U.S. and Chinese officials traded acrimony and accusations over two days of talks in Anchorage, Alaska, that both sides hope will clear the air.
Now the real work begins.
While the Americans portrayed the talks as a good chance to exchange views, they left Alaska without any clear path forward on issues from tariffs and human rights in Xinjiang and Hong Kong to cyberattacks and the long roster of Chinese companies at risk of being delisted from U.S. exchanges.
That will be a disappointment to officials and businesses on both sides that had hoped for some solid indication that the world’s two largest economies were ready to ease off their confrontation, such as by planning a virtual summit on climate change between Presidents Joe Biden and Xi Jinping. In the end, they didn’t even come away with that.
"We were clear-eyed coming in, we’re clear-eyed coming out and we will go back to Washington to take stock of where we are,” U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan said after emerging with Secretary of State Antony Blinken from the meetings in an Anchorage hotel. They refused to take questions from reporters.
Yang Jiechi, a member of the Communist Party’s Politburo, told Chinese reporters that the talks were "candid, constructive and helpful” but added that "there are still some important differences between the two sides.”
"China is going to safeguard our national sovereignty, security and our interests,” Yang said. If there was any hope to be had, it was that his remarks were far less hostile than his blistering 20-minute monologue at the start of the talks.
The lack of any visible progress underscored just how bad relations have become between the U.S. and China in the time since former President Donald Trump shifted from intermittent praise of Xi to a far more confrontational approach to the country, and how little appetite — or ability — there appears to be on either side to improve relations.
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle in the U.S. have pressed Biden to maintain Trump’s tough tone on China, and his team has largely done so.
In China, the government has executed a hard turn toward greater authoritarianism, eroding democratic freedoms in Hong Kong and cracking down on ethnic Muslims in Xinjiang in a campaign that the U.S. has labeled genocide.
That designation especially rankles the Chinese. Calling it "the biggest lie of the century,” the Chinese delegation to the talks protested "the presumption of guilt by those who are biased and condescending,” the official Xinhua News Agency reported after the talks broke up.
The meetings in Anchorage may have been "useful to see if there’s anything else people want to say behind closed doors that they’re not going to say publicly,” Bonnie Glaser, a senior adviser on Asia at the Center for Strategic & International Studies in Washington. She warned, though, that relations may only get worse.
"We’re going to have more bills come out of Congress, not fewer, we’ll have more people screaming about how the U.S. has to stand up to China,” Glaser said.
In the meantime, the Biden administration’s China policy is work in progress. Officials are still reviewing how hard to push back against Chinese technology firms such as Huawei Technologies Co. and how much can be done to stall China’s ability to develop and export the latest-generation microchips.
They haven’t said what they’ll do about the many Chinese companies that could be delisted from U.S. exchanges, or whether they’ll lift tariffs on billions of dollars in Chinese goods. And China has shown no sign of backing down from its far bolder approach.
"An optimistic read is that Yang’s public performance was entirely for a domestic audience, and behind closed doors it will still be possible to make progress,” Tom Orlik, the chief economist for Bloomberg Economics, wrote in a note. "A more straightforward interpretation is that China is now so confident in its ascendancy that it sees no benefit to working cooperatively except on its own terms.”
The U.S. had sought the talks and arranged to hold them in Alaska, where Blinken stopped to refuel after visits to key U.S. allies Japan and South Korea. That was intended to send a signal: The Biden administration would talk to China only on its terms and after checking in with key partners.
But whatever position of strength the U.S. had seemed to dissolve within minutes, as Yang delivered the monologue in what were supposed to be perfunctory open remarks. Responding to a shorter presentation of complaints from Blinken, Yang accused the U.S. of hypocrisy, called its democracy flawed and tainted by racism and said it was the "champion” of cyberattacks.
Within the administration, there was debate about whether the opening session — and even the decision to have talks — was a miscalculation. According to some officials, relations are so sour that Blinken and Sullivan should have expected, and sought to avoid, the show of vitriol.
But others argued that China often amplifies its rhetoric before making concessions, and it was important to allow that before getting down to business. Two people familiar with the matter said the idea of the meeting originated with Kurt Campbell, Biden’s Asia coordinator, and voices in the State Department had pushed back, arguing a meeting had little utility.
Skeptics said that the hope for a free-wheeling conversation was naive because Chinese officials rarely diverge from talking points even in private. That appears to have been the case, as one official who briefed reporters said that while the meeting was frank, they didn’t get the back-and-forth they had hoped for.
Although the talks were merely the first move in the Biden administration’s approach to China, it left very little indication of what’s to come. Some Republicans are already demanding that the U.S. boycott the 2022 Winter Olympics that will be held in China, a decision that would infuriate Beijing.
And although former Secretary of State John Kerry is looking for an opening on climate cooperation, his portfolio, the tone in Anchorage seems to have left little opportunity or trust to make a deal anytime soon.
"If anyone in the Biden administration believes that being testy with the Chinese in this meeting will create domestic space for cooperation,” Derek Scissors, a China analyst at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, said as the talks were underway, "they are out of their minds.”
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.