ANCHORAGE, Alaska – The United States and China leveled sharp rebukes of each others’ policies in the first high-level, in-person talks of the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden on Thursday, with deeply strained relations of the two global rivals on rare public display during the meeting’s opening session in Alaska.
The United States, which quickly accused China of “grandstanding” and violating the meeting’s protocol, had been looking for a change in behavior from China which had earlier this year expressed hope for a reset to sour relations.
On the eve of the talks, Beijing had presaged what would be a contentious meeting, with its ambassador to Washington saying the United States was full of illusions if it thinks China will compromise.
Sparring in a highly unusual extended back-and-forth in front of cameras, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and national security adviser Jake Sullivan opened their meeting with top Chinese diplomat Yang Jiechi and Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Anchorage, fresh off of Blinken’s visits to allies Japan and South Korea.
“We will … discuss our deep concerns with actions by China, including in Xinjiang, Hong Kong, Taiwan, cyberattacks on the United States, economic coercion of our allies,” Blinken said in blunt public remarks at the top of the first meeting.
“Each of these actions threaten the rules-based order that maintains global stability,” he said.
Yang responded with a 15-minute speech in Chinese while the U.S. side awaited translation, lashing out about what he said was the United States’ struggling democracy, poor treatment of minorities and criticizing its foreign and trade policies.
“The United States uses its military force and financial hegemony to carry out long arm jurisdiction and suppress other countries,” Yang said.
“It abuses so-called notions of national security to obstruct normal trade exchanges, and incite some countries to attack China,” he added.
“Let me say here that in front of the Chinese side, the United States does not have the qualification to say that it wants to speak to China from a position of strength … the U.S. side was not even qualified to say such things, even 20 years or 30 years back, because this is not the way to deal with the Chinese people,” Yang said.
Throughout Yang’s monologue, Sullivan and other officials in the delegation passed notes to each other. Apparently taken aback by Yang’s remarks, Blinken held journalists in the room so he could respond.
Sullivan said the United States did not seek conflict with China, but would stand up for its principles and friends. He touted this year’s Mars rover landing success, and said the United States’ promise was in its ability constantly reinvent itself.
What is typically a few minutes of opening remarks open to press for such high-level meetings lasted for more than an hour and the two delegations tussled about when media would be ushered out of the room.
Following the exchange, a senior U.S. administration official said China had immediately “violated” agreed-to protocol, which was two minutes of opening remarks by each of the principals.
“The Chinese delegation … seems to have arrived intent on grandstanding, focused on public theatrics and dramatics over substance,” the official told reporters in Alaska.
The official added that “exaggerated diplomatic presentations often are aimed at a domestic audience.”
Many netizens on Chinese social media said Chinese officials were doing a good job in Alaska, and that the U.S. side had shown zero sincerity.
Some even characterized the talks as a “Hongmen Banquet,” a historical event that took place 2,000 years ago where a rebel leader invited another to a feast with the intention of murdering him.
Still, the two sides reconvened for another meeting on Thursday evening, and a senior Biden administration official said that the first session was “substantive, serious, and direct,” running well beyond the two hours originally allotted.
“We used the session, just as we had planned, to outline our interests and priorities, and we heard the same from our Chinese counterparts,” the official said in the pool report, adding that a third session of talks was scheduled for Friday morning.
Before taking office, Biden had been attacked by Republicans who feared his administration would take too soft an approach with China. But in recent weeks, top Republicans have given the president a gentle nod for revitalizing relations with U.S. allies in order to confront China, a shift from former President Donald Trump’s go-it-alone “America First” strategy.
While much of Biden’s China policy is still being formulated, including how to handle the tariffs on Chinese goods implemented under Trump, his administration has so far placed a stronger emphasis on democratic values and allegations of human rights abuses by China.
Michael McCaul, the senior Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said Yang’s conduct showed China had no plans to change its ways.
“Their belligerence and false accusations should serve as a wake-up call to the Biden administration about exactly who they are dealing with,” he said.
‘Pretty tough’ conversations
Washington says Blinken’s Asia tour before the meeting with Chinese officials, as well as U.S. outreach to Europe, India and other partners, shows how the United States has strengthened its hand to confront China since Biden took office in January.
But the two sides appear primed to agree on very little at the talks.
Even the status of the meeting had become a sticking point, with China insisting it is a “strategic dialogue,” harkening back to bilateral mechanisms of years past. The U.S. side has explicitly rejected that, calling it a one-off session.
On the eve of the talks, the United States issued a flurry of actions directed at China, including a move to begin revoking Chinese telecoms licenses, subpoenas to multiple Chinese information technology companies over national security concerns, and updated sanctions on China over a rollback of democracy in Hong Kong.
Yang questioned Blinken on Thursday on whether the sanctions were announced ahead of the meeting on purpose.
“Well, I think we thought too well of the United States, we thought that the U.S. side would follow the necessary diplomatic protocols,” he said.
Washington has said it is willing to work with China when it is in the interests of the United States and has cited the fight against climate change and the coronavirus pandemic as examples. On Thursday, Blinken said Washington hoped to see China uses its influence with North Korea to persuade it to give up its nuclear weapons.
The largest group representing exiled Uyghurs has written to Blinken urging him to demand that Beijing close its internment camps in the Xinjiang region, where U.N. experts say that more than 1 million members of the ethnic group and other Muslim minorities have been held.
Blinken had pledged to raise the issue, his State Department having upheld a Trump administration determination that Beijing was perpetrating genocide in Xinjiang, something China vehemently denies.
Yang said China firmly opposed U.S. interference in its internal affairs. The United States should handle its own affairs and China its own, he said.
Bonnie Glaser, an Asia expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the tough statements from both sides in the run-up to the meeting had created a potential risk that it would devolve into an exchange of accusations and demands.
“Neither side benefits from this meeting being judged a total failure,” Glaser said.
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