Talks in Alaska aren’t likely to thaw the big chill in U.S.-China relations

March 18, 2021, 12:10 PM UTC

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China’s top diplomats landed in Anchorage, Alaska today for their first meeting with counterparts from the Biden administration. They should be braced for a frosty reception. The town was pounded by a snowstorm earlier this week, and Thursday’s forecast calls for more snow, gusty winds, and temperatures well below freezing.

The encounter’s Arctic location matches the chill in U.S.-China relations— which many analysts fear verges on the Cold War standoff between the U.S. and the Soviet Union.

U.S. President Joe Biden has vowed to be as tough, if not tougher, than his predecessor, Donald Trump, in dealing with China, a nation the new president calls America’s “most serious competitor.” In the days leading up to the Alaska meeting—in which U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and national security adviser Jake Sullivan will square off against China’s top diplomat Yang Jiechi and foreign minister Wang Yi—Biden’s foreign policy team has gone to extraordinary lengths to signal its resolve.

On Friday, Biden convened a virtual summit of leaders of three key democracies in the Indo-Pacific: Japan, India and Australia. The group of four, also known as The Quad, pledged broad cooperation on maritime, cyber, and economic security issues and promised to deliver a billion doses of COVID-19 vaccine to the region in a bid to counter China’s rising influence.

On Monday, Blinken and U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin III traveled to Tokyo, where they extended an agreement for hosting U.S. troops on Japanese soil and reaffirmed U.S. commitment to defend Japan’s control of islands in the East China Sea that are claimed by both Japan and China. At a press conference in Tokyo on Tuesday, Blinken blasted China for using “coercion and aggression to systematically erode autonomy in Hong Kong, undercut democracy in Taiwan, abuse human rights in Xinjiang and Tibet, and assert maritime claims in the South China Sea that violate international law.”

Blinken and Austin reiterated that warning in Seoul on Wednesday after a meeting with South Korean counterparts. That same day, the State Department announced that it has added 24 mainland Chinese and Hong Kong officials to a sanctions list in retaliation for Beijing’s drastic overhaul of Hong Kong’s election rules.

In Anchorage, officials from the two nations will face off for three three-hour sessions over the next two days. There are no plans to share a meal or engage in any activity that might help to break the ice. As Foreign Policy‘s James Palmer put it: “The format of the talks is as frozen as the weather outside.”

The two sides couldn’t even agree on how to characterize the exchanges. China’s foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian has called the talks a “high-level strategic dialogue.” Biden officials insist the meeting is a one-off, not a return to a regular dialogue.

Both superpowers have acknowledged opportunities for mutual benefit from collaboration on global issues like climate change and combatting the pandemic. But in those areas as well, trust is at a low ebb. The prospect of a diplomatic breakthrough in Anchorage seems remote.

Bloomberg reports that Beijing is pushing for a meeting between Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping if today’s talks go well (though China’s foreign ministry on Thursday denied that a future meeting of the leaders is on the agenda). Reportedly, one idea floated by Chinese officials is that Biden and Xi meet on April 22, which is Earth Day, to highlight efforts to cooperate on climate change.

U.S. officials, however, are damping down expectations, cautioning that there will be no joint statement or major announcement after discussion concludes tomorrow. Count talks in Anchorage a success if the two sides can just agree to keep talking.

More Eastworld news below.

Clay Chandler

This edition of Eastworld was curated and produced by Grady McGregor. Reach him at

Eastworld news

Attacks in America

On Wednesday, U.S. President Joe Biden condemned the murder of eight people, including six Asian Americans, and spoke out against the rise in racist attacks against Asian American communities. Asian American leaders are also warning that a deepening geopolitical confrontation between the U.S. and China contributes to rising levels of racism. “The U.S.-China cold war—and especially the Republican strategy of scapegoating and attacking China for the virus—incited racism and hatred toward Asian Americans,” says Russell Jeung, a history professor at San Francisco State University and founder of Stop AAPI Hate, an organization that tracks incidents of bias and hate directed at Asian Americans. Washington Post

Murder mystery

On Feb. 25, a car filled with explosives was found outside the home of Mukesh Ambani, Asia’s wealthiest person and chairman of Indian conglomerate Reliance Industries. Authorities later traced the car to a local businessman, who denied that he was involved in the bomb scare but was later found dead by police. Many questions remain unanswered about the murder and bomb scare, but investigators have detained one police officer in connection to planting the explosives. BBC

Corruption charges

On Wednesday, Myanmar’s military charged former president Aung San Suu Kyii with bribery and she now faces a 15 years in prison after the military overthrew her government in a Feb. 1 coup. The military meanwhile continues to violently repress protesters opposing the coup and has killed at least 149 people since it began. Local outlet Frontier Myanmar has been among the organizations continuing to provide in-depth and on-the ground coverage of what’s been happening amid the military crackdown. Frontier Myanmar

Easing restrictions

China is beginning to relax travel restrictions for business people and other foreign travelers under the condition that they’ve been vaccinated with a Chinese vaccine. The policy was rolled out by Chinese embassies in several countries, including the U.S., where Chinese vaccines haven’t been approved. Experts see the measure as a way for China to promote its homegrown vaccine makers as 'the Quad'—the U.S., India, Australia, and Japan—prepares to supply 1 billion vaccine doses to countries that have purchased Chinese vaccine supplies. Fortune

Restricted investigation

The World Health Organization is set to release details of its month-long investigation into the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic next week, but a Wall Street Journal report has found the WHO team had little power to conduct a thorough and impartial investigation. The WHO investigators were delayed for months, had only restricted access to investigate while in Wuhan, and were not presented with complete datasets to form conclusions about the origins of the virus. Wall Street Journal


COVID-19 by country

India reported over 35,000 new cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday, a surge that is alerting Indian officials to a possible second wave of the virus after the country experienced months of declining COVID-19 numbers. After peaking at nearly 100,000 daily cases in September, cases in India declined to roughly 10,000 per day in February. Some experts say the wave of infections may be related to pandemic fatigue and previously cautious people stepping out of their homes after a year of isolation. “We will have to immediately stop the emerging second wave of corona,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi said Wednesday, urging government officials to ramp up testing, contact tracing, and the country’s vaccination campaign. Bloomberg

Markets and movers

Baidu – The Chinese search engine giant raised $3.1 billion in its Hong Kong share sale, as the company prepares to begin trading in Hong Kong on March 23 in a blockbuster secondary listing. Bloomberg 

Wind power – China installed 52 gigawatts of new wind power in 2020 compared to 17 gigawatts in the U.S. China’s wind power investments cemented its position as global leader, as nearly 60% of all global wind power installations came from China last year. Financial Times

SK Bioscience – Shares for the South Korean COVID-19 vaccine maker more than doubled in its trading debut on Thursday, raising the firm’s market cap to $11.5 billion. Investors do not appear worried that SK Bioscience partner AstraZeneca has had its COVID-19 vaccine rollout paused in over a dozen countries amid safety concerns. Fortune

Federal Communications Commission (FCC) – The FCC began efforts on Wednesday to revoke authorization for two Chinese telecoms firms—China Unicom (Americas) and ComNet—to operate telecoms networks in the U.S. The FCC said the firms failed to address U.S. concerns that the firms pose a national security threat to the U.S. Reuters

SMIC – China’s top chipmaker was awarded $2.4 billion by the Shenzhen city government to build a new chip plant, the first major project to emerge in China’s plans to reduce reliance on the U.S. for critical semiconductor supplies. Bloomberg

Amazon – The Amazon Prime streaming service is producing its first Bollywood film in India. The movie, called Ram Setu, will mark the U.S. giant’s first foray into what founder Jeff Bezos has called Amazon’s top performing streaming market. Reuters

Final figure

788.4 million

Pinduoduo, the five-year old Chinese e-commerce firm, dethroned Alibaba for the first time in annual active buyers last year, as Pinduoduo reported Wednesday that 788.4 million users bought at least one item in 2020 compared to 779 million for Alibaba. But shares in the company have dropped over 7% since Wednesday after CEO and founder Colin Huang announced that he was stepping down from his position to “pursue personal projects.” Wall Street Journal

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