Alaska: The Watershed for Pacific Diplomacy?

by David Tang

Illustration by Weronika Ziarek

Face-to-face talks between top US and Chinese diplomats are being held in Alaska this week. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken stopped by Anchorage, Alaska with national security adviser Jake Sullivan joining him there for the meeting with Chinese counterparts Yang Jiechi and Wang Yi. Blinken is on his way home from previous defence and security engagements in Seoul and Tokyo before arriving in Anchorage. 

A curious few may question the choice of Alaska as the site for such high-level talks between two countries at a critical juncture in their relationship. Certainly, Alaskan weather is not the most hospitable at this time of the year, nor is Alaska a particular diplomatic powerhouse location like Paris or Geneva. Nevertheless, Alaska seems to offer a geographic and, optimistically, a symbolic mid-point between China and the US for talks that are bound to be mired in antagonism and conflict.

However, to state the obvious would make for very poor reading. Incidentally or not, almost exactly 80 years ago, Alaska was supposed to have been the location for a meeting between a United States and Japan on the verge of war. The meeting never happened; had it taken place, however, there is some debate as to whether US involvement in World War II would have been considerably delayed, if not altogether prevented. It would be unwise to draw too sharp a comparison between pre-WWII US-Japan relations and the current state of US-China relations. But the parallels between the never-held Alaska summit and the contemporary meeting can help explain American interests and behaviors in the Pacific by underlining the geopolitical context of the meetings.

From 1931 onwards—with the Japanese invasion of Northeast China followed by the outbreak of full-scale war between China and Japan in 1937—Japan was becoming increasingly isolated from the international community. Concurrently, it was drawn into the webs of the revisionist powers of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, climaxing in the Tripartite Pact of 1940, which escalated relations to a pseudo-defensive alliance. At the same time, Japanese aggression—initially against China and then French Indochina—directly resulted in a US embargo on a variety of resources critical to Japan’s war effort in China. In July 1941, the US had frozen all Japanese assets. It was under these circumstances that the Japanese government under Prime Minister Prince Konoe Fumimaro took frantic attempts to engage in diplomacy with the US, including high-level negotiations between then-US Secretary of State Cordell Hull and Japanese Ambassador Nomura Kichisaburo. Nomura was a genial but deaf elderly citizen with no diplomatic experience and was poorly suited to the enormous task entrusted to him. These engagements were supposed to have culminated with a meeting between Konoe and then-US president Franklin D. Roosevelt in Alaska, sometime in late 1941.

Konoe Fumimaro reading an imperial rescript, 1936

In August 1941, Konoe pinned his hopes on this attempt at personal diplomacy with FDR, whom he had met in 1933 while visiting as a guest of honour at the White House. It is worth noting though that Konoe did not operate with full authority—he was subject to the pressures and demands of the Imperial Japanese Army and Navy, which were not bound by the civilian administration—an issue that present-day China does not face. Konoe had argued that through successful personal diplomacy with Roosevelt, he would be able to convince Emperor Hirohito, who was nominally the supreme commander of the imperial armed forces, to reign in the army and the navy to preserve the peace. Roosevelt, on the other hand, had just returned from meeting Churchill and shoring up the Atlantic Charter. As a keen advocate of personal diplomacy, Roosevelt expressed some enthusiasm at Konoe’s offer and proposed a meeting lasting for several days for mid-October.

Alaska was by no means a straightforward choice for the meeting’s location. The US maintained a strong presence in the Pacific that resembled a strategic cordon to Japan, occupying the Philippines, Guam, Wake, Midway, and the Hawaiian Islands. Initially, the Japanese had suggested Hawaii, which by this point housed the US Pacific Fleet that was sent forward from the US West Coast as a strong signal of deterrence against further Japanese aggression. However, in a late August session with the Japanese ambassador, Roosevelt emphasised the difficulty of going as far as Hawaii, which would have taken him 21 days for a round trip, as he did not yet travel by air. In fact, FDR would not travel by plane until 1943, when he flew to Casablanca to meet Churchill. Hence, FDR suggested Juneau, Alaska as the meeting place, which would only require some 14 or 15 days, allowing for a longer period of conversation with Konoe.

Logistical challenges like travel times have been largely overcome in the present day, which makes the symbolism of Alaska even more important for the upcoming meeting between Blinken/Sullivan and Yang/Wang. Alaska is the westernmost part of the 50 United States, reinforcing the notion that the US is very much a Pacific nation with inherent and justified security and economic interests—not merely an unwelcome visitor to the Asia-Pacific as the Chinese are eager to imply. Additionally, Alaska holds an advantage over more formal locations like Washington DC, in that it allows senior Chinese diplomats to circumvent certain diplomatic obligations and distractions. A visit to DC would entail meeting with their embassy, business groups, legislators, think tanks, and other US officials, whilst Alaska allows the diplomats to focus on the meeting itself. The much more relaxed and apparently successful Obama-Xi engagement at Sunnylands, California underscores the justification for a less formal environment. To an extent, this is reminiscent of FDR’s desire to be able to have longer, more comprehensive discussions with Konoe in order to reach an agreement.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt visiting Kodiak, Alaska, August 7, 1944. FDR Presidential Library & Museum

The timing of the US-China meeting is also highly significant. In 1941, FDR was only keen to meet Konoe after formalising the Anglo-American alliance and delineating common foreign policy objectives with Churchill through the Atlantic Charter. Japanese actions in 1940, particularly the signing of the Tripartite Pact with Nazi Germany, had allowed the US to resolve its conflicts of foreign policy and security priorities between Asia and Europe by essentially binding Japan to Germany, paving the way for even more comprehensive US-UK cooperation. 

Similarly today, a number of American diplomatic actions aimed at deepening existing alliances precede the Blinken/Sullivan-Yang/Wang meeting. The inaugural summit of the security-oriented Quad Security Dialogue was held on March 12, 2021. The Quad of the US, Australia, Japan and India is not an especially new framework—it laid dormant until Chinese actions, particularly the border conflict with India and diplomatic and trade conflicts with Australia, reinvigorated its existence. Moreover, Blinken is only stopping over in Alaska after meetings in Seoul and Tokyo, where he is expected to strengthen American security and economic engagements in South Korea and Japan. To quote Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, “it was important to us that this administration’s first meeting with Chinese officials be held on American soil and occur after we have met and consulted closely with partners and allies in both Asia and Europe.” In 2021, much like 1941, the message is clear: that allies, partners, and democratic countries come first, but the US was and still is prepared to use diplomatic channels to engage with adversaries and respond to security threats. 

Regarding the hypothetical 1941 Alaska meeting itself, the Japanese government wanted to obtain the termination of US military assistance to China and recognition of Japanese interests in Indochina, on top of reversing the economic sanctions imposed on Japan. In return, Japan would promise the safety of the Philippines (a US protectorate) and eventual withdrawal from China and Indochina by 1955. This seemingly ludicrous date for withdrawal was a result of a lack of a common policy position between the Japanese civilian and military establishments over the course of the China War. The US countered with a firm demand for immediate Japanese withdrawal. Whilst negotiations for a meeting were ongoing and with their stockpile of oil—and therefore striking power—diminishing rapidly, the Japanese military set a late-October deadline for an agreement with the US. This timeline meant that Konoe’s scope for action was extremely limited. Furthermore, Hull had expressed suspicion at Japan’s intentions and advised against any in-person meeting unless some form of guarantee could be extracted from Japan beforehand. Hence, the Alaska meeting was doomed before it even began, contributing to the fall of the Konoe Cabinet on October 18, 1941. Konoe would be replaced by the infamous Tojo Hideki. More ironically, the Japanese carrier force would actually sail close to and past Alaska under strict radio silence en route to its target of Pearl Harbour in early December.

President Barack Obama walks with President Xi Jinping on the grounds of the Annenberg Retreat at Sunnylands in Rancho Mirage, California, June 8, 2013. Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

The geopolitical implications of the 2021 Alaska meeting are likely to be less serious than 1941, though perhaps no less contentious. It is expected that topics of discussion will revolve around China’s policies toward Hong Kong, its pressure on Taiwan, its treatment of Uyghurs, and what the US perceives as economic coercion against Australia. Much like then-Secretary Hull was suspicious of Japanese sincerity and promises, Blinken is sceptical of the outcome of such dialogues, having experienced a number of US-China Strategic and Economic Dialogues as deputy Secretary of State in the Obama administration. The aforementioned topics of discussion are what China considers its core interests or internal affairs, where it is seldom prone to compromise.

The failure in the 1941 diplomatic sequence has largely been attributed to Japan manoeuvring itself, through its slew of diplomatic and military actions in the decade leading up to 1941, into an untenable position where war became inevitable. The Alaska meeting between Konoe and Roosevelt would have been a diplomatic Hail Mary, even in the most optimistic circumstances. Chinese actions in recent years seem comparable to the Japanese descent into conflict from 1931 to 1941, though we should be careful not to fall into a deterministic outlook. Likewise, it is equally unlikely that this meeting between Blinken/Sullivan and Yang/Wang will achieve anything of significance. While the distance between the two countries’ objectives and the mutual distrust between their leaders will not prevent the meeting from occurring as in 1941, it is unlikely that any substantial progress will be made between the two superpowers. In fact, recent headlines indicate that the summit has already been off to a shaky start. Then again, there is also the possibility that Alaska is simply not fated to be a watershed location in diplomacy and geopolitics.

David Tang is graduate of the MSc Empires, Colonialism and Globalisation program at the London School of Economics and Political Science. His research interests focus on East Asian history and Chinese politics.

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