The United States and China exchanged sharp words and rebukes on democracy, human rights, foreign policy and other issues on Thursday, at the first high-level meeting of their officials under the Biden administration that laid bare the underlying strains and tensions in their relationship.
The United States accused China of using “economic coercion” and the Chinese responded by charging the Americans with persuading other countries to “launch attacks on China”.
Their differences stretched across an entire gamut of issues – and even words. The Americans spoke of a “free and open Indo-Pacific”, a phrase that binds, among other things, the Quad, which came up for a mention by the Americans. The Chinese went with “Asia-Pacific”, their preferred name for the region.
US secretary of state Antony Blinken and US national security adviser Jake Sullivan are meeting China’s director of the office of the central commission for foreign affairs Yang Jiechi and state councillor Wang Yi over two days in Anchorage, Alaska starting on Thursday for a highly anticipated first meeting of senior officials after President Joe Biden took office.
While the American officials timed their remarks to around two minutes each, as agreed, the Chinese, specially Director Yang, went way over – over 17 minutes, with translation – which forced Blinken and Sullivan to come back for an unscheduled additional round of testy remarks.
The Chinese said they found the US “condescending” and the Americans accused the Chinese of “grandstanding” for the domestic audience.
The meeting was expected to be contentious as it came just two days after the Biden administration announced its first sanction against China, over Hong Kong. But fireworks started early.
Blinken set the tone saying bluntly in his opening remarks that the United Sates expects to discuss, among other things, “our deep concerns with actions by China, including in Xinjiang, Hong Kong, Taiwan, cyber-attacks on the United States, and economic coercion toward our allies. Each of these actions threatens the rules-based order that maintains global stability”.
He added that relations between the two countries will be “competitive where it should be, collaborative where it can be, adversarial where it must be”.
Sullivan, speaking next, reinforced that message, saying, “Secretary Blinken laid out many of the areas of concern, from economic and military coercion to assaults on basic values, which we’ll discuss with you today and in the days ahead. We’ll do so frankly, directly and with clarity.”
Yang hit back in a long harangue. He started with a quick summary of the Communist regime’s achievements, which included, “strategic gains” in the fight against Covid-19 and “full victory” in eradicating poverty. But he soon changed gear and when on the attack.
“With Xinjiang, Tibet, and Taiwan, they are an inalienable part of China’s territory. China is firmly opposed to US interference in China’s internal affairs. We have expressed our staunch opposition to such interference, and we will take firm actions in response,” Yang said, and went on to question the US on its record on democracy and human rights at home and foreign policy abroad.
“The challenges facing the United States in human rights are deep-seated,” he said. “They did not just emerge over the past four years, such as Black Lives Matter. It did not come up only recently.”
Some news outlets quoted him as saying Black Americans had been “slaughtered”, but the transcript of the remarks released by the US state department did not reflect it.
Many Americans, he said, have “little confidence” in US democracy and went on to claim China had its own form of democracy. The United States “has its style – United States-style democracy – and China has the Chinese-style democracy,” he said.
State councilor Wang Yi kept his remarks short but was no less direct in pushing back against the US. “China urges the US side to fully abandon the hegemonic practice of willfully interfering in China’s internal affairs,” he said. Wang’s remarks should have ended the opening portion of the two-day meet.
But the US side wanted to respond. And Blinken started, prefacing his remarks, “given your extended remarks, permit me, please, to add just a few of my own before we get down to work.”
He told the Chinese officials that in his prior consultations with allies and partners he had heard “deep concern about some of the actions your government has taken”. He ended with a quote used by Biden before, at his meeting with Xi Jinping years ago: “It’s never a good bet to bet against America, and it’s true today.”
Sullivan chided the Chinese on their oversensitivity to criticism, saying, “A confident country is able to look hard at its own shortcomings and constantly seek to improve.”