Icy U.S.-China relations and a hot spat in Alaska

Foreign Affairs

In a high-level meeting in Alaska, top U.S. officials confronted China about breaking international rules, saying Beijing was making the world “far more violent and unstable.” China shot back by accusing the U.S. of hypocrisy on a range of issues, including human rights.

Illustration by Derek Zheng

The U.S.-China talks in Alaska, for which expectations were already very low, kicked off with an extraordinary public spat between the top officials on both sides.

The U.S. accused China of breaking international rules and making the world “far more violent and unstable,” citing “deep concerns” from its allies about Chinese government behavior.

China fired back by accusing the U.S. of hypocrisy on a range of issues, including human rights, cybersecurity, and economic coercion.

The talks began yesterday afternoon in Anchorage, Alaska, led by Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan on the U.S. side, and top foreign policy official Yáng Jiéchí 杨洁篪 and Foreign Minister Wáng Yì 王毅 on the Chinese side.

They continued into the evening yesterday, albeit in private — per Reuters, “a senior U.S. administration official told reporters that as soon as media had left the room, the two sides ‘immediately got down to business’ and held substantive, serious, and direct talks” — and went on through today.

What they said

The public airing of grievances was intense, and appeared to catch both sides at least partially off-guard. Some highlights (or lowlights), per the full transcript of the public opening remarks:

  • Blinken opened by raising “deep concerns” about “Xinjiang, Hong Kong, Taiwan, cyber attacks on the United States, and economic coercion toward our allies.”
  • By emphasizing the “rules-based” international order four times in his two-minute opening speech, he hammered home his central message of wagging his finger at China for being a rules-breaker, implying that its actions are making the world “far more violent and unstable.”
  • While Blinken made a nod to a U.S.-China relationship that is “collaborative where it can be,” Sullivan centered his remarks on how the U.S. was rallying democratic nations to preserve a “free and open Indo-Pacific,” making no mention of cooperation with China.
  • Yang, in a long monologue that reportedly went on for about 16 minutes, said that China upholds the UN-centered international system, whereas the U.S. and a “small number of countries” advocate a separate “so-called ‘rules-based’ international order.” He later characterized the view of universal values and rules of Blinken and Sullivan as just their opinion.
  • Yang criticized American democracy, saying the U.S. should “change its own image” and “stop advancing its own democracy in the rest of the world.” He added, “Many people within the United States actually have little confidence in the democracy of the United States.”
  • However, Yang followed this with the most explicit public call for U.S.-China cooperation in the public remarks: “We must both contribute to the peace, stability, and development of the world in areas such as COVID-19, restoring economic activities in the world, and responding to climate change. There are many things that we can do together and where our interests converge.”
  • Yang: “On human rights, we hope that the United States will do better…the challenges facing the United States in human rights are deep-seated. They did not just emerge over the past four years, such as Black Lives Matter.”
  • Yang: “On cyber attacks, let me say that whether it’s the ability to launch cyber attacks or the technologies that could be deployed, the United States is the champion in this regard. You can’t blame this problem on somebody else.”
  • Wang accused the U.S. of “outright suppression” of China and interference in its internal affairs, citing this week’s Hong Kong sanctions as “not…the way one should welcome his guests.”
  • Blinken retorted that he has spoken to “nearly a hundred counterparts” around the world, and they had expressed “deep satisfaction” in U.S. engagement and “deep concern” about Chinese government actions.
  • Sullivan responded to human rights criticism, saying that “a confident country is able to look hard at its own shortcomings and constantly seek to improve.”

Yang Jiechi then slammed the U.S. for condescension, delivering a line played on repeat in state media back home: “The United States has no business lecturing China as if it were superior.”

  • This line, hashtagged as #美国没资格居高临下同中国说话# in Chinese, is now one of the top-trending items on social media site Weibo — promoted, of course, by state media, but also resonating with many commenters. The hashtag has already been viewed over 400 million times.
  • The main Weibo hashtag for the Alaska talks — “the high-level strategic talks between U.S.-Chinese officials” #中美高层战略对话# (in Chinese) — has been viewed a whopping 2.5 billion times.
  • Most of the Weibo comments praised the Chinese delegation for adopting a more “assertive and confident” approach when defending China’s interests and slammed the U.S. side for being hypocritical on human rights issues and bullying China in fear of losing its hegemonic status in world politics.
  • “America is a barbaric, evil country that built itself on its genocide against native Americans, oppression of black slaves, colonization around the world, and many other crimes. It’s an anti-intellectual, inhumane society where the COVID-19 pandemic killed a lot of people. In what world does America think it’s qualified to point fingers at China, the greatest civilization to ever exist in history?” a popular comment reads (in Chinese).

Implications, and what’s next

The public airing of grievances is not exactly surprising, given the last few years of U.S.-China relations.

  • From Beijing’s point of view, the Biden administration has a responsibility to ease up on a series of major anti-China moves from the Trump administration before relations can improve. These include “limits on American sales to Chinese firms such as its telecommunications company [Huawei] and chip maker [SMIC]; visa restrictions on Communist Party members, Chinese students and state-media journalists; and closure of the Chinese Consulate in Houston,” according to the Wall Street Journal.
  • The U.S. public, meanwhile, has recently reached historically negative public opinion on China, and politicians of both parties generally see “tough on China” stances as politically safe.

It is also almost certain that talks in private were more productive than the public remarks. Blinken told reporters that the two sides “had intersecting interests on Iran, North Korea, Afghanistan, and climate change,” all topics that went completely unmentioned in the public remarks, save for one mention of climate change by Yang.

We might know soon if the talks were productive if the Alaska meeting is followed by a meeting, potentially next month, centered on climate change between Joe Biden and Xi Jinping. Bloomberg reported earlier this week that China was interested in arranging such a meeting, but conditioned on whether the Alaska talks “are productive.”

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