Anchorage / Washington (dpa) – In the first high-ranking meeting between the US and China since US President Joe Biden took office, top diplomats on both sides fought a highly unusual battle of words.
At the start of talks in Alaska, new US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and his Chinese colleague Yang Jiechi hit each other with serious allegations and – extremely rare for diplomatic meetings like this – verbal attacks. Has the relationship between the two countries, which had fallen to the worst level since diplomatic relations began in 1979 under Biden’s predecessor Donald Trump, now at a new low?
Blinken can be sure of Biden’s support. “I am very proud of the Secretary of State,” the US president said in Washington on Friday. According to its own statements, the US government had insisted on holding the meeting on US soil – albeit far from the US capital, in the seclusion of Alaska. The Anchorage meeting was attended by Blinken and Yang, the Communist Party’s top foreign politician, as well as Foreign Minister Wang Yi, who is subordinate to the Chinese power apparatus, and Biden’s national security adviser Jake Sullivan.
At the start of talks on Thursday (local time), Blinken expressed his “deep concern” about the human rights situation in the Hong Kong metropolis and in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region, home to the Uyghur ethnic minority. He also accused China of being responsible for cyber attacks and blackmailing US allies with economic pressure. He also criticized Beijing’s position on Taiwan, which claims the Communist People’s Republic is part of China. “Each of these actions threatens the rules-based framework that maintains global stability,” said Blinken. “That is why these are not just internal affairs.”
Sullivan said many international partners shared these concerns. “We are not aiming for conflict,” he stressed, “but we welcome tough competition and will always stand up for our principles, for our people and for our friends.”
Public opening statements at such gatherings are usually reserved for the exchange of superficial pleasantries – conflict issues are usually discussed behind closed doors. However, the fact that the Americans took the opportunity to distribute them publicly angered the Chinese side enormously. Yang replied for a long time, stressing that issues like Xinjiang and Taiwan were very “internal affairs” in which the US should not interfere. Americans have to look at themselves.
“The fact is that there are many human rights problems in the United States,” Yang said, referring to last year’s Black Lives Matter protests in the United States against racism and police brutality. Many Americans have little faith in American democracy, while the Chinese people fully support its leadership. Both countries have their respective types of democracy. Unlike other countries, China does not start wars or military interventions. Yang criticized a “Cold War mindset” and accused the Americans of completely falsely claiming to speak on behalf of the entire world. “The United States does not represent an international opinion.”
Both Blinken and Yang have followed up on their initial statements so as not to leave the other party’s allegations unanswered – this too is unusual. Blinken said the US was not perfect, but dealt with its own mistakes openly and transparently. Yang, on the other hand, complained that Beijing had believed the United States too much and expected the Americans to abide by diplomatic protocol. Instead, the American side had probably “carefully orchestrated” beforehand to confront them in a “condescending manner.” The US would not have the conditions to meet China from a “strong position”.
Such a verbal struggle is exceptional in tone and style at such a diplomatic meeting – and a break with protocol conventions. However, it was clear that the encounter would generally be confrontational.
Senior US government officials had said beforehand that they wanted to talk “very openly” and in a “robust” manner with their Chinese counterparts about numerous conflict issues. They also wanted to make it clear that the US government was following a unified line and that – unlike in the past – the Chinese side could not drive a wedge between the secretary of state and the national security adviser. The Americans also did not expect concrete results from the meeting – the focus is on an open exchange.
All in all, Biden and Blinken have struck a harsh tone at China, giving the country a prominent position in their foreign policy – as their biggest competitor. The relationship with China is the “greatest geopolitical test of the 21st century”.
After the opening speeches, both parties met behind closed doors on Thursday. Discussions should continue on Friday (local time). After the end of the first day, the Chinese state news agency Xinhua quoted from a background discussion with the Chinese delegation: They initially complained about “inappropriate” attacks. This is not a demonstration of hospitality and does not accord with diplomatic etiquette.
There is no shortage of other conflict issues in the talks between the world’s two largest economies. The US is also concerned about Beijing’s trade practices and China’s push to expand into the Indo-Pacific. China, in turn, accuses the US of behaving like a global hegemony. Beijing is also calling for the lifting of punitive tariffs imposed under Trump. On other issues of global importance, such as the fight against climate change, the two governments at least in principle want to cooperate. Cooperation would also be important in international conflicts such as Iran and North Korea.