U.S.-China Talks in Alaska Quickly Descend Into Bickering
U.S. and Chinese national flags. (Photographer: Tomohiro Ohsumi/Bloomberg)

U.S.-China Talks in Alaska Quickly Descend Into Bickering

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The first high-level talks between the U.S. and China since President Joe Biden took office immediately descended into bickering and recriminations, illustrating the deep divide that remains despite the change in the White House.

Each side sharply criticized the other over human rights, trade and international alliances at the meeting in frozen Anchorage, Alaska. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken vowed to raise concerns about cyber attacks, the treatment of Muslim minorities in Xinjiang and Beijing’s increasing control over Hong Kong.

“The alternative to a rules-based order is a world in which might makes right and winner takes all and that would be a far more violent and unstable world,” Blinken said.

U.S.-China Talks in Alaska Quickly Descend Into Bickering

The Chinese fired back. Yang Jiechi, a member of the Communist Party’s Politburo, offered a lengthy monologue in which he said Western nations don’t represent global public opinion and called the U.S. the “champion” of cyber-attacks.

“Many people within the United States actually have little confidence in the democracy of the United States,” he said, citing the killing of Black Americans and the Black Lives Matter movement. Near the end of his opening remarks, he said Blinken’s comments weren’t “normal” and added that in response “mine aren’t either.”

Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan responded, with Sullivan saying “a confident country is able to look hard at its own shortcomings and constantly seek to improve, and that is the secret sauce of America.”

The delegations will meet again on Friday after wrapping up the second of three planned closed-door sessions around 10:00 p.m. local time, China Central Television reported. Earlier talks in private were “substantive, serious and direct” and went beyond the allotted time, a senior U.S. administration official said.

The acrimonious start soured the investor mood in Asia, contributing to a slide of about 3% in China’s CSI 300 stock index. Regional shares were already under pressure following an overnight tumble on Wall Street.

‘Early Days’

“It’s still early days and it is premature to conclude that this meeting is a harbinger of things to come,” said Bonnie Glaser, a senior adviser on Asia at the Center for Strategic & International Studies. “It is certainly a rough start, however, and reveals the depth and breadth of the differences between the two countries.”

Chinese diplomats have signaled for weeks plans to push back against Biden administration efforts to interfere in issues Beijing considers its own internal affairs, with Yang warning Washington last month not to cross any “red lines.” Blinken had nonetheless pressed on sensitive topics on his trip this week to Asia, accusing China of “coercion and aggression.”

U.S.-China Talks in Alaska Quickly Descend Into Bickering

Tensions rose further after the opening remarks in Anchorage. Cameras were ushered from the room, only to be called back in. Yang and Foreign Minister Wang Yi followed up with more criticism.

“Is that the way you had hoped to conduct this dialogue?” Yang asked, according to his delegation’s translator. “I think we thought too well of the United States. The United States isn’t qualified to speak to China from a position of strength.”

While the Chinese officials protested that the opening criticism by Blinken and Sullivan was no way to treat guests, a senior U.S. official said afterward that the Chinese officials were intent on grandstanding and engaging in theatrics over substance. China similarly accused the U.S. of breaching diplomatic protocol by “seriously delaying” the start of the meeting.

The rocky start lowered already low expectations for of the Alaska meeting. There had been unease about the meeting so early in Biden’s term among some administration officials, and the early response was that it may have been a miscalculation, according to one person familiar.

‘Fighting Over Nothing’

“Because the Biden administration hasn’t laid out clear policies yet, they end up fighting over nothing, over posturing,” said Derek Scissors, a China analyst at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. “If it requires months to review and get people in place before making China policy, fine, but then don’t pretend you can have a useful meeting with the Chinese.”

Before the meeting, officials in Beijing had raised the possibility of a virtual summit between Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping next month, to coincide with Earth Day and turn attention to combating climate change. It’s not clear if the rocky start to the Alaska talks will derail that effort.

Two months into office, it appears the new American president is unlikely to make major changes to former President Donald Trump hard-line approach to China. On Saudi Arabia, Biden has held back from sanctioning Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, even as he went beyond Trump by publicly implicating him in the death of columnist Jamal Khashoggi.

Biden is taking up Trump’s push to reinvigorate the Quad alliance of the U.S., Australia, Japan and India. Blinken has praised Trump’s “Abraham Accords,” the rapprochement between Israel and countries in the Middle East.

“At least initially, they’re sticking with what Trump left them,” said Aaron Frieberg, a professor of foreign policy at Princeton University and a national security aide under President George W. Bush. “On concrete things like saying China is committing genocide in Xinjiang -- that was a land mine left for them on the way out the door -- instead of trying to work around it, they just embraced it.”

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