Biden officials' first meeting with China may be 'frank' on tough issues, from genocide to trade retaliation

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State department spokesperson Ned Price previewed some of the issues that will be discussed when senior U.S. and Chinese officials meet next week in their first face-to-face talks since President Joe Biden took office. (March 11) AP Domestic

WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden’s top national security advisers arrived in Alaska Thursday for their first face-to-face meeting with Chinese diplomats in a high-stakes showdown that could determine whether Washington and Beijing are headed for a “new Cold War” or a diplomatic thaw. 

The Biden administration has signaled it will take a hard line in the series of meetings behind closed doors in Anchorage. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security adviser, will meet with Yang Jiechi, foreign affairs director for China’s Communist Party, and State Councilor Wang Yi. 

On the agenda: China’s mass internment of Uyghur Muslims, its crackdown on democracy activists in Hong Kong, its escalating aggression toward Taiwan and its trade coercion against Australia. 

White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters Thursday the administration expects the talks “to be frank.”

Ahead of his arrival in Anchorage, Blinken previewed his confrontational tone during a joint news conference with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and South Korean officials in Seoul. 

“We are clear-eyed about Beijing’s consistent failure to uphold its commitments and we spoke about how Beijing’s aggressive and authoritarian behavior are challenging the stability, security, and prosperity of the Indo-Pacific region,” he said before boarding a plane to Alaska. 

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Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian responded: “There’s no room for China to compromise on issues related to sovereign security and core interests, and its determination and will to safeguard its core interests is unwavering.”

Blinken made his maiden trip abroad to Japan and South Korea – two key allies in the U.S. effort to contain China – before stopping in Anchorage on his way back to Washington. 

U.S.-China relations have been on a steep downward slide for years, as Beijing’s predatory trade practices, intellectual property theft, and other abuses left Washington policymakers increasingly alarmed.

Former President Donald Trump veered between attacking China and touting his “great relationship” with Xi Jinping, but even that personal rapport disintegrated with the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It has become clear that the U.S. and China have conflicts of interest that cannot be solved but must be managed,” said Bonnie Glaser, director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank.

“We don’t want a hot war, and we don’t want a cold war,” Glaser said. The Alaska meeting is an “important potential turning point” that could set the tone for U.S.-China relations for years to come, she added.   

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The Biden administration has cast the U.S.-China relationship as the “biggest geopolitical test of the 21st century.” Lawmakers in both parties agree and are pushing the Biden administration to craft a comprehensive strategy to counter China’s global rise.

“China today is challenging the United States and destabilizing the international community across every dimension of power – political, diplomatic, economic, innovation, military, and even cultural – and with an alternative and deeply disturbing model for global governance,” Sen. Bob Menendez, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said at a hearing Wednesday. “We need to be clear-eyed and sober about Beijing’s intentions and actions.”

Chinese officials, meanwhile, are spinning Thursday’s meeting as an opportunity to reset relations after the contentious Trump years. 

“We hope that, through this dialogue, the two sides can … focus on cooperation, manage differences and bring China-U.S. relations back to the right track,” Zhao Lijian, a spokesman for China’s foreign ministry, said at a news conference on Wednesday. But he warned U.S. officials against poisoning the talks with threats and diplomatic pressure. 

How much the U.S. can do to change Beijing’s course remains unclear, and White House officials said they do not expect any breakthroughs – or even baby steps – in this first session. 

“I’m not very confident that we’re going to be able to persuade the Chinese of the error of their ways and the righteousness of ours just over the course of a couple of hours’ worth of talks,” the administration official said. 

Here’s a look at three of the most contentious issues the two sides will discuss on Thursday: 

Uyghur genocide in Xinjiang

The Biden administration has said China’s treatment of the Uyghurs, a predominantly Muslim ethnic group in the Xinjiang region, amounts to genocide. Xi’s government has detained more than 1 million Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities in “re-education” and labor camps in northwestern China. The BBC has reported that women in the camps have been subjected to systematic rape, sexual abuse and torture. 

Chinese officials flatly deny the accusations, casting the Uyghurs as a terrorist threat and arguing the camps are “re-education” centers. They have warned the U.S. and other countries against meddling in what they portray as an internal Chinese matter. 

Mass arrests in Hong Kong 

Last year, China imposed a “national security” law on Hong Kong, extinguishing the city’s limited autonomy, and began conducting mass arrests of protesters and regime critics. China escalated its crackdown last week by giving a pro-Beijing committee power to appoint more of Hong Kong’s lawmakers. 

On Wednesday, the Biden administration responded by sanctioning 24 Chinese and Hong Kong officials, virtually ensuring this will be a fresh flashpoint in Thursday’s face-to-face talks.

Zhao slammed the new U.S. sanctions as a “severe violation of international law … and grave interference in China’s internal affairs.” He called it a “vicious attempt of the U.S. to interfere in China’s domestic affairs.”

China’s trade retaliation against Australia 

On Tuesday, a key Biden adviser on Indo-Pacific issues, Kurt Campbell, said the U.S. would not be able to improve relations with China until it ended its economic boycott against Australia. 

At issue is China’s retaliatory trade blockade of key Australian exports, including some wine, beef and timber products. Beijing imposed the restrictions after Australia’s prime minister called for an independent inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus. 

“We are fully aware of what’s going on and we are not prepared to take substantial steps to improve relations until those policies are addressed and a more normal interplay between Canberra and Beijing is established,” Campbell told the The Sydney Morning Herald.

Campbell’s declaration was intended to show new unity between the U.S. and its allies and highlight the possibility of multilateral cooperation to pressure China on key issues. 

Indeed, Thursday’s meeting comes after a blizzard of diplomacy with key allies in the Indo-Pacific. First, Biden convened a virtual summit with the leaders of Japan, India and Australia. He then dispatched Blinken and Austin to visit Japan and South Korea in a show of diplomatic unity ahead of the U.S.-China meeting. 

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“The biggest failure of the Trump administration was trying to do everything unilaterally,” and the Biden administration is seeking to shift course, Glaser said. 

Thursday will offer the first glimpse of whether the new administration will have any more success in confronting or containing China than the previous one, she said. 

Contributing: Courtney Subramanian, USA TODAY; Associated Press

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