As high-level officials stared across the table into no man’s land, talks between China and the United States descended into diplomatic trench warfare.
Bayonet-like barbs bristled during the ill-tempered discussions ahead of the closed-door sessions in the Alaskan city of Anchorage.
On one side of the great divide was US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan. Facing off amid stoney glances were Chinese State Councilor Wang Yi and Foreign Affairs top diplomat Yang Jiechi.
In between, brutal, blunt bile mingled with the toxic air. The scene was set by Blinken.
“We will … discuss our deep concerns with actions by China, including Xinjiang, Hong Kong, Taiwan, cyber attacks on the United States [and] economic coercion of our allies. Each of these actions threatens the rules-based order that maintains global stability,” he said.
Left fuming by the apparent breach in protocol, Yang launched into a tirade of accusations, rambling on for 15 minutes.
He lashed out at Washington’s struggling democracy, the poor treatment of minorities and its catastrophic policies covering foreign relations and trade.
At one point, he ordered the media corp to remain to capture every single sound bite as if they were going to leave this squabble by the shore.
“The United States uses its military force and financial hegemony to carry out long-arm jurisdiction and suppress other countries. It abuses so-called notions of national security to obstruct normal trade exchanges, and incite some countries to attack China,” he said before turning his attention to the whirlwind US tour of Indo-Pacific allies this week.
“Let me say here that in front of the Chinese side, the United States does not speak to China from a position of strength. The US side was not even qualified to say such things, even 20 years or 30 years [ago] because this is not the way to deal with the Chinese people,” Yang added, lumping the “Chinese people” into the actions of the ruling Communist Party.
Still, the hour-long verbal fireworks lit up the room before exploding over a stunned Press corp, illustrating the chasm between the two sides. Bridging the gap will be a titanic task.
For the US team, the issues revolve around the fundamental principles of democracy, such as China’s repression of up to 1.4 million Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang.
The pro-democracy clampdown in Hong Kong and the bullying of Taiwan, as well Beijing’s predatory trading practices and cyber attacks are also on the agenda.
Another area of conflict in this all-consuming row is the rapid military expansion by the naval wing of the People’s Liberation Army in the South and East China Seas, rattling Asian democracies in the Indo-Pacific.
In response, President Xi Jinping’s regime has warned Washington not to meddle in its “internal affairs.” It has denied claims of human rights abuses in Xinjiang, reiterated that Taiwan is part of China and dismissed concerns that Beijing is dismantling the “One Country, Two Systems” model in Hong Kong.
But at the heart of this superpower rivalry is the unshakable belief in the Zhongnanhai corridors of power that this is “China’s Century” and that the “East is rising while the West is in decline.”
“Wolf Warrior” diplomacy is an extension of that view, ably demonstrated by Yang, a seasoned politician not known for his charm.
“This is not the way to treat your guests and violates diplomatic protocols. The US side, which started speaking first, severely exceeded the time allocated for their opening remarks, made unreasonable attacks and accusations of Chinese domestic and foreign policies, and provoked quarrels,” one official from the Chinese delegation told the state-run CCTV network.
In response, the US team called the Yang show “grandstanding” aimed at China’s “domestic audience.”
“The Chinese delegation … seems to have arrived intent on grandstanding, focusing on public theatrics and dramatics over substance,” a US official told a media briefing.
It was certainly “dramatic” and incendiary “theater,” splattered with barbwire rhetoric. A chilling yet gripping snapshot of Sino-American relations, slipping into a New Cold War.