Alaska meeting had bright spots, says US expert

March 23, 2021

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Despite the public discord among senior officials of the United States and China at their recent meeting in Alaska, the fact that it took place at all is a good thing, according to David Firestein, president and CEO of the George H.W. Bush Foundation for US-China Relations.

“I think the main purpose of the meeting was to establish direct official contact at this authoritative level and to create a foundation for future official exchanges,” Firestein told China Daily on Monday. “I believe these basic goals were achieved.”

At the invitation of the United States, Yang Jiechi, director of the Office of the Foreign Affairs Commission of the CPC Central Committee, and Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi met with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan in Anchorage on Thursday and Friday.

“While the top Chinese officials have been in their respective positions for some time, the two US officials are very new to their current positions in the Biden administration,” Firestein said. “This was a chance for these important officials from the two countries to spend some time together; they will be needing to deal with each other for some years to come.

“Though the US side downplayed expectations regarding any process being launched with this meeting, my hope is that we’ll see much more senior-level engagement between the two sides over the coming weeks, months and years,” he said.

“The issues are very difficult, but only through some level of engagement and dialogue can there be any hope of meaningful progress on at least some of those issues.”

Commenting on the public sparring evident at the meeting, Firestein observed, “Both sides seemed to be focused on playing to the cameras and the domestic political audiences represented by those cameras. That may be good politics, particularly in the United States, where favorable sentiment toward China is now at a modern era-record low, but the Trump record over the last four years makes one thing abundantly clear: ‘Tough’ rhetoric doesn’t solve any actual problems, and indeed, often makes things worse.”

Firestein said that he didn’t have high hopes for the first meeting between the US and China, and the results were largely as he expected.

“There is a profound difference in perspective between the United States and China. That’s going to be true for the foreseeable future. Indeed, the inconvenient truth about the US-China relationship is this: The most fundamental and contentious issues on the bilateral agenda will never be resolved to the satisfaction of both countries; the differences are irreconcilable.”

Firestein said the US decision to sanction Chinese officials associated with recent developments in Hong Kong immediately prior to the Anchorage meeting “set the tone” for the meeting and along with other factors helped ensure that no substantive progress on any issue would come of it.

According to a statement released by the Chinese delegation after the talks, both sides agreed to maintain a dialogue. The two sides also discussed arranging COVID-19 vaccinations for each other’s diplomats, adjusting visa and travel policies based on the evolving pandemic, normalizing the exchange of visits, and increasing communication and cooperation on climate change.

“To the degree the Chinese reporting out of the Anchorage meeting reflects openness on both sides to move forward on these kinds of issues, I think that is heartening,” Firestein said. “I do think there are some areas where enhanced US-China cooperation is both feasible and needed.”

Firestein said that he hopes to see the reopening of China’s consulate general in Houston and the US Consulate General in Chengdu as an early confidence-building measure between the two countries.

Firestein pointed out that the Biden administration has laid out the specific areas of public health, climate change, arms control and nonproliferation — all global challenges that necessitate multilateral cooperation to address — as areas in which the United States would welcome cooperation with China.

“Conceivably, other areas could be added to that list,” Firestein stated. He indicated that “the most immediate opportunities” for fruitful US-China cooperation are on COVID-19 and climate change.

“Cooperation in these kinds of areas can make a positive difference for both countries and the world. I hope we see movement in that direction,” he said.