Butterfly Effect: Can Cold Alaska Yield a Thaw With Beijing? - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Butterfly Effect: Can Cold Alaska Yield a Thaw With Beijing?

SourceImages Getty, Composite Sean Culligan/OZY

Butterfly Effect: Can Cold Alaska Yield a Thaw With Beijing?

By Charu Sudan Kasturi

WHY YOU SHOULD CARE

The top diplomats of America and China are meeting in frosty Anchorage on Thursday. But the winter in their ties isn't likely to turn to spring anytime soon.

Charu Sudan Kasturi

Charu Sudan Kasturi

OZY Senior Editor Charu Sudan Kasturi's column, "Butterfly Effect," connects the dots on seemingly unrelated global headlines, highlighting what could happen next and who is likely to be impacted.

Cold regions have a history of hosting heated rivals. Iceland’s capital, Reykjavik, was the venue of historic arms control talks between President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in 1986. President Donald Trump and Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin met in Helsinki in 2018.

So the choice of Anchorage, Alaska, as the site for Thursday’s talks between senior American and Chinese officials is in keeping with tradition. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan will meet Chinese counterparts Wang Yi and Yang Jiechi for the first high-level meeting between top officials of the two nations since President Joe Biden took office. Chinese officials have pointed to the location — roughly halfway between Washington and Beijing — as indicative of the desire of both sides to compromise.

But while it’s tempting to think that the meeting will lay the groundwork for a resetting of ties after a chill under Trump, relations could get frostier before there’s any chance of a thaw.

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Director of the Office of the Central Commission for Foreign Affairs Yang Jiechi (left) and China’s State Councilor Wang Yi.

Source PARKER SONG/Getty

Unlike Trump, and more than the Barack Obama administration, Biden appears to have concluded that America’s greatest strength against China lies in Washington’s regional allies. Instead of focusing largely on threats and tariffs, Biden’s team has been crafting a blizzard of diplomatic moves in Asia that it hopes will leave Beijing on the defensive in Anchorage.

Last Friday, Biden joined the leaders of India, Japan and Australia in the first (virtual) summit of the so-called Quad grouping of Indo-Pacific democracies united by their suspicion of China. While Beijing was never mentioned directly in that conclave, its aggressive approach toward its neighbors, from the Himalayas to the South China Sea, is the glue that binds America’s friends in that region.

Earlier this week, Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin chose Tokyo and Seoul as destinations for their first overseas visits in office, with Lloyd continuing on to New Delhi. Biden’s Indo-Pacific coordinator, Kurt Campbell, has said China shouldn’t hope for better relations with the U.S. if it continues to bully Australia economically. Amid deteriorating ties, China has imposed heavy tariffs on key Australian imports.

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U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken (left) and South Korean Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong arrive for their meeting at the Foreign Ministry in Seoul.

Source LEE JIN-MAN/Getty

The message to Beijing is clear: America won’t be bringing only its concerns to the table but also those of the region more broadly. It’s an approach that’s already allowing Biden to get under Beijing’s skin. “They will gain no support and will end up nowhere,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian fumed after the Quad meeting.

To be sure, China was no fan of Trump’s either — the former president rattled China economically in ways few of his predecessors can claim to have done. But while he tried to hurt Chinese businesses, that country’s investments and exports, Trump — for the most part — didn’t try to squeeze Beijing diplomatically. On the contrary, he often left U.S. partners in Asia to fend for themselves in their bilateral tensions with China. In attempting to crack a deal with Trump, Chinese President Xi Jinping didn’t really need to factor in concerns of other regional powers like Japan, India, South Korea and Australia.

The past week has shown that Biden is willing to use the litany of complaints Asian nations have against China to turn the screws on Beijing. Anchorage — which has been experiencing heavy, unseasonal snowfall — won’t be getting any warmer this week.

That still doesn’t make the meeting between U.S. and Chinese officials pointless. In 1986, Reagan and Gorbachev failed to strike a deal in Reykjavik. But their negotiations showed both sides how much each leader was willing to compromise and set the stage for a pathbreaking deal the following year in Washington. Eventually, the relationship that Reagan and Gorbachev built helped end the Cold War.

Both the U.S. and Chinese teams know that a breakdown in their relationship helps neither side. The countries desperately need access to each other’s markets. On key global challenges — whether it’s climate change, the recovery of the global economy or tensions on the Korean peninsula — no solution is possible unless Washington and Beijing work together. It is that understanding that’s driving efforts to reduce the chasm between the two sides through meetings like the one in Anchorage, even though rivalry will continue to characterize the U.S.-China relationship for years to come.

But any bridge will take time to build. In the 1970s, when Washington and Beijing negotiated a historic rapprochement, then-Secretary of State and National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger told Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping: “I think if we drink enough Moutai we can solve anything.” He was referring to the expensive Chinese wine that’s the favorite drink of that country’s elite. Half a century after Kissinger’s comment, we can be fairly sure his present-day successors won’t be sipping on Moutai with the Chinese anytime soon.

Charu Sudan Kasturi

Charu Sudan Kasturi

OZY Senior Editor Charu Sudan Kasturi's column, "Butterfly Effect," connects the dots on seemingly unrelated global headlines, highlighting what could happen next and who is likely to be impacted.

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