Mar 16, 2021 - World

White House expects a tough first meeting with China in Alaska

Blinken attends a virtual summit with the leaders of the U.S., India, Japan and Australia. Photo: Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA/Bloomberg via Getty

Secretary of State Tony Blinken and national security adviser Jake Sullivan will take a "tough-minded" approach to their first meeting with senior Chinese officials and raise several of the most sensitive issues in the relationship, senior administration officials told reporters on Tuesday night.

Why it matters: President Biden's two top foreign policy aides will meet face-to-face in Alaska on Thursday with Foreign Minister Wang Yi and China's top diplomat, Yang Jiechi. A senior official says one goal of the meeting is to dispel any notion in Beijing that Biden will take a softer line on China behind closed doors than he has thus far in public.

  • Blinken and Sullivan will raise China's crackdown in Hong Kong, alleged genocide in Xinjiang, aggression toward Hong Kong, "economic coercion" of U.S. allies and cyberattacks on the U.S., a senior official said on a briefing call.
  • The official noted that before meeting with China, the Biden administration wanted to coordinate with allies (Blinken will be returning from stops in South Korea and Japan) and make progress domestically "to strengthen our hand."
  • The administration also said it was important to hold the first meeting on U.S. soil and to have both Blinken and Sullivan in the room.

What they're saying: "We've seen a track record from China in the past of attempting to play favorites within an administration and in particular to play the secretary of State and national security adviser off each other," the senior official said.

  • With Blinken and Sullivan both attending, the official said, the message is that "the games that China has played in the past to divide us or attempt to divide us are simply not going to work here."
  • The official noted that China has been calling for a new tone in the relationship following the departure of Donald Trump, but said the U.S. was seeking "behavioral change" from Beijing, not just warmer rhetoric.

What to watch: The White House isn't expecting any breakthroughs after just "a few hours" of discussions in Alaska, and doesn't expect an agreement or joint statement to emerge. It also sees this meeting as a one-off, rather than the start of a diplomatic process.

  • “We don’t want them to be operating under any illusions about our tough-minded approach to their very problematic behavior, and at the same time it’s an opportunity for our guys to hear from them," a senior official on the call said.

Correction: This story originally said the meeting would take place on Wednesday. It is on Thursday.

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