China-US relations: Premier Li Keqiang hopes both sides can find ‘common ground’ ahead of Alaska talks even if they ‘can’t work everything out any time soon’

Catherine Wong
·5-min read

Ahead of next week’s top-level meeting in Alaska, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang has said Beijing hopes to resume dialogue with Washington even if the two countries “can’t work everything out any time soon”.

Li said he hoped the two sides would find common ground to contain tensions – a more conciliatory tone than US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who has rejected Beijing’s description of the meeting as a strategic dialogue.

Asked about the state of relations with the US at his annual press conference at the close of the annual parliamentary session on Thursday, Li said there were many areas where the two countries could work with each other, and called for the two countries to “focus on the common ground” and try to overcome their differences.

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“We hope to see dialogue between the two countries in multiple areas and at various levels. Even if we can’t work everything out any time soon. Such an exchange of views will help boost trust and expel misgivings. It will also help us better manage and mitigate our differences,” he said.

China has confirmed that its foreign policy chief, Yang Jiechi, and Foreign Minister Wang Yi will meet Blinken and US national security adviser Jake Sullivan in Anchorage next Thursday, saying the meeting was being held at the invitation of the Americans.

The foreign ministry’s statement described the meeting as a “high-level strategic dialogue”, signalling China’s desire to establish a dialogue mechanism rather than have a one-off meeting.

In a follow-up statement, foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said Beijing hoped the Biden administration would “abandon the cold war and zero-sum mindset”, stop interfering in China’s domestic affairs and put relations back on the right track.

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But Blinken insisted that the Anchorage meeting “is not a strategic dialogue” and would not be the start of a series of bilateral negotiations unless Beijing acted to address Washington’s concerns.

“There’s no intent at this point for a series of follow-on engagements. Those engagements, if they are to follow, really have to be based on the proposition that we’re seeing tangible progress and tangible outcomes,” he said.

“We’ll also explore whether there are avenues for cooperation, and we’ll talk about the competition that we have with China to make sure that the United States has a level playing field and that our companies and workers benefit from that,” he told the House foreign relations committee.

He said Xinjiang, where China is accused of detaining a million Uygurs and other members of Muslim minority groups, was one topic the US would “forcefully” speak out about.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken says the US wants to see “tangible progress” before further engaging with China. Photo: Xinhua
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken says the US wants to see “tangible progress” before further engaging with China. Photo: Xinhua

The meeting will be the first of its kind since Joe Biden was sworn in as president in January. China is hoping to reset relations following Donald Trump’s presidency and Xi Jinping has told Biden in a phone conversation that further confrontation will only lead to disaster.

Chinese observers said they did not expect the meeting to offer much beyond a chance for senior officials to get to know each other and test the waters.

“What China wants the most from the meeting is not tangible outcomes, but an overall framework and a sense that the two sides can keep talking. Whether there will be follow-up talks will be the key thing to watch,” said Zhang Jiadong, an international relations professor at Fudan University.

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Ding Yifan, former deputy director and senior fellow of the Institute of World Development at the State Council’s Development Research Centre, said it was possible that specific issues would be raised, such as the situation in Myanmar, the second phase of trade talks and the extradition case of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou.

“Because of their cultural differences, China and the US have very different expectations for the meeting. China will focus on the general direction of bilateral relations and wants to understand the overall future direction, while the US wants to use the meeting to solve specific issues,” Ding said.

The meeting will take place after US President Joe Biden takes part in an online summit with the leaders of Japan, India and Australia – a grouping known as the Quad which is widely seen as a possible counterweight to China.

Blinken will stop in Anchorage on his way back from a visit to Japan and South Korea with Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin to reaffirm the US commitment to its allies in the region.

Shi Yinhong, an international relations scholar at Renmin University, said he did not expect much would be achieved at the meeting.

“Biden has said he needs to discuss with allies before setting his China strategy, and has largely ignored China’s call for establishing a dialogue mechanism,” he said. “They also know China will not compromise on key issues like Taiwan, Xinjiang or Hong Kong.”

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Li Chen, associate professor at the school of international studies at Renmin University of China, said one item on the agenda should be clarifying how the two sides manage their differences.

“There is definitely going to be both competition and cooperation in China-US relations. I think the US hopes to exert pressure on China on some major issues during the meeting, such as Taiwan, Xinjiang and Hong Kong,” Li said.

“They are also likely to discuss how they should manage potential conflict risks on various fronts such as the South China Sea – if the two sides can’t meet each other’s requirements. The problems between China and the US are still similar to those in Trump’s time.”

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