International

U.S. and China Pull no Punches in Anchorage

Yang Jiechi (right), director of the Central Foreign Affairs Commission Office for China, and Wang Yi (left), China's State Councilor and Foreign Minister, arrive for a meeting with U.S. counterparts at the opening session of U.S.-China talks at the Captain Cook Hotel in Anchorage, Alaska, U.S. on March 18, 2021.   | Photo Credit: Reuters

The Biden administration’s first bilateral engagement with Beijing got off to a rocky start as the two sides traded barbs with each other in front of the press, during the opening session of their dialogue in Anchorage, Alaska.

The U.S. side, led by Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, opened with remarks that included references to China’s actions in Tibet, Hong Kong, Xinjiang and accused Beijing of economic coercion. The Chinese side, led by Director of Foreign Affairs Yang Jiechi and State Councilor Wang Yi, questioned the U.S. narrative of China’s role in the world and expressed, often sarcastically, its own concerns about U.S. actions — domestic and international. Earlier this month, State Department Spokesperson Ned Price had said the U.S. would “certainly not pull any punches” while discussing its disagreements with China. Thursday’s opening remarks made evident that neither side was pulling any punches.

In his opening remarks, Mr. Blinken spoke of the rules based-international order. “The alternative to a rules-based order is a world in which might makes right and winners take all, and that would be a far more violent and unstable world for all of us,” he said, apparently referring to a China-led world order. He also said the U.S. would like to discuss its “deep concerns” with China’s actions in Xinjiang, Taiwan, Hong Kong, cyber attacks on the U.S. and “economic coercion” with regard to U.S. allies.

“Each of these actions threaten the rules-based order that maintains global stability. That’s why they’re not merely internal matters and why we feel an obligation to raise these issues here today,” he said.

The main priorities of the U.S.’s approach to China and the world were the interests of the American people and protection of allies’ interests, Mr. Sullivan told the Chinese delegation.

Mr. Yang said China and the international community were following a UN-led order not “the so called ‘rules-based’ international order”. In an apparent reference to U.S. actions, Mr. Yang said: “We do not believe in invading through the use of force, or to topple other regimes through various means, or to massacre the people of other countries, because all of those would only cause turmoil and instability in this world.”

He also called the discussion a “strategic dialogue” as Chinese officials had been doing in the run-up to the Anchorage interaction, in contrast to Mr. Blinken and his colleagues, who had repeatedly emphasised that they did not consider this a strategic dialogue. U.S. officials have said future discussions would be contingent on China changing its behaviour. Mr. Yang, in an apparent tit-for-tat reference to human rights issues, said America faced “deep seated” challenges on the rights front and cited the Black Lives Matter movement. He also called the U.S. a “champion” with regard to cyberattack capabilities.

“Because, Mr. Secretary and NSA Sullivan, you have delivered some quite different opening remarks, mine will be slightly different as well,” Mr. Yang said.

Mr. Wang accused the U.S. of wanting to create an advantage for itself going into the talks by imposing sanctions on Chinese and Hong Kong officials. The State Department had announced sanctions on March 16 in response to Beijing’s move to decrease the proportion of democratically elected lawmakers in Hong Kong’s legislature.

“This is not supposed to be the way one should welcome his guests,” Mr. Wang said.

Reporters who were present in the room until this point were meant exit after the opening remarks, but Mr. Blinken and Mr. Sullivan asked them to stay, as per first person accounts by reporters.

“Given your extended remarks, permit me, please, to add just a few of my own before we get down to work,” Mr. Blinken said.

Mr. Blinken responded to Mr. Yang’s questioning of the U.S. narrative that allies were concerned about Beijing’s behaviour. The Secretary said he had consulted with allies and they were expressing “deep satisfaction” with U.S. re-engagement and “deep concern” about some of China’s actions. Mr. Blinken and Mr. Sullivan said America’s ability to acknowledge and confront its weaknesses publicly as a source of strength.

“...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,” Mr. Sullivan said.

Mr. Yang accused the U.S. side of condescension.

A senior U.S. administration official said the Chinese side had broken protocol by going beyond the agreed upon time limit for opening remarks and was “grandstanding” and engaging in “public theatrics”, according to a statement shared by a CBS reporter.

Meetings are scheduled to continue on Friday morning.

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