Tensions flare, on camera, at first US-China talks of Biden presidency

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken (2nd R), joined by National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan (R), speaks while facing Yang Jiechi (2nd L), director of the Central Foreign Affairs Commission Office, and Wang Yi (L), China's Foreign Minister at the opening session of US-China talks at the Captain Cook Hotel in Anchorage, Alaska on March 18, 2021.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken (2nd R), joined by National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan (R), speaks while facing Yang Jiechi (2nd L), director of the Central Foreign Affairs Commission Office, and Wang Yi (L), China's Foreign Minister at the opening session of US-China talks at the Captain Cook Hotel in Anchorage, Alaska on March 18, 2021. © Frederic J. Brown, AFP

The US and China leveled sharp rebukes of each others’ policies in the first high-level, in-person talks of the Biden administration on Thursday, with deeply strained relations of the two global rivals on rare public display during the meeting’s opening session in Alaska.

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The US, which quickly accused China of “grandstanding” and violating the meeting’s protocol, had been looking for a change in behaviour from China, itself having expressed earlier this year a hope to reset sour relations.

On the eve of the talks, Beijing had presaged what would be a contentious meeting, with its ambassador to Washington saying the United States was full of illusions if it thinks China will compromise.

Sparring in a highly unusual extended back-and-forth in front of cameras, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and national security adviser Jake Sullivan opened their meeting with China’s top diplomat Yang Jiechi and State Councilor Wang Yi in Anchorage, fresh from Blinken’s visits to allies Japan and South Korea.

“We will ... discuss our deep concerns with actions by China, including in Xinjiang, Hong Kong, Taiwan, cyber attacks on the United States, economic coercion of our allies,” Blinken said in blunt public remarks.

“Each of these actions threaten the rules-based order that maintains global stability,” he said.

This is not the way to deal with the Chinese people’

Beijing’s response was equally sharp with Yang delivering a 15-minute speech in Chinese while the US side awaited translation, lashing out about what he said was the United States’ struggling democracy, poor treatment of minorities, and criticising its foreign and trade policies.

“The United States uses its military force and financial hegemony to carry out long arm jurisdiction and suppress other countries,” Yang said.

“It abuses so-called notions of national security to obstruct normal trade exchanges, and incite some countries to attack China,” he added.

“Let me say here that in front of the Chinese side, the United States does not have the qualification to say that it wants to speak to China from a position of strength,” Yang said.

“...the US side was not even qualified to say such things, even 20 years or 30 years back, because this is not the way to deal with the Chinese people...”

Wang denounced the latest US sanctions against senior Chinese officials over what Washington considers Beijing's quashing of Hong Kong's freedoms, announced on the eve of the talks.

"This is not supposed to be the way one should welcome his guests," Wang said. "China is firmly opposed to US interference in China's internal affairs. We will take firm actions in response," he warned.

Protocol

Apparently taken aback by Yang’s remarks, Blinken held journalists in the room so he could respond.

Sullivan said the United States did not seek conflict with China, but would stand up for its principles and friends. He touted this year’s Mars rover landing success, and said the United States’ promise was in its ability constantly to reinvent itself.

What is typically a few minutes of opening remarks in front of journalists for such high-level meetings lasted for more than an hour, and the two delegations tussled about when media would be ushered out of the room.

Following the exchange, a senior US administration official said China had immediately “violated” agreed-to protocol, which was two minutes of opening statements by each of the principals.

“The Chinese delegation ... seems to have arrived intent on grandstanding, focused on public theatrics and dramatics over substance,” the official told reporters in Alaska.

The United States would continue with its meeting as planned, the official said, adding that “exaggerated diplomatic presentations often are aimed at a domestic audience".

Before taking office, US President Joe Biden had been attacked by Republicans who feared his administration would take too soft an approach with China. But in recent weeks, top Republicans have given the president a gentle nod for revitalising relations with US allies in order to confront China, a shift from former president Donald Trump’s go-it-alone “America First” strategy.

While much of Biden’s China policy is still being formulated, including how to handle the tariffs on Chinese goods implemented under Trump, his administration has so far placed a stronger emphasis on democratic values and allegations of human rights abuses by China.

Michael McCaul, the senior Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said Yang’s conduct showed China had no plans to change its ways.

“Their belligerence and false accusations should serve as a wake-up call to the Biden administration about exactly who they are dealing with,” he said.

‘Pretty tough’ conversations

Washington says Blinken’s Asia tour before the meeting with Chinese officials, as well as US outreach to Europe, India and other partners, shows how the United States has strengthened its hand to confront China since Biden took office in January.

Even the status of the meeting has become a sticking point, with China insisting it is a “strategic dialogue”, harkening back to bilateral mechanisms of years past. The US side has explicitly rejected that, calling it a one-off session.

On the eve of the talks, the United States issued a flurry of actions directed at China, including a move to begin revoking Chinese telecoms licenses, subpoenas to multiple Chinese information technology companies over national security concerns, and updated sanctions on China over a rollback of democracy in Hong Kong.

“We’re expecting much of these conversations will be pretty, pretty tough,” a senior US administration official told reporters in Alaska before the meeting began.

Yang questioned Blinken on Thursday about whether the sanctions were announced ahead of the meeting on purpose.

“Well, I think we thought too well of the United States, we thought that the US side would follow the necessary diplomatic protocols,” he said.

China puts detained Canadian on trial

Before the talks, however, China indicated that the trials of two Canadians detained in December 2018 on spying charges would begin although there was no official links made between the Anchorage talks and the start of court proceedings in the thorny diplomatic case.

The two Canadians, Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig were detained in China soon after Canadian police detained Meng Wanzhou, the chief financial officer of telecoms equipment company Huawei Technologies, on a US warrant.

Meng awaits the outcome of a case that could see her extradited to the United States, but China’s foreign ministry rejected assertions that the timing of the trials was linked to the Anchorage talks.

Spavor’s trial was held in the southeastern city of Dandong Friday and lasted two hours, Jim Nickel, the Canadian Embassy’s deputy chief of mission, told reporters.

Nickel said Canada’s consular officials were refused permission to attend the proceedings and that Spavor’s lawyer told him that the hearing ended after two hours. No verdict has been announced.

Washington has said it is willing to work with China when it is in the interests of the United States and has cited climate change policy and the coronavirus pandemic as examples. Blinken said Washington hoped to see China uses its influence with North Korea to persuade it to give up its nuclear weapons.

The largest group representing exiled Uighurs wrote to Blinken urging him to demand that Beijing close its internment camps in the Xinjiang region, where UN experts say more than 1 million members of the ethnic group and other Muslim minorities have been held.

Blinken had pledged to raise the issue, his State Department having upheld a Trump administration determination that Beijing was perpetrating genocide in Xinjiang, something China vehemently denies.

Yang said China firmly opposed US interference in its internal affairs. The United States should handle its own affairs and China its own, he said.

Bonnie Glaser, an Asia expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the tough statements from both sides in the run-up to the meeting had created a potential risk that it would devolve into an exchange of accusations and demands.

“Neither side benefits from this meeting being judged a total failure,” Glaser said.

(FRANCE 24 with AP and REUTERS)­­­

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