US-China Meet in Alaska
The first talks between the Biden administration and top Chinese diplomats have concluded in Alaska. The dialogue was held between Yang Jiechi, a member of the Political Bureau of the Communist Party of China’s Central Committee and director of the Office of the Foreign Affairs Commission, State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi, and US State Secretary Antony Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan. It was a follow-up to the first phone call by the presidents of the two countries about a month ago, and also the first face-to-face meeting between the two sides since US President Joe Biden took office in January.
The Chinese officials went to Alaska with a hope for a “reset” in US-China relations after four turbulent years under Donald Trump, but the Biden team adopted a harsh stance as is evident from US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s remarks: “We wanted to share with them the significant concerns that we have about a number of the actions that China has taken and … concerns shared by our allies and partners.”
The talks got off to a fiery start, with both sides levelling sharp rebukes of the other’s policies in a rare display that underscored the level of bilateral tensions. The run-up to the meeting in Anchorage, Alaska, which followed visits by US officials to allies Japan and South Korea, was marked by a flurry of moves by Washington that showed it was taking a tough stance, and blunt talk from Beijing.
During the meeting, Antony Blinken told Yang Jiechi that the US would criticise China’s policies towards Hong Kong, Xinjiang and Taiwan. “We will … discuss our deep concerns with actions by China, including in Xinjiang, Hong Kong, Taiwan, cyber-attacks on the United States, economic coercion of our allies,” US Secretary of State Antony Blinken told his Chinese counterparts. “Each of these actions threatens the rules-based order that maintains global stability.” From this conversation, it seems that the Biden administration has tried to make it clear that it is looking for a change in behaviour from China, which has expressed hope to reset relations that had worsened drastically under former President Donald Trump.
Speeches from both delegations were meant to last two minutes each, the US diplomats said afterwards. But once they had made brief remarks, China’s top diplomat Yang Jiechi took the floor for more than 16 minutes that were full of broadsides against a Washington he denounced as bullying, racist and hypocritical.
China’s top diplomat Yang Jiechi lashed out about what he said was the United States’ struggling democracy, poor treatment of minorities, and criticizing its foreign and trade policies. Yang accused the US of being an imperial power and said that the US had a “cold war mentality” and was trying to “incite” countries to attack China. He pushed back against criticism of China’s human rights record by pointing out the racial divisions playing out in America. In response to claims that China conducted cyber attacks on the US, he said America was “champion in this regard”.
“The United States uses its military force and financial hegemony to carry out long-arm jurisdiction and suppress other countries,” said Yang. “It abuses so-called notions of national security to obstruct normal trade exchanges, and incite some countries to attack China,” he added. Yang warned the US to stop meddling in China’s “internal affairs” and said it should “stop advancing its own democracy in the rest of the world,” adding that many Americans “actually have little confidence in the democracy of the United States.”
Blinken insisted on issuing a rebuttal while the media was still present, with the Chinese then accusing him of being “condescending,” as their US counterparts complained of “grandstanding.
The fierce comments from both sides were probably directed as much at domestic audiences as their counterparts across the table.
A peep into the past events since the inauguration of Joe Biden as President of the United States, reveals that Beijing had already made clear that while it desires a reset of relations with Washington, it wants one on its own terms. The failure of aggressive moves by the Trump administration demonstrates that China can weather a lot of what the US has to throw at it, be it trade tariffs, sanctions or diplomatic pressure. The extraordinary rancor aired by China’s top diplomats in Alaska reflects a China that is increasingly unbowed by diplomatic pressure from American presidential administrations. Under Xi Jinping, China’s foreign ministry has encouraged an aggressive nationalism, with its diplomats recast as aggressive “wolf warriors,” defending the country in battles of words and social media overseas. The New York Times reported:
“China’s more aggressive diplomatic posture is likely to inflame tensions with the United States, which has itself declared China a national security rival. China’s hardening views have already surfaced in activity along its borders and in its surrounding waters, where it fought Indian troops last year and menaced ships from several countries, including Japan, Malaysia and Vietnam.”
Moreover, CNN wrote:
“Beijing may have been hoping for a relationship more like that it enjoyed during Biden’s last stint in government, under President Barack Obama, whose rhetoric about being tough with China and a supposed “pivot to Asia” did not have much effect on the two countries’ economic ties, nor according to critics, do much to restrain Chinese territorial ambitions. Blinken, for his part, has made it clear that this is not on the cards. He has called the US-China relationship “the biggest geopolitical test of the 21st century,” and ahead of the Alaska meeting, rallied Washington’s allies in the region against Beijing.
On the other hand, Chinese media has said that it was a good meeting that opens door to many opportunities in the future. For instance, editor-in-chief of the Global Times wrote:
“I believe China and the US had a really good quarrel during their Alaska talks.
First, the Chinese delegation helped the Chinese public vent the anger that had accumulated for several years. The US has been too aggressive and arrogant in recent years. It believes it is almighty, pointing fingers at the ever-stronger China and doing everything to suppress China. Some US politicians have been badmouthing China. They are asking for insults. Yang Jiechi, a member of the Political Bureau of the Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee and director of the Office of the Central Leading Group for Foreign Affairs, and Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi refuted the US’ arrogant attacks in public. This is unprecedented since China and the US established diplomatic relations in 1979. Yang told the US that Chinese people do not buy it. It really speaks the mind of the Chinese public.
Second, Yang and Wang have taught a good lesson to the extreme US politicians about the kind of country China really is. These people believe that China will collapse as soon as it is pressured or coerced, and they have always clamoured that the US policy is not tough enough. Today, we will let them know how tough China’s diplomacy is. This is a correction of the starting point of the US elites’ understanding of China. They need to be more respectful when dealing with China. They want to speak to China from a position of strength? Then they had better properly match their strength with wishes. They should see China’s strength clearly. Our national strength is more than enough to support our independent attitude toward the US, to support our policies on Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Taiwan and defend China’s national security and continued development.
Third, the Chinese delegation has shown the few US allies how China is dealing with the US. China has publicly refuted the US, and for those US lackeys who try to bite China, please behave. Don’t expect China to be polite to them if they always provoke China.
Fourth, after such a public quarrel, I believe the two sides’ subsequent dialogue will be more rational and pragmatic. Haven’t the two delegations withstood the impact of a public quarrel as soon as they met? I think the two societies have quickly adapted to this way of meeting between China and the US. The two sides have had two rounds of talks and there is still a third one. It has already been good to keep talking. The two countries and the world’s public opinion were very pessimistic about the Alaska talks’ prospects. After the quarrel, the expectations are even lower. However, it is really possible that the final result could turn out to be better than expected.
Despite the quarrels, if China and the US do not learn to coexist in a fierce game, is there a second way? In my opinion, whether they like it or not, the two world powers will have to find common ground. After all, this is the 21st century, and there are many fields of cooperation including business, travel and studying abroad. Except for a few geopolitical maniacs, who would want to see the two nuclear powers confront each other? We should all keep calm and let’s just wait and see.”
In addition, senior Chinese diplomats have also welcomed the progress. While talking to media after the conclusion of the summit, senior Chinese diplomat Yang Jiechi said that the dialogue was “candid, constructive and helpful”, though there are still some important differences between the two sides. He said China will firmly safeguard its national sovereignty, security and development interests, and China’s development and growth is unstoppable. He said that Beijing and Washington could work together on combating Covid-19 pandemic and other most pressing tasks facing the world, and develop a relationship featuring mutually beneficial cooperation rather than zero-sum competition.
In the end, it seems apt to say that the testy Alaska meeting has taken all by surprise. Some analysts are pointing out that it does not augur well for US-China relations but others express cautious optimism that relations could return to an even keel despite the initial friction. Experts opine that while some discord was foreseen, the degree of stridency was somewhat unexpected and has echoes of some of the early Cold War meetings between the former Soviet Union and the US. However, China and the US are two major world powers. No matter how many disputes they have, the two countries should not impulsively break their relations. Coexistence and cooperation are the only options for China and the US. Whether we like it or not, the two countries should learn to patiently explore mutual compromises and pursue strategic win-win cooperation. If the two countries are clear-headed, they will do this proactively. Whoever is stubborn will still have to do this passively. The 21st century will not give a second answer to China-US relations.
The writer is a member of staff.