Katsuji Nakazawa is a Tokyo-based senior staff writer and editorial writer at Nikkei. He spent seven years in China as a correspondent and later as China bureau chief. He is the 2014 recipient of the Vaughn-Ueda International Journalist prize for international reporting.
TOKYO -- Beijing initially could not decide on how to digest the combative exchange between U.S. and Chinese diplomats that took place in Alaska last week.
The main evening news program of state-run China Central Television did not report on the meeting Saturday, even though the gathering had concluded and was making headlines around the world.
The People's Daily, the mouthpiece of the Communist Party, left the U.S.-China meeting off the front page of both its Saturday and Sunday editions, instead giving it low-key coverage on page 3. No official commentary was published for a while.
Reading between the lines, the Alaska meeting did not go exactly as China had hoped.
While China's internet world was abuzz with nationalistic praise of Yang Jiechi, the country's most senior foreign policy official, for standing up to the rude American counterparts, the government's plans for putting Sino-U.S. relations back on the right track did not advance.
China first and foremost wanted to secure a face-to-face meeting between President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Joe Biden as soon as possible. If conditions were met, Xi was ready to travel to the U.S. for such talks.
Xi had a pressing reason to do so.
On July 1, just over three months from now, the Chinese Communist Party will hold a historic celebration to mark its 100th anniversary. If Xi cannot sit down for frank talks with the American president by then, what does that say about the state of China's most important bilateral relationship? Furthermore, what does that say about Xi's handling of foreign policy?
The meeting, therefore, needs to occur before July 1. Any first summit after that date would be meaningless for Xi from a purely domestic standpoint.
"Around June would be the best timing," one source said, considering the state of the COVID-19 vaccine rollout in the U.S. -- the world's worst-hit country by far. April or May would be too early, the source said.
An important announcement came Tuesday morning in Beijing, offering a glimpse of the leadership's thinking.
"There will be no military parade in the festivities marking the party's 100th anniversary," Maj. Gen. Li Jun, assistant to the director of the Political Work Department of the Central Military Commission, told reporters. All officers and troops will celebrate at their posts, Li said.
The question of whether China would hold such a parade had drawn international attention.
China's global image would suffer if the country flexed its military muscles with a large parade while the coronavirus pandemic still rages around the world. Such a move could intensify calls for a boycott of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics.
The decision against holding the military parade also is likely part of an effort to rebuild relations with the U.S.
Since Biden's election in November, China has pulled out all the stops to realize Xi's early in-person meeting with the new American leader. Politburo member Yang, Foreign Minister Wang Yi and anybody with connections to the U.S. side have been mobilized.
Earlier in his tenure, Xi produced some success in U.S. diplomacy. During his first visit as China's top leader in June 2013, he proposed to then-President Barack Obama "a new type of great power relationship" between the two countries.
The suggestion that the U.S. and China would cooperate to lead the world was a bold one.
Though ultimately the Americans refused to accept the proposal, a lull in diplomatic activity while Washington contemplated its game plan gave China an opening to move. Beijing swiftly carried out land reclamation on reefs in the South China Sea, strengthening its foothold there.
When Donald Trump became U.S. president in January 2017, Xi met him two and a half months later in Florida.
But this year, it was the new administration in Washington that moved quickly. At Biden's initiative, the U.S., Japan, India and Australia held their first leaders summit via video on March 12. The U.S. also conducted "two-plus-two" meetings of foreign and defense ministers with Japan in Tokyo and then with South Korea in Seoul last week.
Before its first encounter with China, the new White House had bolstered its alliances and created a united front. Biden, who served as Obama's vice president, probably had learned from past American mistakes.
The European Union also joined the scrum. In unison with the Biden administration, the EU imposed sanctions on Chinese officials over alleged human rights abuses involving the Asian country's Uyghur Muslim minority, the bloc's first sanctions targeting China since the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown in Beijing.
The U.K. and Canada followed suit, slapping sanctions on Chinese officials over the treatment of the Uyghurs.
China is not standing idly by. The country is poised to counter the U.S.-led alliances by bolstering its relations with friendly nations, especially Russia and North Korea.
Xi and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un exchanged messages Monday and confirmed that relations between the two countries should be developed further.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov came calling Monday and Tuesday, holding talks with Wang in southern China's Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region. The Chinese and Russian foreign ministers agreed to counter the risk of American sanctions by promoting international payments in their own currencies.
Beijing is awakening to the somber reality that U.S.-China relations are now even more difficult than they were during the Trump era. Trump focused on trade and the economy. Under Biden, human rights and security have been added to the mix.
China always has been good at creating slogans to shape its diplomatic relations. A "new type of great power relationship" or a "new type of international relationship" is needed, Beijing would say. Or it was building a "community with a shared future for humanity."
By setting the narrative, Beijing would take the initiative and draw others onto its arena. It is a tactic China's diplomats use all the time.
But this time, the Biden administration, without consulting Beijing, defined the U.S.-China relationship as a "strategic competition."
China is on the back foot. But the reason Washington toughened its stance on China lies in Xi himself.
At the Alaska meeting, Yang mentioned the year 2035 not just once but twice during his opening statement, which lasted more than 16 minutes. He was referring to China's long-term goal of "basic socialist modernization," which in effect sees the country replacing the U.S. as the world's top economy in the next 14 years.
Xi has stressed China's superiority on various occasions recently. It is said that he used the phrase "rise of the East, decline of the West" in a speech delivered in private. The phrase has spread quickly within the Communist Party and become a buzzword.
Yang's harsh remarks in Alaska reflect the top leader's vision.
"The United States does not have the qualification to say that it wants to speak to China from a position of strength," Yang snapped, and his words quickly became a popular T-shirt slogan.
What will happen to future U.S.-China dialogue?
Biden hosts an international climate change summit in late April. The Chinese side said the two countries agreed in Alaska to establish a working group on the issue, though the Americans later disputed this claim.
If Xi and Biden were to hold a video talk, it could become a prelude to the Chinese president's early U.S. trip.
But with the U.S. and China locked in a fierce confrontation that has embroiled the EU and Russia, finding common ground quickly between both camps will be difficult. Xi's intended U.S. visit in June appears likely to fall through unless China makes unexpected concessions.