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With economic growth and shift in power balance, China brings a new confidence to the table in Alaska

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Within China’s foreign policy circles, China is seen to be on the brink of a substantial shift in power on the world stage. The Chinese will carry that confidence with them to Alaska where top US and Chinese officials will meet. Photo: AP Photo

When US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan meet top Chinese diplomats in Anchorage, Alaska, on Thursday they may be surprised by the confidence China exudes these days.

America’s accelerating decline under former US president Donald Trump has been a favourite topic for many Chinese scholars and government advisers, especially after the US was plunged into its worst economic and political crisis in decades over the coronavirus pandemic and election chaos.

Yang Jiemian, a respected strategic affairs scholar in Shanghai and younger brother of Yang Jiechi, President Xi Jinping’s top foreign policy aide, argued that the pandemic had sped up an inevitable shift in the global balance of power in China’s favour. With the fight against the pandemic, we are probably witnessing “the eve of a substantial, qualitative change in terms of international power balance”, he said in a paper published almost a year ago.

That confident assessment is widely shared within China’s foreign policy establishment, according to Chinese diplomats and academics.

While the country’s nationalist, authoritarian shift in recent years may not be heart-warming for many inside China, a number have nonetheless joined the chorus celebrating Beijing’s largely uninterrupted rise to power and mocking Washington’s inevitable decline.

“We don’t need hide and bide any more,” said a former diplomat privately, referring to late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping’s mantra of low-profile diplomacy which played a dominating role in securing China’s external relations with the West.

“In the face of the US-led encirclement efforts and aggressive attacks, we don’t have many options, do we? After all, it’s about time for China to take the centre stage in the world,” he said, citing an assertion Xi made four years ago.

Xi has also made unusual remarks about China’s ascendance, an issue of growing concern in the eyes of many Western countries and China’s Asian neighbours.

According to state media, Xi said during the annual session of the National People’s Congress this month that the Chinese people should be able to see the world on a more equal footing after decades of rapid economic expansion. It was widely interpreted as a statement aimed at the US and other advanced economies, demanding respect and acceptance of China as an equal power.

Given his unchallenged authority in China’s politics, Xi’s latest remarks just days before the Alaska meeting, will no doubt affect how Chinese diplomats engage with the new administration of US President Joe Biden. Just a day after Xi’s comments, Foreign Minister Wang Yi, who will be at the Alaska meeting along with Yang Jiechi, claimed that China stood “at a new historic starting point”.

He refused to accept the blame for China’s initial mishandling of Covid-19 and for subsequent aggressive posturing to exploit Western countries’ vulnerabilities. He was reluctant to even acknowledge that China had an image problem in the face of growing negative perceptions of the country in the post-coronavirus world.

Instead, he denounced Washington’s “hegemony of system” and blamed the US for inciting instability in the region and causing chaos and conflict around the world.

That largely explains why almost all China watchers are cautious about the upcoming high-stakes meeting, the first face-to-face top-level diplomatic dialogue since the Biden administration took office.

It’s good for them to meet and to see diplomacy back at work after a chaotic four years under Trump, but do not expect much, apart from an agreement to keep talking and have further meetings. After all, neither side appears willing to make real concessions or can afford to appear weak in the face of rising nationalism at home.

Another reason why the Alaska meeting may be more symbolic than substantive is their different approaches to these kinds of diplomatic talks. While Americans may see dialogue and consultation as a means to put meat on the bones and achieve real results, the Chinese tend to attach much more importance to meetings and get-togethers themselves, which in a sense are both means and ends, even without follow-up action.