Update: China-US talks candid and helpful, but major divergences on key issues remain
Published: Mar 20, 2021 10:07 AM


The first talks between top Chinese and US diplomats concluded in Alaska on Friday local time after a sharp and confrontational opening. The talks were beneficial and helped boost mutual understanding, despite major differences on key issues, the Chinese side said on early Saturday after the two-day talks. 

Observers said the Alaska meeting showed that it is imperative for the US to change its understanding of major issues in bilateral relations, abandon its bossy attitude toward China and liquidate the poisoned legacy of Trump administration's China policy, warning that insufficient efforts on the part of the US risk encumbering China-US cooperation.

The Chinese delegation led by Yang Jiechi, a member of the Political Bureau of the Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee and director of the Office of the Central Leading Group for Foreign Affairs, and Wang Yi, state councillor and foreign minister, was invited to Alaska to hold talks with the US side represented by Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan. The first round of talks saw an intense exchange that has set the stage for tougher talks in the future.

The talks were held to implement the consensus reached between Chinese President Xi Jinping and US President Joe Biden during their phone call on February 11, Yang briefed the media after the talks.

Yang said the talks were "direct, frank and constructive."

"This talk helped boost understanding, although the two sides still have big divergences on some issues," said Yang, adding that China will continue to firmly safeguard China's national sovereignty, security and development interests and the two countries should deal with bilateral relations on the basis of no conflict, no confrontation, mutual respect, cooperation and win-win principles. 

Meanwhile, the AFP quoted Blinken saying the talks were "tough and direct" and the two sides were "able to have a very candid conversation on an expansive agenda."

At a White House press briefing on Friday, principal deputy spokesperson said the US side was in Alaska "having serious discussions" and aimed at laying out US principles, interests and values. The spokesperson also quoted Sullivan as saying that the US does not see conflict but welcomes stiff competition.

Zhang Jiadong, a professor at the Center for American Studies, Fudan University, told the Global Times on Saturday that both sides came to the talk fully prepared, as the sharp opening, especially China's reactive response, has shown. 

"The sharp opening is necessary and inevitable in terms of both politics and public opinion. Both sides hope to gain an advantage in the negotiation. The talks are already an achievement even without concrete results," said Zhang.

China's stance clear

China believes some disagreements and other long-existing problems between the two can be managed via dialogues. During the talks, China also made it clear to the US that the US should not underestimate China's resolve to safeguard its national sovereignty, security and development interests or underrate the Chinese people's determination to safeguard national dignity and justified rights, according to Wang.

China stressed that the ruling status of the Communist Party of China and the security of its system should be in no way harmed, which is the ultimate redline. It also said that China will not impose its system and values on other countries but will firmly maintain its own political system and values. It opposes others to smear China and interfere in China's internal affairs under the disguise of human rights issues.

Regarding Taiwan, China urged the US to stick to the one-China principle and the three joint communiques between China and the US. It also urged the US to respect the decision of China's National People's Congress regarding improving the electoral system of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region and withdraw sanctions on Chinese officials and entities. 

China hopes the US will stop smearing China's Xinjiang governance and give up its double standards on counter-terrorism. It also hopes the US could handle Tibet-related affairs in a prudent manner and stop interfering in China's internal politics by exploiting the Tibet issue.

The US side reiterated its one-China policy in the Taiwan question.

Change of US attitude 'imperative'

''With sharp rebukes to the US side at the opening of the talks and by making all China's core issues clear, the US should have already understood China's message and put China in the right place in future bilateral relations,'' said Zhang Tengjun, an assistant research fellow at the China Institute of International Studies.

"Divergences and conflicts will remain, and disputes will occur in future talks. Neither side will compromise. But it is imperative for the US to change its understanding of major issues and abandon its bossy attitude toward China first. With the gap between the US and China narrowing, the two should engage on an equal footing," Zhang told the Global Times on Saturday.

The Chinese side said that the essence of China-US relations is to be mutually beneficial and not a zero-sum game. It said the two countries are not necessarily a threat to each other, and differences and divergences are not reasons for confrontation. Neither China nor the US would bear the consequence of a confrontation. 

China believes the previous US administration and its extreme anti-China policies greatly harmed bilateral ties and during the talks urged the current administration to shake off the influence of the previous administration and avoid creating new problems. 

Wu Xinbo, dean of the Institute of International Studies at Fudan University, when speaking at the Economic Summit of the China Development Forum 2021 in Beijing on Saturday, said the US ought to liquidate the poisoned legacy of the Trump administration's China policy and respect China's system, values, history and culture.

"The US didn't show any intent of shaking off Trump's legacy and respect for China during the Alaska talks," Wu said, warning that insufficient efforts on the part of the US risk encumbering China-US cooperation. 

China-US new normal

Despite tough talks, progress on cooperation on a number of issues has been made during the talks. Both sides hope strategic communication will continue. They also agreed to establish a joint working group on climate change. 

The two sides discussed the arrangement of inoculation for each other's diplomatic staff. They negotiated issues of activities of diplomatic staff and media reporters, and normalization of people-to-people exchanges given the changes of the pandemic situation. 

They also discussed a slew of other issues including Iran, Afghanistan, the Korean Peninsula and Myanmar. They both agreed to keep and strengthen their coordination on multilateral occasions such as G20 and APEC. 

In a speech at the Saturday forum, Fu Ying, chairperson of the Center for International Security and Strategy at Tsinghua University and a former Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs, demanded a thinking habit of "starting with the end in mind" while dealing with bilateral relations.

''A big picture needs to be put into perspective when considering questions, thereby avoiding being stuck in divergences, transcending differences and focusing on cooperation,'' she stated, noting that the China-US differences at present, however big they seem, can't be compared with what they used to be 50 years ago.

Zhang from Fudan University believes at the bilateral level, China-US relations will stabilize and likely to warm to a certain extent, and at the multilateral level, competition and cooperation will both rise.

"It is not that China and the US will return to normal, but a 'new normal' will be shaped under which the relationship between the two stabilizes for the foreseeable time," Zhang said. 

Li Qiaoyi contributed to this article