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US-China tensions

US and China play mind games over how to frame Alaska meeting

Beijing calls it a 'high-level strategic dialogue' -- but Washington says it's nothing of the kind

Who invited whom? Meeting or strategic dialogue? The U.S. and China are spinning the upcoming Alaska meeting between top diplomats to fit their dueling narratives.   © Reuters

WASHINGTON/BEIJING -- Heading into the first senior-level engagement since the inauguration of President Joe Biden, the U.S. and China are locked in fierce psychological warfare over how to define the meeting.

"China, invited by the United States, will have a high-level strategic dialogue with the U.S. side in the coming days," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said in remarks posted Thursday on the ministry's website. He was referring to the March 18-19 meeting in Anchorage, Alaska, between Politburo member Yang Jiechi and Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

They will be accompanied by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan.

Zhao's use of "strategic dialogue" directly contradicted the framing Blinken used at a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing Wednesday.

"This is not a strategic dialogue," the American secretary of state said. "There's no intent at this point for a series of follow-on engagements."

The Anchorage meeting is expected to set the tone for Sino-American relations during the Biden era, in which the two sides will face off on everything from national security and trade to the economy and human rights.

The "high-level strategic dialogue" that Zhao referred to echoes the U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue held under then-President Barack Obama, and the Strategic Economic Dialogue that preceded it under then-President George W. Bush.

Chinese President Xi Jinping, center, walks away after delivering his speech as then-U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, right, and then-Treasury Secretary Jack Lew applaud during the joint opening ceremony of the eighth round of U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogues in Beijing in 2016.   © Reuters

 

Happier times: Then-U.S. President George W. Bush, center, and Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, right, welcome Chinese Vice Premier Wu Yi to the Eisenhower Executive Office Building in the White House complex before a meeting of the U.S.-China Strategic Economic Dialogue In 2007.   © Reuters

The idea was to hold annual meetings between high-level representatives of both countries at each other's capitals to deepen understanding and avoid miscalculations.

The talks were renamed the U.S.-China Comprehensive Economic Dialogue during Donald Trump's stint in the White House, only to be abandoned as the trade war intensified.

Even as the two sides prepare to meet, tensions are high in the Taiwan Strait -- possibly the hottest flashpoint between the two countries.

The U.S. Navy's 7th Fleet, whose area of operation stretches from the international date line to the India-Pakistan border, said the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS John Finn conducted a "routine Taiwan Strait transit" on Wednesday. This marked the third passage of an American naval vessel through the strait since Biden took office in January.

"The ship's transit through the Taiwan Strait demonstrates the U.S. commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific," the Yokosuka, Japan-based fleet said. "The United States military will continue to fly, sail, and operate anywhere international law allows."

China, which considers Taiwan a province and thus a "core interest" it can never compromise on, is not hiding its displeasure. The People's Liberation Army's Eastern Theater Command said Thursday that it mobilized forces to track and monitor the movements of the John Finn as it sailed through the strait.

"We strongly oppose such acts," said PLA Air Force Senior Col. Zhang Chunhui, the theater command's spokesman, in a written statement. Forces under the command remain on high alert to respond to any possible threats or provocations, Zhang said.

Blinken, who got an up-close look at the U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue in the Obama era as deputy secretary of state, is skeptical about the fruits of such dialogue. Concerns raised by Washington went largely ignored -- including a request to halt the militarization of the South China Sea and cybertheft against American corporations.

Many in the U.S. say the dialogues only bought Beijing time to build up its national power to challenge Washington.

Wednesday's House hearing saw Rep. Scott Perry, a Republican from Pennsylvania, ask Blinken whether he was prepared for or contemplating concessions to Beijing for cooperation on such issues as the Paris climate accord.

"No," Blinken replied.

"No concessions whatsoever to the Communist Chinese Party?" Perry pressed again, to which Blinken said "No" once more.

For China "or any other country, our job is to make sure that we're advancing the interests of the United States and advancing the values of the United States," Blinken said.

"China, uniquely, has an ability militarily, diplomatically, economically, to undermine the international rules-based system that the United States has devoted so much effort to building and that does advance the interests and values of our people," he said.

Zhao, meanwhile, raised a laundry list of what the U.S. should do in his statement.

"We ask the United States to view China and China-U.S. relations in an objective and rational manner, reject the Cold-War and zero-sum game mentality, respect China's sovereignty, security and development interests, and stop interfering in China's internal affairs," he said. "It should follow the spirit of the phone call between the Chinese and U.S. presidents, focus on cooperation, manage differences, and bring the China-U.S. relationship back to the right track of sound and steady development."

With their respective domestic constituencies in mind, each side is putting its own spin on the choice of venue.

"It was important to us that this administration's first meeting with Chinese officials be held on American soil and occur after we have met and consulted closely with partners and allies in both Asia and Europe," White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Wednesday.

Zhao's statement begins by saying China was "invited by the United States" to the meeting.

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