Yun Sun on U.S.-China Alaska Summit

Yun Sun is a Senior Fellow and Co-Director of the East Asia Program and Director of the China Program at the Stimson Center. Her expertise is in Chinese foreign policy, U.S.-China relations and China’s relations with neighboring countries and authoritarian regimes. From 2011 to early 2014, she was a Visiting Fellow at the Brookings Institution, jointly appointed by the Foreign Policy Program and the Global Development Program, where she focused on Chinese national security decision-making processes and China-Africa relations. From 2008 to 2011, Yun was the China Analyst for the International Crisis Group based in Beijing, specializing on China’s foreign policy towards conflict countries and the developing world. Prior to ICG, she worked on U.S.-Asia relations in Washington, DC for five years. Yun earned her master’s degree in international policy and practice from George Washington University, as well as an MA in Asia Pacific studies and a BA in international relations from Foreign Affairs College in Beijing.

Qingyang (Grace) Wang CMC '21 interviewed Yun Sun on April 2, 2021.
Photograph and biography courtesy of Yun Sun.

What were the primary goals of the Chinese and the American side of the Alaska meeting between their top diplomats?

The goals of the Chinese side and the American side have stayed constant or unchanged before  the summit, About a week or more before the summit the Chinese goal was to have this senior level of diplomacy, to have a strategic dialogue on the  high level so that they could demonstrate that China and the US are on the right track of reconciliation. But the American side of the goal was a little bit more obscure compared to the Chinese agenda. Then during that one week before the summit we saw different signaling from the American side-- they are treating this summit as an opportunity to show China America's bottom lines. There are issues where the US is not happy with China and the US was going to make it very clear to China that the US is not going to accept the Chinese position on a lot of the issues, such as China's domestic politics and coercive diplomacy. So it seems that before the summit, the US side wanted to treat this as an opportunity to clarify the US position and also to get a scope of what the Chinese positions really are and whether the Chinese are up for any concession or compromise on the problematic policies that the US has identified. But for the Chinese side, their goal seems to be primarily to use this as a senior level diplomacy opportunity to repair ties and to resume strategic communication.

There were statements coming out of the State Department about how the US is going to lay the ground rules or illustrate the US red lines during this summit. The US is not going to Alaska to make any concessions or view it as a strategic dialogue, which is completely different from what the Chinese were saying. Also, other than the statements that came directly out of the US government, there was also multilateral diplomacy that the US was organizing. The first one was the leadership summit that President Biden presided over, and they reached a long list of issues of cooperation among the core countries. Then, of course, before Alaska, the US had back-to-back meetings with Japan, South Korea, and also the defense minister's visit to India. So those diplomatic gestures are showing that the US is operating from a position of strength and trying to show China that the US is back to the Asian region and the US alliances and partnerships in the region are strong. So those are the signaling that's embedded in the summit.

The opening of the meeting did not go well as both sides aired their differences publicly and sharply.  Why do you think this happened?

Now looking back to the public press conference at the beginning of this dialogue, it is apparent that the US side already made it clear that it is going into the dialogue to demonstrate the US principles and positions. The Chinese were prepared for that. There inevitably were going to be disagreements, but the level or the intensity of the confrontational posture was a surprise for a lot of people. The dialogue was set up to begin with a public press conference and two sides were coming into the meetings with the preparation for being confrontational. It was inevitably going to happen.

What does the confrontation at the beginning of the summit signal about the dynamics of the two countries? Can we interpret China’s response as its way of standing up to the U.S.?

I think what it means is that in today's environment, in today's US foreign relations, microphone diplomacy is not going to work for either side. That public criticism or confrontation is going to end up with no result and no progress for either side. So in that sense, the lesson learned is that the next time we're planning for a senior-level dialogue or meeting like this, the question becomes "are we using the meeting for propaganda purposes, or are we really trying to achieve something through the meeting?" Because if the goal is to demonstrate to the domestic population that the leadership is strong and the leadership is uncompromising towards the other country, which both the US and China did in the Alaska meeting, then one could say that the Alaska meeting achieved that goal. But if the goal is diplomacy-oriented or to talk about the concrete issues to understand what can be agreed upon or what differences can be worked out, this type of public display of principles, positions, and disagreements is not going to help.

The verbal confrontation caused outrage amongst Chinese citizens and made headlines in Chinese newspapers, yet very few American media outlets reported about it. Why is that?  At the same time, the few American news coverage endorsed Antony Blinken’s tough talk. What is your interpretation of the media’s implicit support for a confrontational stance toward China?

To begin with, most of the American media outlets reported about the public display of disagreements on the first day of the meeting. Some American media did not focus on the Chinese outrage. The dialogue caused outrage among Chinese citizens for a couple of reasons. If you look at Yang Jiechi's 16 minutes long statement, it was very provocative, very emotional, and very nationalistic. So I cannot help but feel that his statement was not only targeting the US audience, it was also targeting the Chinese audience. The Chinese wanted to hear the Chinese confidence about the continued rise of China and the continued decline of the United States. The Chinese media outlets and the propaganda machine were mobilized to create this narrative that China is no longer the weak power it was 120 years ago. There's a very deliberate effort on the Chinese government side to portray Yang Jiechi's statement as not only justified and legitimate, but also steering them in a way that will stimulate or agitate even higher support of the position of the government. So the direct cause of the outrage among Chinese citizens is not a diplomatic encounter itself, but how the diplomatic encounter was portrayed and also presented and promoted in the Chinese narrative.

We don't hear a lot about what was actually being discussed during the meeting, was there any specific progress made behind closed doors?

That we don't know. There were three meetings; the first one was public, and the second two were closed-door meetings. I was told privately that the other two meetings went much better in terms of the dialogue. That's why people are against microphone diplomacy because once you take the microphone out of the room, some people can talk about the real issues. They can talk about disagreements, agreements, and issues of common concern. So, I would be very surprised that the other two meetings went as combative as the first one.

Can we expect to see the U.S. taking further action against China in regards to the various human rights violation allegations the U.S. has over China?

By default that is the expectation. But to answer your question, it depends. It depends on whether China is going to continue to crack down on Hong Kong's democratic movements or whether the reeducation camps in Xinjiang are maintained. So the direct answer is yes. It is expected the US will take further action because of China’s actions . Some people ask, "why did the US announce the sanction of 24 senior Chinese officials related to Hong Kong the day that Yang Jiechi and Wang Yi left Beijing for Alaska? Isn't that provocative? Isn't that setting the dialogue in a very negative environment? Isn't that the US trying to slap in the face right before the dialogue took place?" The answer is no because the US announcement of the sanctions on the 24 Chinese officials was a direct response to what the Chinese National People's Congress passed in terms of Hong Kong's election law and the qualifications of candidates. If people are just looking at the US action without seeing them as a reaction to what China was doing in the first place, then it's very selective and very easy to finger point. But the US is not doing any of this out of nowhere-- it is a direct response to what China has been doing too.

On the whole, what did the meeting in Alaska accomplish, both for China and the U.S.? What should we watch in the next few months with respect to the direction of China-U.S. relations for the near future?

It indicates that the Chinese hope that a Biden administration will return to Obama-era policies and completely reverse the direction that the Trump presidency has set for US foreign relations. That hope for China is gone. It indicates the great power competition narrative as the main theme of a US national security strategy and also as a theme for US-China relations is going to continue. Biden is not necessarily going to slow the campaign down or reverse the direction that the Chinese had hoped. What do we expect US-China relations to proceed in the future? It's going to be less turbulent compared to the Trump presidency, but all the issues are still there. The relationship is going to be as difficult as it has been, and the meetings has helped to set the expectations straight. 

Qingyang (Grace) Wang CMC '21Student Journalist

U.S. Department of State from United States, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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