“There’s a meeting? How curious. Why it would be in Anchorage?” Jim Moore, a retired motorcycle racer and Alaska native, asked about talks between US and Chinese officials this week. “We’re just a speck on the map. We’re about as far away as you can get from things. That’s why most of us live here.”
The two-day gathering – involving US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, national security adviser Jake Sullivan, top Chinese diplomat Yang Jiechi and Foreign Minister Wang Yi – started on Thursday with a light snow falling, and it is the biggest geopolitical event for Alaska in years.
But you wouldn’t know it here on the ground in this famously self-reliant state far from the federal halls of power. There are no welcoming banners and near-empty streets around the delegation’s respective hotels – located near the Once in a Blue Moose gift shop and “No 1 Haunted House in America” – other than an occasional Chinese TV crew doing a live stand-up in the snow.
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Nor was there much mention in the local papers. Among the main stories in Wednesday’s Anchorage Daily News were a projection on the 2021 salmon harvest (things look good) and a front-page story on a dogsled musher recovering from a head injury and dislocated arm.
“I hadn’t heard,” said medical worker Sarah Sweeney, dressed in mud-caked brown boots and a green jacket for a trip to the grocery store. “In Anchorage? Cool.”
Several locals were quick to provide an earful on Washington, however, how near useless and corrupt the national government is, even though by some measures Alaska has the second-highest “federal dependency ranking” after New Mexico, receiving US$2.88 in federal spending for every tax dollar paid.
And most had pronounced views on China more generally, which many saw as an increasingly robust superpower that must be handled warily.
“China is a country to watch,” said James Smith, a handyman and marijuana seller, handing over a card promoting his “fine herbery”. “I hear they’re on their way to becoming a superpower.”
“I also hear they can throw up cities, build 40,000 apartments in a month. We can’t do 40,000 unless it’s Lego,” added Smith, who does construction. “But the thing for me is building codes. You can’t blaze things up that fast without problems. And the regime is such that you can’t speak up against it.”
Alaska enjoys robust trade ties with China, which is its largest foreign export destination, roughly two-thirds of which involves seafood. The state weathered the combative policies of the Trump administration and trade war relatively well.
“Fortunately we didn’t suffer too badly,” said Greg Wolf, executive director of the World Trade Centre Alaska. “A lot of our products, because they’re natural resources rather than manufactured goods, we were less affected than many other states. Our exports did take a dip in 2019 but it recovered in 2020.”
China takes a quarter of Alaska’s shipments abroad; exports were US$1 billion in 2018, dropping to US$855 million in 2019, and rebounding to US$1.1 in 2020.
The way Julia Lenz, a retired biologist in Anchorage, sees it, sitting down with China probably needs to be done, since it’s too big to ignore, and why not in Alaska. But she expressed strong concerns over Beijing’s human rights record – concerns members of the US delegation have voiced repeatedly – and the way China seems to thumb its nose at global norms.
“You always need to be cautious when dealing with China. They’re expanding out everywhere,” she said.
Analysts said Alaska was chosen as the venue because Beijing was more eager for the meeting, allowing Washington – which has been downplaying its significance – to impose terms in the dance of diplomatic protocol. These included that it be on US soil but without the prestige or recognition that a Washington meeting would carry.
“Distance matters,” said Zhiqun Zhu, chairman of the international relations department at Bucknell University. “If it were held in DC, they would have to change the nature of the meeting.”
China would have happily flown many hours farther to Washington to change that nature, he added. “But this is not an official meeting,” he said. “This tells us a lot about the status of relations, which is not good.”
Locals said they couldn’t remember a meeting of this stature or importance involving two nations sitting across a negotiating table that, combined, account for nearly half the world’s economy and much of its military might.
Sure, political luminaries have stopped by, but it has usually been to campaign of for a quick refuel at Anchorage’s Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson without coming into town. There have been a few meetings of the Arctic Council.
King Harald V of Norway visited in 2015, noted Lise Falskow, president of the Alaska World Affairs Council and Norway’s honorary consul in Alaska. But there was no high-level government meeting for the largely ceremonial monarch, who accepted flowers from a child, shook hands with a 102-year-old and waved at people in Viking-style horned helmets.
And while some criticized his style, locals in this Republican state said they appreciated Donald Trump’s approach to Beijing.
“China is such a powerhouse that everyone is afraid to confront them. And Trump could be so bombastic,” said Moore, eating at a Cajun restaurant with his son.
“But I approve of what the former president did on China. I feel like he was a firm leader and did what a lot of people were thinking. He didn’t take their [expletive].”
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