Fiery Start to U.S.-China Talks Shows Acrimony Will Remain
File picture of Xi Jinping and Joe Biden watching a dragon dance at the International Studies Learning Center in South Gate, California, U.S.

Fiery Start to U.S.-China Talks Shows Acrimony Will Remain

The first face-to-face meeting between the U.S. and China since President Joe Biden took office was bound to be confrontational. The question now is whether the two sides can find a way to cooperate after unloading so many grievances in public.

Top diplomats from the world’s two largest economies criticized each other over everything from trade to human rights in a high-stakes first encounter Thursday in an Alaskan ballroom. U.S. Secretary of State Secretary of State Antony Blinken accused Beijing of undermining global stability and vowed to raise contentious issues such as China’s actions in Hong Kong and Xinjiang. His counterpart, Yang Jiechi, replied that the U.S. wasn’t “qualified to speak to China from a position of strength.”

The barbs on both sides appeared intended for domestic consumption, with Biden seeking to show his supporters that he’s tough on China and President Xi Jinping needing to satisfy his own increasingly nationalistic population. Still, the unusually acrimonious exchange showed the world just how hard it will be to repair a relationship that deteriorated rapidly under Donald Trump.

Fiery Start to U.S.-China Talks Shows Acrimony Will Remain

“It’s not surprising for the Alaska meeting to start with a strong smell of gunpowder,” said Zhu Feng, a professor of international relations at Nanjing University. “It is obvious that a new equation for China-U.S. relations is emerging. That is conflict, competition and cooperation.”

The diplomatic blow-up tamped down investor sentiment in China, contributing to a slide of about 3% in China’s CSI 300. Regional shares were already under pressure following an overnight tumble on Wall Street.

The delegations are due to meet for a final time on Friday morning after two rounds of closed-door talks following their initial exchange. While it was unclear whether the private discussions were more productive, a senior U.S. administration official said the talks were “substantive, serious and direct” and went beyond the allotted time.

“Perhaps it will give the Biden administration a little bit of leeway to start actually talking about issues, to start trying to come to some common understanding with the Chinese,” William Zarit, a senior counselor at the Cohen Group and ex-U.S. minister for commercial affairs in Beijing, told Bloomberg Television. “Most of these things are really to show strength in domestic politics here in the U.S.”

Biden, ahead of a trip to Atlanta on Friday, said “I’m proud of the secretary of state.”

Both sides have highlighted numerous areas where they need closer cooperation, including climate change and pandemic relief. Biden administration officials have also expressed openness to relax some visa restrictions on Chinese nationals put in place under Trump, but not his tariffs and sanctions as demanded by China.

Before the meeting, officials in Beijing had raised the possibility of a virtual summit between Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping to coincide with Earth Day next month if the talks went well. But there had been unease among some in the Biden administration about meeting the Chinese side so soon, and the early response was that it may have been a miscalculation, according to one person familiar.

The meeting laid bare a battle between two world views shaking global institutions and disrupting industries from semiconductors to social media. With an economy set to overtake the U.S.’s within a decade and an increasingly modern military, China has chosen to draw a line against what it sees as foreign interference. The U.S., meanwhile, has determined it must contain Beijing’s growing global influence.

Show of Strength

Trump’s decision to run against China in last year’s election campaign, as Xi rounded up dissidents at home and the coronavirus surged around the world, accelerated the process. Biden administration officials in Anchorage, including National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, faced pressure to overcome skepticism that their plan to rebuild the U.S.’s alliance network could be more effective than Trump’s “America First” policies.

The U.S. delegation was hoping to show strength by hosting the meeting on American soil after a week of meetings showcasing their Asia-Pacific alliances, including a budding partnership with India. While in Asia, Blinken signaled Biden would keep up the pressure on Beijing, accusing China of “coercion and aggression” and tightening sanctions against lawmakers responsible for crackdowns in Hong Kong.

But the Chinese officials -- emboldened by the country’s rapid recovery from the world’s first coronavirus outbreak and the domestic turmoil in the U.S. -- had similar plans. Yang and Foreign Minister Wang Yi had for weeks warned Washington that they wouldn’t tolerate any foreign power crossing “red lines” like Taiwan and Hong Kong.

The pair unleashed China’s most critical talking points on the U.S., citing the killing of Black Americans and the Black Lives Matter movement as evidence of U.S. hypocrisy. The comments were lapped up on China’s heavily censored social media, with posts citing Yang accumulating hundreds of thousands of likes in a matter of hours.

Shi Yinhong, director of Renmin University’s Center on American Studies in Beijing, said both sides appeared to be hardening their positions on fundamental issues. While there might be some scope for collaboration on issues such as Iran, North Korea or Myanmar, he said, it was “quite, quite limited.”

“It’s probable that after this Anchorage diplomat summit, Sino-American relations may deteriorate further,” Shi said.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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