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U.S.-China talks are off to a ‘frigid’ start, but former Pentagon official say that’s not surprising


The first U.S.-China meeting under the Biden administration started with “frigid” comments and is unlikely to result in any visible compromises, according to a former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of Defense for East Asia.

“I would say that the opening statements were certainly frigid, not necessarily due to the ambient temperatures in Alaska,” Heino Klinck told CNBC’s “Street Signs Asia” on Friday.

The two sides exchanged barbs before the meeting in Anchorage, Alaska officially began, stretching what was meant to be a short photo opportunity into an hour-long dialogue.

Klinck, now a senior advisor at the National Bureau of Asia Research (NBR), said he was not surprised by the turn of events.

“So far, frankly, there are no surprises as far as I can tell,” he said.

“It’s, for me, unimaginable that the Biden administration is going to look to reset … the relationship as the Chinese would like,” he said.

It’s important for the senior leaders to be able to meet, discuss things candidly and be able to demonstrate what each national intent is.

Heino Klinck

senior advisor at the National Bureau of Asia Research

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in his opening remarks that the U.S. would discuss its “deep concerns with actions by China, including in Xinjiang, Hong Kong, Taiwan.” Chinese officials pushed back, repeating that the country is opposed to foreign interference in what it sees as its internal affairs.

NBR’s Klinck said it is common for U.S. conversations with China to be tense and he has often been lectured by his Chinese counterparts.

“We saw a little bit of that on camera today and you saw Secretary Blinken respond,” he said. “I think you’re going to have more of that in the private discussions.”

Asked if the meeting could lead to any visible compromises, NBR’s Klinck said the short answer is “no.”

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks while facing Yang Jiechi, director of the Central Foreign Affairs Commission Office, and Wang Yi, China’s Foreign Minister, at the opening session of US-China talks at the Captain Cook Hotel in Anchorage, Alaska on March 18, 2021.

Frederic J. Brown | AFP | Getty Images

There are areas of potential cooperation such as climate change and public health during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, but he said the U.S. and its partners will “more often than not” compete with China.

Washington will also confront Beijing when they cross national security red lines such as targeting the U.S. in cyberattacks or conducting “malign activities” toward U.S. allies.

Still, Klinck said it’s a “positive sign” that such a high-level meeting is taking place early on in the Biden administration.

“Even during the most tense relationships that the United States has had in its history … we would still meet and we would still exchange perspectives, so it’s key that we do the same with our strategic competitor China today,” he said.

“It’s important for the senior leaders to be able to meet, discuss things candidly and be able to demonstrate what each national intent is,” he added.

Gary Locke, a former U.S. ambassador to China, echoed that sentiment.

“It sets the tone, it establishes the priorities, the concerns that the United States has,” said Locke, who is also interim president at Bellevue College.

“Yes, each side made a lot of public, harsh statements and very strong statements, but when they actually sit down and meet face to face, they understand that … they each have a role, but they also need to sit down and figure out a way forward to get past these differences, to solve the fundamental issues,” he told CNBC’s “Squawk Box Asia” on Friday.

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