assistant

    Katie Galgano is a research assistant with the Executive Team at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS). Her research focuses on democracy and the rule of law, homeland...