Bitter summit does not show reset in cautious US-China relations

As U.S. and Chinese officials landed in Anchorage this week, the temperature was well below zero. But when they sat across the table at the Captain Hook Hotel, another brutal cold hit the coin.

Addressing the media in attendance, the US Secretary of State Antony blink said he and Jake Sullivan, national security adviser, would express “deep concern” about Chinese behavior towards Hong Kong, Xinjiang and Taiwan when they spoke privately with Yang Jiechi, the top Chinese foreign policy official, and Wang Yi, foreign minister.

After brief opening statements from the Americans, Yang blasted the United States in a 16-minute speech accusing the United States of being a weak imperial power when it comes to human rights and racism in its own country.

In a rare gesture, Blinken urged the media to stay for his rebuttal – that many countries were happy that the United States was re-engaging and worried about China – while Sullivan bemoaned the “endless statements.”

“My hurt,” Yang replied sarcastically. “When I walked into that room, I should have reminded the American side to pay attention to its tone.”

The barbed wire public interchange was amazing, but the views were not. China increasingly says American democracy is flawed, while the United States criticizes China for issues such as its Uyghur human rights violations in Xinjiang.

“What’s different is that it’s being released so publicly at the opening of a two-day diplomatic meeting,” said Sheena Greitens, an expert on China at the University of Texas at Austin. “It seems to have been important for the Biden team to point out the means by which there is continuity with the Trump administration that is. . . obviously a little surprising.

The Greens said the United States’ brutal approach was aimed at showing Beijing that Joe Biden had a different view of China than when he was vice president, because of the way China had turned out. behaved in the meantime.

The American President has sworn to call Chinese abuses. On Friday, he said he was “proud” of the way Blinken had acted in Alaska. Blinken came to Anchorage after visiting Japan and South Korea where he criticized China in public and exposed new sanctions on Chinese officials. Biden also recently hosted the first top of the “Quad”, a partnership with Japan, India and Australia aimed at countering Chinese influence.

While the US declaration in Alaska angered Chinese officials, who were reportedly under internal pressure to react firmly, there has been debate among US-based Chinese experts over its effectiveness.

“The Biden team was right to push back against China, but in a way that’s mostly what we got from [Donald] Trump, ”said Paul Haenle, a former Chinese collaborator of George W. Bush and Barack Obama who knows Yang.

“I hope the approach goes beyond just pushing back and that we don’t get a Chinese policy dictated by Trump from his political grave. . . that they are so worried that Republicans are calling them soft on China.

But Lindsay Gorman, a German Marshall Fund expert on China, said it was important to be blunt. “China has succeeded by sweeping issues such as human rights abuses in Xinjiang and the repression of democracy in Hong Kong under the rug. Describing them as “red lines” is a power movement that democracies have long fallen for. “

More broadly, the tensions illustrate a fundamental battle between two competing visions. As China becomes a stronger economic and military power, it is resisting what Yang has called the “so-called rules-based international order.” Communist Party officials often repeat a popular refrain that “the East is on the rise and the West is in decline.”

“The United States does not have the qualification to say that it wants to speak to China from a position of strength,” Yang said in Anchorage.

The Chinese delegation led by Yang Jiechi, center, and Wang Yi, second from left

The Chinese delegation led by Yang Jiechi, center, and Wang Yi, second from left © Pool / AFP / Getty Images

Victor Gao, a former Chinese diplomat, said China would not compromise on Hong Kong, Xinjiang and Taiwan because it was “matters of life and death.” But he said dialogue was better than none after four years of Sino-US relations “poisoned” by Trump. “It will take time to detoxify the relationship.”

Chinese analysts said the conflict did not rule out cooperation on issues such as climate change. “Having a quarrel does not mean that the negotiations will be unsuccessful,” said Zhu Feng of Nanjing University.

After the meeting in Alaska ended, Yang said the two sides had frank but “constructive” discussions. Blinken said they had had frank discussions on issues such as Iran and North Korea, suggesting there was more substance in private.

But the general tone stressed that the new US administration does not intend to press the “reset” button as China had hoped, and that relations between the powers will not improve in the short term. .

Stephanie Segal, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said it is even possible that China is going through a more difficult time with Biden on human rights than Trump, whose Chinese policy has become mired in inter-agency infighting.

“The Biden administration has made human rights a priority,” she said. “You might see them being tougher and more unified than the Trump administration because there won’t be the kind of daylight that existed between the agencies.”

In a speech in February, Yang blamed Trump for the dismal state of relations, but warned Biden not to cross any “red lines.” Many US-based Chinese experts saw his comments as a missed opportunity to improve relations. But the Yang-Blinken exchange in Alaska suggests that US-China relations have changed in a more fundamental way.

Under the Trump administration, pundits have questioned whether the style of confrontation used by Trump would disappear with his administration or remain so because of the geopolitical landscape.

“It is now clear that the return to the status quo will not happen,” said Gorman.

Additional reporting by Xinning Liu in Beijing

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