The United States and China traded sharp rebukes of each others’ policies on Thursday in the first high-level, in-person talks since President Joe Biden took office, with the deep strain in the relations between the two global rivals on rare public display during the meeting’s opening session in Alaska.
China’s actions “threaten the rules-based order that maintains global stability,” US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said at the opening of the two-day meeting in Anchorage.
The US side will “discuss our deep concerns with actions by China, including Xinjiang,” where Washington has accused Beijing of “genocide” against Uighur Muslims, Blinken told the Chinese Communist Party’s top diplomacy official, Yang Jiechi and Foreign Minister Wang Yi.
He added that there would be dialogue on “Hong Kong, Taiwan, cyberattacks on the United States, economic coercion toward our allies.”
Beijing was equally sharp in its response.
“China is firmly opposed to US interference in China’s internal affairs. We have expressed our staunch opposition to such interference, and we will take firm actions in response,” Yang warned.
Speaking for 16 minutes – well over the two minutes that had been agreed ahead of the talks – he lashed out about what he said was the US’s struggling democracy and its poor treatment of minorities and criticised US 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.
Wang condemned the latest US sanctions against senior Chinese officials over what Washington considers Beijing’s quashing of Hong Kong’s freedoms, announced on the eve of the talks.
“This is not supposed to be the way one should welcome his guests,” Wang said.
Biden has promised a continuation of the tough approach to China of his predecessor former President Donald Trump, under whom the relationship between the US and China deteriorated sharply but indicated the potential for closer cooperation in some areas such as climate change and the coronavirus pandemic.
The opening of the talks, however, indicate the depths of the divide between the two global giants.
Bonnie Glaser, the director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says the talks will have a limited impact.
“They will probe whether there is common ground on some issues and whether there are ways to manage and even narrow their differences,” she told the AFP news agency.
“Expectations should remain low. A reset of the relationship is not in the cards.”
National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, meanwhile, 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 US’s promise was in its ability to constantly reinvent itself.
But 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 bickered about when media would be ushered out of the room.
Following the exchange, a senior US 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 United States would continue with its meeting as planned, the official said, adding that “exaggerated diplomatic presentations often are aimed at a domestic audience.”
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 revitalising relations with US allies in order to counter China, a shift from Trump’s go-it-alone “America First” strategy.
While much of Biden’s China policy is still being formulated, his administration has so far placed a stronger emphasis on democratic values and allegations of human rights abuses by China.
‘Pretty tough’ conversations
Washington says Blinken’s northeast Asian tour before the Chinese meeting, as well as US outreach to Europe, India and other partners, shows how the US 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, which were expected to run into the Anchorage evening and continue with more sessions on Friday.
Even the status of the meeting has become a sticking point, with China insisting it is a “strategic dialogue”, harkening back to bilateral mechanisms of years past. The US side has explicitly rejected that, calling it a one-off session.
“It’s hard to know how to judge this,” Al Jazeera’s diplomatic editor James Bays, who is in Anchorage, said of the opening session.
“It was very, very frank. It may have been an exchange of views that will clear the air. It may have been deepening of division between the two countries. I don’t think we are going to know for now because the talk continue behind closed doors and it will depend what happens in those talks.”
Frosty remarks from both #China and the #US so far in #Anchorage. Remember we’ve had a few days of the US criticising China in Japan and Korea, and until now Beijing’s response had been muted. Clearly some anger has been building on Beijing’s side and they let it rip. #Alaska
— Katrina Yu (@Katmyu) March 19, 2021
again, let me remind you that China doesn’t just want to commit atrocities at home, it wants nobody *worldwide* to be able to speak about them, and puts considerable coercive effort into this https://t.co/4i26c0irhH
— James Palmer (@BeijingPalmer) March 19, 2021
On the eve of the meeting, the US issued a flurry of actions directed at China, including a move to begin revoking Chinese telecoms licences, subpoenas to multiple Chinese information technology companies over national security concerns, and updated sanctions on China over a regression of democracy in Hong Kong.
Yang questioned Blinken 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 US side would follow the necessary diplomatic protocols,” he said.
China, however, indicated this week that it is set to begin trials of two Canadians detained in December 2018 on spying charges soon after Canadian police arrested Meng Wanzhou, the chief financial officer of telecoms equipment company Huawei Technologies, on a US warrant.
Meng awaits the results of a case that could see her extradited to the US but China’s foreign ministry rejected assertions that the timing of the trials was linked to the Anchorage talks.
The first of the Canadians, Michael Spavor, was taken to court in Dandong, on the border with North Korea on Friday morning. His trial concluded after about two hours with no verdict announced, the Canadian embassy said.