A first face-to-face meeting between US and Chinese officials got off to a heated start in Anchorage, Alaska, on Thursday as US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s statement that the Biden administration would bring up “deep concerns” about some of China’s actions around the world was met with immediate pushback from Chinese counterparts, sparking an unusually public exchange of diplomatic barbs.
By evening, the Chinese had accused the US delegation of being “condescending” in its tone, while a US official said the representatives from Beijing seemed “intent on grandstanding.”
Behind closed doors and after the public clash, a senior administration official said the first session of talks “was substantive, serious, and direct.”
“After the pool spray, Secretary Blinken opened the discussion, and both sides immediately got down to business,” the official said in a statement to the traveling press. “In fact, the discussion went well beyond the 2 hours we had 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,” they said.
The two sides held a second round of talks Thursday evening, and a third and final session is scheduled for Friday morning.
However, the outset of the meeting quickly veered away from the usual diplomatic throat clearing that takes place in front of the cameras before the real meetings get underway. As the two sides traded the unusually intense remarks, Blinken called the cameras back to counter the Chinese officials’ comments – particularly their slights about US democracy – setting off an unexpected chain of rebuttals as each side responded to the other’s remarks.
The clash demonstrated that the relationship Blinken has called “the biggest geopolitical test of the 21st century” will be fraught and difficult as the Biden team grapples with an ascendant and increasingly assertive China abroad while it faces serious challenges at home that Beijing will seek to exploit as it attempts to underscore US weakness.
Following the public exchange, a US senior administration official said the Chinese seemed to have arrived with a focus “on public theatrics and dramatics over substance.”
“They made that clear by promptly violating protocol; we had agreed to short (two-minute) opening statements by each principal,” they said in a statement to the traveling press. While Blinken’s and national security adviser Jake Sullivan’s opening remarks stuck close to that allotment, the Chinese delegation spoke for more than 20 minutes as the conversation got increasingly more tense.
“The United States delegation came to Anchorage committed to laying out the principles, interests, and values that animate our engagement with Beijing,” the official said. “We have continued on with our planned presentation, knowing that exaggerated diplomatic presentations often are aimed at a domestic audience.”
On Friday, the Chinese Foreign Ministry pushed back on the assertion that its delegation was “grandstanding” and claimed the US “made provocations first.”
“The opening remarks are just an appetizer, and the main course later is the big event,” Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said at a daily briefing.
In his opening remarks, Blinken initially said the US intends to defend the “rules-based order” without which there would be a “much more violent world” and said that Chinese activities in places like Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Taiwan, as well as its cyber attacks on the US and economic coercion of US allies, “threaten the rules-based order that maintains global stability. That’s why they’re not merely internal matters, and why we feel an obligation to raise these issues here today.”
China’s top diplomat Yang Jiechi pushed back, warning the US against meddling in China’s “internal affairs,” contesting the US right to speak for other countries, charging that the US is the “champion” of cyber attacks, mocking US domestic stability and challenging America’s own record on human rights.
“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,” Yang said, in extended opening remarks. “Many people within the United States actually have little confidence in the democracy of the United States,” Yang said. “According to opinion polls, the leaders of China have the wide support of the Chinese people.”
Yang challenged the US claims to global leadership saying that “the US does not represent the world, it only represents the government of the United States,” before State Councilor Wang Yi weighed in to say China would not accept “the unwarranted accusations from the US side.”
‘Hold on one second’
After Wang finished and aides started to usher cameras out of the room, Blinken interjected, “Hold on one second please.” The top US diplomat motioned for the press to return. “Hold on one second,” he said. “Director, state counselor, given your extended remarks, permit me please to add just a few of my own before we get down to work.”
The top US diplomat said that in calls with nearly 100 counterparts, he was “hearing deep satisfaction that the United States is back, that we’re reengaged with our allies and partners. I’m also hearing deep concern about some of the actions your government is taking.”
And then Blinken addressed the jabs at US domestic affairs. A hallmark of US leadership at home is “a constant quest to, as we say, form a more perfect union. And that quest by definition, acknowledges our imperfections, acknowledges that we’re not perfect,” Blinken said.
“We make mistakes. We, we have reversals, we take steps back. But what we’ve done throughout our history is to confront those challenges – openly, publicly, transparently – not trying to ignore them, not trying to pretend they don’t exist,” Blinken continued. “Sometimes it’s painful. Sometimes it’s ugly. But each and every time we’ve come out stronger, better, more united, as a country.”
Blinken then referred to a meeting between President Xi Jinping and President Joe Biden when both were vice presidents. “Biden at the time said, it’s never a good bet to bet against America,” Blinken told the Chinese officials. “And that remains true today.”
The combative remarks opened two days of meetings in Anchorage for what US administration officials described as “a broader strategic conversation” about the wide range of US concerns about Chinese behavior, as well as areas of potential mutual interest.
Blinken and Sullivan had used their opening remarks to stress their interest in a global order and the concerns they have heard from allies about China’s behavior.
“Our administration is committed to leading with diplomacy to advance the interests of the United States and to strengthen the rules-based international order,” Blinken said. “That system is not an abstraction. It helps countries resolve differences peacefully, coordinate multilateral efforts effectively and participate in global commerce with the assurance that everyone is following the same rules. The alternative to a rules-based order is a world in which might makes right and winners take all. And that would be a far more violent and unstable world for all of us.”
The message closely aligned with the theme administration officials had stressed in the days leading up to the Alaska meeting: the US will not shift from the increasingly tough position on Beijing taken by the Trump administration, but Biden’s team has said it plans to apply those tougher standards more effectively by working closely with allies – and they’ll seek to do it without the internal divisions that plagued the Trump administration or the former President’s name-calling, which many analysts say undermined US-China policy in the past.
“Sometimes you heard one thing in public but seemed to see something different – coming from elsewhere,” a senior administration official said of the Trump administration. “One of the things for us to also demonstrate here is a sense of coordination and sort of a unified approach, that it was not potentially the case in the last administration.”
The White House made clear that it was “important” that the meeting happen on US soil, and senior administration officials stressed that the presence of both Blinken and Sullivan demonstrate a strong united front.
“This is a very deliberate and visual demonstration of that from the get-go that we think is really important for helping to inform and shape how China seeks to engage with us,” one senior official told reporters this week, adding that “the games that China has played in the past to divide us or attempt to divide us are simply not going to work here.”
Blinken arrived in Alaska after a high-profile trip to South Korea and Japan alongside US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin. The top US diplomat used his visits to Seoul and Tokyo to emphasize US unity with its Asian allies. He also unveiled a swath of sanctions against Hong Kong and Chinese officials for their actions in Hong Kong, underscoring US impatience at Beijing’s increasing aggression.
Russia and China set to meet next week
The meeting comes as Russia and China announced their own bilateral gathering next week, a diplomatic show of force that highlights their growing cooperation. Moscow announced Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov would travel to South Korean to meet officials there as well.
US officials have portrayed the Alaska meeting as a forum for airing their concerns directly with Chinese officials, “to demonstrate to our counterparts that there is no difference between what we say in public and what we say in private,” as Blinken said this week.
“It’s just important to make sure we understand each other, and in particular that our Chinese counterparts understand the concerns that we have, understand why so many countries are increasingly worried about the actions that China is taking, again, whether it’s with regard to human rights at home or some of its aggressive actions in the region,” he said in an interview with TV Asahi Wednesday.
Those concerns range from China’s aggression in the South and East China Seas to its economic practices to its human rights abuses in Xinjiang, which the administration has said amounts to genocide.
Thursday’s meeting is not expected to result in “specific negotiated deliverables” nor will there be a joint statement, the senior official said.
“This really is a one-off meeting,” the official said. “This is not the resumption of a particular dialogue mechanism or the beginning of a dialogue process.”
Blinken said last week that any potential follow-on meetings “really have to be based on the proposition that we’re seeing tangible progress and tangible outcomes on the issues of concern to us with China.”
“Beijing has been talking about its desire to change the tone of the relationship,” a second senior administration official told reporters.
“And of course, we’re going to be looking at deeds not words on that front, and we’re of course coming to these discussions with a very clear eyed view about the (People’s Republic of China)’s pretty poor track record of keeping its promises,” the official said.
Blinken has called China “the biggest geopolitical test of the 21st century” and President Joe Biden has vowed to “out-compete” with the country, but the administration has also said that they will work with China where it is in US interest to do so, on issues such a climate change.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry said Thursday it accepted the proposal for the talks as “a constructive gesture showing our sincerity towards resuming China-US dialogue and exchange and improving and developing China-US relations.”
However, spokesperson Zhao Lijian said that the US should not expect a change on the range of issues it considers to be internal matters.
“On issues that bear on China’s sovereignty, security and core interests, no one shall expect China to make any compromise or trade-offs,” he said. “China is determined and resolute in safeguarding its core interests.”
This story has been updated with further developments Friday.