The first high-level US-China talks of the Joe Biden administration got off to a fiery start on Thursday, with both sides levelling sharp rebukes of the others’ policies in a rare display that underscored the level of bilateral tension.
The meetings in Anchorage were a new test in increasingly troubled relations between the two countries, which are at odds over a range of issues from trade to human rights in Tibet, Hong Kong and China’s western Xinjiang region, as well as over Taiwan, China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea and the coronavirus pandemic.
Here’s how the talks took a heated turn.
Biden presides over charges, counter-charges
Top US and Chinese officials offered sharply different views of each other during the meeting.
Secretary of state Antony Blinken and Chinese Communist Party foreign affairs chief Yang Jiechi took potshots at the policies of each other.
Blinken said the Biden administration was united with its allies in pushing back against China’s increasing authoritarianism and assertiveness at home and abroad.
Yang then unloaded a list of Chinese complaints about the US and accused Washington of hypocrisy for criticizing Beijing on human rights and other issues.
“Each of these actions threatens the rules-based order that maintains global stability,” Blinken said of China’s actions in Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Taiwan, and of cyberattacks on the United States and economic coercion against US allies. “That’s why they’re not merely internal matters, and why we feel an obligation to raise these issues here today.”
The Biden administration has made clear that it is looking for a change in behavior from China, which has expressed hope to reset relations that had worsened drastically under former President Donald Trump.
National security adviser Jake Sullivan amplified the criticism, saying China has undertaken an “assault on basic values.”
“We do not seek conflict but we welcome stiff competition,” he said.
Yang responded angrily by demanding the US stop pushing its own version of democracy at a time when the United States itself has been roiled by domestic discontent. He also accused the US of failing to deal with its own human rights problems and took issue with what he said was “condescension” from Blinken, Sullivan and other US officials.
“We believe that it is important for the United States to change its own image and to stop advancing its own democracy in the rest of the world,” he said. “Many people within the United States actually have little confidence in the democracy of the United States.”
“China will not accept unwarranted accusations from the US side,” he said. He noted that recent developments had plunged relations “into a period of unprecedented difficulty” that “has damaged the interests of our two peoples.”
“There is no way to strangle China,” he said.
Throughout Yang’s monologue, US National Security Adviser Sullivan and other officials in the delegation passed notes to each other.
Blinken appeared to be annoyed by the tenor and length of the comments, which went on for more than 15 minutes. He said his impressions from speaking with world leaders and on his just-concluded trip to Japan and South Korea were entirely different from the Chinese position.
“I’m hearing deep satisfaction that the United States is back, that we’re reengaged,” Blinken retorted. “I’m also hearing deep concern about some of the actions your government is taking.”
Underscoring the animosity, the State Department blasted the Chinese delegation for violating an agreed upon two-minute time limit for opening statements and suggested it “seem(ed) to have arrived intent on grandstanding, focused on public theatrics and dramatics over substance.”
“America’s approach will be undergirded by confidence in our dealing with Beijing – which we are doing from a position of strength – even as we have the humility to know that we are a country eternally striving to become a more perfect union,” it said.
‘Sensed strong smell of gunpowder’
Following the heated talks, China said that a “strong smell of gunpowder and drama” had resulted from the meeting with top American diplomats in Alaska.
Foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian, speaking in Beijing, said American officials at the Alaska meetings had provoked Chinese officials into making a “solemn response” after US officials made “groundless attacks” against Chinese foreign and domestic policies.
Zhao accused the US side of overrunning the agreed time for opening remarks, prompting the sharp response from the Chinese delegation.
“It was the US side that … provoked the dispute in the first place, so the two sides had a strong smell of gunpowder and drama from the beginning in the opening remarks. It was not the original intention of the Chinese side,” Zhao told reporters at a daily briefing.
US-China ties have been torn for years, and the Biden administration has yet to signal whether it’s ready or willing to back away from the hard-line stances taken under Donald Trump.
Just a day before the meeting, Blinken had announced new sanctions over Beijing’s crackdown on pro-democracy advocates in Hong Kong. In response, China stepped up its rhetoric opposing US interference in domestic affairs and complained directly about it.
“Is this a decision made by the United States to try to gain some advantage in dealing with China?” State Councilor Wang Yi asked. “Certainly this is miscalculated and only reflects the vulnerability and weakness inside the United States and it will not shake China’s position or resolve on those issues.”
Trump had taken pride in forging what he saw as a strong relationship with Chinese leader Xi Jinping. But the relationship disintegrated after the coronavirus pandemic spread from the Wuhan province across the globe and unleashed a public health and economic disaster.
With inputs from AFP