Conflicts between the U.S. and China over human rights and security were on full display as top diplomats from the two countries met for the first time since President Joe Biden took office. However, the two sides agreed to continue discussions on issues such as climate change, where their interests overlap.
The U.S. made clear that it would consult with its allies in formulating its policy toward China, which it regards as the only competitor capable of altering the U.S.-led international order. This cooperative spirit is welcome given that responding to the long-lasting regime of President Xi Jinping has become a global issue. Japan, South Korea and other U.S. allies need to come together to ensure a unified effort.
At the outset of the two days of talks in Anchorage, Alaska, the U.S. and China engaged in an unprecedentedly heated exchange in front of reporters that lasted more than an hour. The U.S. criticized China’s policies on Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Taiwan, as well as its cyberattack measures.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken called China's actions a threat to "the rules-based order that maintains global stability." The Chinese side is concerned that it may be encircled by the U.S. and other major countries. This wariness was evident in the response from Politburo member Yang Jiechi, who said, “I don’t think the overwhelming majority of countries in the world would recognize the universal values advocated by the U.S.”
But Blinken also told reporters that the two countries have overlapping interests on Iran, North Korea, Afghanistan and climate change. That suggests there could be room for compromise if China contributes to the stability of certain regions. On climate change, cooperation in conjunction with a climate change summit hosted by President Biden in late April will serve as a litmus test.
China has previously laid out its vision of increasing its national strength and becoming a moderately developed country by 2035. China’s national strategy to surpass the U.S. is evident, and because Beijing is determined to engage in a long-lasting struggle for supremacy, easing the tensions will not be simple.
There is a way for China to achieve stable growth while being welcomed by liberal and democratic countries. The first step is to abandon its strategy to change the status quo by force, and to exercise restraint in applying economic pressure on countries that do not accept Beijing's claims.
Coordination among U.S. allies is essential to inducing change in China.
Blinken and U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin visited Japan and South Korea before the talks with China in Alaska, and began to revive trilateral cooperation among Japan, South Korea and the U.S. Cooperation with both countries is central not only to Washington’s effort to address China, but also in confronting North Korea.
The two-plus-two meeting between the U.S. and South Korea in Seoul was the first in roughly five years. The administration of South Korean President Moon Jae-in has been cautious about trilateral cooperation with Japan and the U.S., fearing it would provoke China and North Korea.
It is significant that this time the joint statement described the U.S.-South Korea alliance as "the linchpin of peace, security and prosperity on the Korean Peninsula and the Indo-Pacific region," and underscored the importance of trilateral cooperation among Japan, South Korea and the U.S.
In a series of talks with South Korea, the U.S. also urged improved relations with Japan. There is real concern that the prolonged friction between Tokyo and Seoul will hinder security cooperation, including information-sharing in the event of a contingency.
Relations between the two countries have cooled since a South Korean ship locked its fire radar onto a Self-Defense Force aircraft at the end of 2018. Diplomatic relations, complicated by the issues of former wartime laborers and military "comfort women," have not normalized. South Korea's ambassador to Japan, who was appointed to the post in January, has yet to meet Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga or Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi. The two nations must act on the joint statement and calls for cooperation in a tangible way.
The joint statement from the U.S.-South Korea two-plus-two meeting avoided criticizing China by name. The fact that the statement did not mention the complete denuclearization of North Korea also sets it apart from the joint statement issued at the Japan-U.S. two-plus-two meeting. The U.S., Japan and South Korea must make sure their policies are in sync so gaps cannot be exploited.