The first day of talks between China and the United States in Alaska on Thursday started off on a predictably contentious note after days of posturing and talking past each other by the two powers in the media.
Things started off civilly enough as the Chinese delegations walked down a long hallway of Anchorage’s Hotel Captain Cook where the Americans are staying, everyone masked, past waiting camera crews and into a ballroom to be greeted by Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
But in the opening statements a few minutes later, the gloves came off, with China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi heard to tell the US side it was “no way to treat the guests”.
Chinese state media later quoted an unnamed Chinese official – in a background briefing after the first day of talks – that China was sincere in its dialogue with the US, but the American side had overrun its opening remarks and made groundless accusations against China.
“This is not a way of hospitality, nor does it conform to diplomatic etiquette. China has responded solemnly to this,” the official said, according to state broadcaster CCTV.
And China’s top diplomat Yang Jiechi flaunted China’s success in containing Covid-19 and tackling poverty while the US was still battling the pandemic.
“China has made decisive achievements and important strategic gains in fighting Covid-19,” said Yang, who is a Communist Party Politburo member.
“We have achieved a full victory in ending absolute poverty in China,” he said. “We hope other nations, especially developed nations, can work hard on that.”
The two-day meeting is the first face-to-face sit-down between the two sides as relations hit rock bottom. The US delegation is headed by Blinken and national security adviser Jake Sullivan while China is represented by its top diplomat, Yang Jiechi, and Foreign Minister Wang Yi.
Sullivan set the tone. “We do not seek conflict, but we welcome stiff competition, and we will always stand up for our principles, for our people, and for our friends,” he said, according to a pool transcript of the meeting.
Blinken followed with his own salvo, telling his Chinese counterparts and assembled media that the US side would shortly outline its “deep concerns” about Chinese actions in Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Taiwan, the economic coercion of US allies and cyberattacks on the United States. “Each of these actions threatens the rules-based order that maintains global stability,” he said.
Yang quickly struck back in a lengthy address, accusing Washington of using its financial and military might to squeeze other countries and adding that abusive US national security policies threatened the future of global trade. Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Taiwan were inseparable parts of China, he said.
The Communist Party enjoyed widespread support, he added, citing opinion polls, while the US should stop interfering in China’s internal affairs and had nothing to be proud of at a time when Black Americans were being “slaughtered”.
Washington should abandon its “Cold War mentality” and legacy of confrontation, he continued, adding: “The United States does not represent international public opinion and neither does the Western world.”
When Yang finished, after more than 15 minutes, he smiled and said in English: “This is a test for the translator.” Blinken countered that the translator should get a raise.
Wang then adopted a more conciliatory tone, but referenced “unwarranted accusations from the US side”, adding: “This is not supposed to be the way one should welcome guests,” according to the reports.
What then followed, according to attendees, was a series of unscripted afterthoughts as reporters were told to leave, then called back to hear more.
Afterwards, a senior US official speaking on background, sought to frame the testy exchange.
“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, adding there was still lots of business to conduct.
“The Chinese delegation, on the other hand, seems to have arrived intent on grandstanding, focused on public theatrics and dramatics over substance,” the official added, criticising the Chinese side for “violating protocol” by speaking for far longer than the agreed-upon two minutes.
The seismic disconnect between the two giants at the opening was amply foreshadowed in recent weeks as they laid out their arguments and different visions publicly, playing to their respective home crowds and to countries watching from the sidelines.
“I don’t see the Biden administration believing that cooperation is essential,” said Elizabeth Economy, a fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. “And the Chinese are willing to tolerate quite a high degree of confrontation.”
Beijing – which is keen to engage Washington sooner rather than later, before the Joe Biden administration’s China policy is fully formed and US allies arrayed against it – has repeatedly characterised the meeting as the start of a substantive engagement and used the term “high-level strategic dialogue”.
Washington has characterised it as a one-off with little chance of going anywhere. “I wouldn’t see this as one in a series,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters this week. “This is a meeting that our national security adviser and secretary of state are attending, and I wouldn’t build it out beyond there at this point in time.”
Chinese state tabloid Global Times reported that tariffs would “definitely” be on the agenda. Sullivan told reporters the focus would be largely on broad policy, not tariffs.
And the two traded jabs this week over Team Biden’s cornerstone policy of working closely with frustrated allies in pushing back on Beijing.
US Indo-Pacific coordinator Kurt Campbell told Australia’s Sydney Morning Herald and sister publication The Age that defending the country against Chinese economic coercion was a top US priority. Beijing has cut off Australian imports and slammed Canberra rhetorically after it joined other nations in calling for an inquiry into the origin and early handling of the coronavirus, which started in Wuhan.
“We are not going to leave Australia alone in the field,” he said, adding that any improvement in US-China relations would only come after Beijing backed off.
The nationalist Global Times – at various times a provocateur, sounding board and indirect channel for official thinking – fired back. “Canberra delusional to think the China-US dialogue will focus on its woes,” it said in an “expert assessment”.
Even if the Americans did bring it up, the article added, “does that mean Chinese officials would have to listen?”
The two sides clearly were not doing much listening on Thursday.
“The Alaska meeting will not be successful, but it is important,” said Lee Seong-hyon, director of the Centre for Chinese Studies at Sejong Institute in Seoul. “It won’t be successful because both sides will not be fully satisfied. It will be an important meeting because both sides will confirm the other’s bottom lines. The emerging outcome will set the tone for a period of a “loose Cold War”.
Members of the Biden administration have criticised their Trump administration predecessors for negotiating too much in the media and by tweet and eschewing diplomacy behind closed doors. But Team Biden has been doing most of its early communications with China before the TV lights.
Blinken said in an interview in Tokyo with TV Asahi that “the concerns that we’ve expressed publicly are the same ones that we’ll be expressing to them in private”.
Further narrowing any chance of significant progress, the State Department chose to announce shortly before the meeting that 24 Chinese and Hong Kong officials were subject to sanctions. While largely symbolic – most were already sanctioned by the Treasury Department – the release could have been delayed until after the meeting.
The two sides have also aired more petty differences. A US official said the Chinese had registered their unhappiness with the possibility of having to submit to coronavirus testing – required for all out-of-state visitors arriving at the airport in Anchorage – before the meeting.
They are also not expected to share a meal together in Alaska’s largest city, a normal part of such diplomatic gatherings. “Everything in the schedule is strictly business,” a US official said earlier in the week, speaking on background.
Others participating in the talks include Chinese ambassador to the United States Cui Tiankai and vice foreign minister Xie Feng; from the National Security Council, Campbell and senior China directors Laura Rosenberger and Rush Doshi; and from the State Department, deputy assistant secretary Jonathan Fritz, acting assistant secretary Sung Kim and Chinese and Mongolian affairs director Sarah Beran and Beijing embassy charge d’affaires Robert Forden.