Trump shadow on US-China relations

Editorial | Mary Ma 22 Mar 2021

The disruptive diplomatic encounter in Anchorage has offered not only both sides but also political observers some empirical clues for predicting how the relationship between the world's two largest powers will shape up.

Prior to the Antony Blinken-Yang Jiechi meeting, both sides had not met at all and analysis was mostly based on pure speculation.

As Foreign Minister Wang Yi put it at the meeting, it's always good to have dialogue. Yes, it's good because there is bound to be useful information to be drawn from direct contact, without which everything would have to be based on imagination.

So what can we draw from what's been published?

For sure, it was more than the instant noodle feasts that dominated news headlines on the first day.

It is clear that, although President Joe Biden has diversified from Donald Trump on internal policies, he largely lives in the shadow of the latter's policy toward China.

At the frictional opening of the Alaska meeting, US Secretary of State Blinken broke usual diplomatic practice to immediately put Beijing's red-line subjects - from Xinjiang and Hong Kong to Tibet and Taiwan - on the table.

These are not new topics, but they were previously usually taken up after reporters had left the conference room.

Yang had no choice but to hit back openly. Both sides knew they had their own audience to address at home as they spoke.

In light of the frictional start, it can be concluded with confidence that these Chinese red-line issues will continue to be rock-hard subjects dogging the Sino-US relationship - no matter how hard Beijing decision-makers warn against them.

Having said that, it should be noted that, while Biden gave his top diplomat a pat on the back for bravery, he didn't forget to call for calm as reported in some US media when the two-day event was half-way through.

Perhaps it was because of this that the concluding remarks, though short of being a joint statement, carried a tone more conciliatory than the opening.

The reins were pulled in.

Thus, while the Biden administration is expected to uphold Trump's Chinese policies at least for the foreseeable future, it remains to be seen how deep he will implement them.

It's also clear that Beijing is no longer laying low in the face of the US, contrary to what it usually did during the Trump era.

It can be expected that Beijing will become more assertive than before in dealing with the US.

Beijing has some cards to play, including Tesla's electric cars and Apple's iPhones. These constitute major US interests that Beijing could leverage to put pressure on Capitol Hill and the White House.

In the wake of a more assertive Beijing, the Sino-US relationship would continue to be bumpy, if not more confrontational.

At stake is not an imminent military conflict that is unlikely in the near future but a clamor among many sectors, including finance, technology and commodity supplies.

If the US can line up allies in Europe and Asia, will China replicate the trick to collaborate with some European Union members and Asian neighbors to counter the US?

The foreign affairs arena could be spectacular.

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