A reset in relations from the turbulent Trump era is unlikely.
A sharp exchange between top US and Chinese officials in Alaska on Friday, completely played out in the eyes of the assembled media, marked the beginning of a new phase in US-China relations – one that poses new challenges for India.
If the bitter public exchange seemed to be a surprising departure from the diplomatic standards usually followed in such scripted meetings, on some level it was entirely to be expected.
After all, both sides had made it clear in the run-up to the Biden administration’s first face-to-face meeting with China that the Anchorage meeting was more about drawing red lines than an actual attempt at a reset. Even describing what the meeting actually was emerged as a point of contention, denounced by Beijing as a “strategic dialogue” even as Washington disputed that description.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken, accompanied by National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan for talks with Politburo Member Yang Jiechi and Director of the Central Commission for Foreign Affairs, and Foreign Minister Wang Yi, set the tone by expressing his “deep concern about actions” by China, including in Xinjiang, Hong Kong, Taiwan, cyber attacks on the US and economic coercion against our allies”.
These actions, he said, threatened “the rules-based order that maintains global stability,” as he described the Biden administration’s view of ties with China as “competitive where it should be, cooperative where it can, hostile where it should be.” ”
What followed was a 16 minute speech by Mr. Yang, who went way beyond the expected two-minute opening statement, which he said he “felt necessary” because of “the tone of the American side.” Mr Yang criticized the “so-called rules-based international order”, which he said was “advanced by a small number of countries” – the US-India-Japan-Australia “Quad” incidentally is one of them. That it moved China from a strong position — the Alaska meeting clearly followed last week’s Quad leaders summit and Mr. Blinken’s recent visits to Japan and South Korea — Mr. Yang replied, “the US has not the qualification to say it wants to speak with China from a strong position.” The comments were widely circulated in the Chinese media and were welcomed as a reflection of a new dynamic in the relationship.
The message from Beijing was that if Washington expected this meeting to be about a one-way drawing of the red lines, it was clearly wrong. Meanwhile, the unequivocal message from Washington was that the Biden administration will certainly not be Obama 2.0, a time when both sides emphasized cooperation.
Key learning points
Alaska’s main conclusion is that a reset in ties from the turbulent Trump era is unlikely. At the same time, the bitter beginnings, which to some extent resulted from public stance on the part of both sides concerned about sending the right messages to their public homes, may give way to tentative engagement.
If China made a concession by traveling to Alaska, a point made by its officials, Mr Blinken’s return visit to Beijing in the coming months, should it take place, will underline that both sides are still looking for spaces to work together. to work in the midst of rancor. For example, both can still agree to work together on climate change, global economic recovery and Afghanistan.
The other takeaway is the emergence of a drawing of battle lines between Washington and its allies on the one hand, and Beijing and its main ally when it comes to the Indo-Pacific and Eurasia, Russia, on the other. China was quick to announce ahead of the Alaska talks that Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov will visit Beijing, days after President Biden called Russia’s Vladimir Putin “a murderer”.
In particular, this will be a test of India’s diplomacy, starting with influencing India’s defense supplies from Russia, with the US making it clear that importing Russian equipment such as the S-400 missile defense system will result in sanctions and that the US will hold high-tech exports .
As India faces its own issues with China amid a slow-moving process of withdrawal along the Line of Actual Control (LAC), it has still made it clear it doesn’t want to be part of any alliances. This balancing act is reflected in India’s various multilateral commitments ranging from the Quad to groupings such as RIC (Russia-India-China), the BRICS and the China-Russia-led Shanghai Cooperation Organization.
The US-China rift will also be a tightrope walk for India on the UN Security Council, where it is serving a two-year term as a non-permanent member, as the split between the US, UK and France on the one hand and Russia and China on the other hand, are increasing, as evidenced by the response to the coup in Myanmar.