US-China talks start with a bang and end in a whimper

Relations between Beijing and Washington will continue to remain strained after Alaska discussions

As Sino-American talks wrapped up in Alaska, the outbursts were more revealing than the outcome.

What was clear is that relations between China and the United States will remain tense. There will be wriggle room for cooperation but only on a shortlist of issues such as climate change.

“We expected to have tough and direct talks on a wide range of issues, and that’s exactly what we had,” White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan told the media after the Chinese delegation left the Anchorage hotel meeting room.

In response, Chinese Communist Party Foreign Affairs head Yang Jiechi brushed away questions before talking to the state-run CGTN network. He reiterated that there was “no way to strangle China” or curb its rise on the global stage.

“China will firmly safeguard national sovereignty, security and development,” Yang said in a television interview.

The facts:

  • The two-day mini-summit was heralded as the first face-to-face talks between officials from President Joe Biden’s administration and senior diplomats from President Xi Jinping’s government.
  • Discussions hardly began before an explosive opening session was played out in front of the world’s media.
  • The US raised questions about China’s repression of up to 1.4 million Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang.
  • Sullivan and  Secretary of State Antony Blinken also highlighted human rights abuses in Tibet, the political crackdown in Hong Kong and the bullying of Taiwan.
  • Economic “coercion” and China’s threat to the “rules-based global order” were other major problems.
  • The reaction from Yang and Chinese State Councilor Wang Yi was predictable and explosive.
  • Yang accused the US of taking a “condescending” approach to the talks.
  • He also said the US had no right to accuse China of human rights abuses or lecture on the merits of democracy.

Washington’s viewpoint: “We were clear-eyed coming in, we’re clear-eyed coming out. We will go back to Washington to take stock of where we are,” Sullivan told the media.

Beijing’s viewpoint: “[The talks were] direct, frank and constructive. [It will] help boost understanding, although the two sides still have big divergences on some issues,” Yang said.

Opening salvo: “We will discuss our deep concerns with actions by China, including in Xinjiang, Hong Kong, Taiwan, cyber attacks on the United States [and the] economic coercion of our allies. Each of these actions threatens the rules-based order that maintains global stability,” Blinken said.

Explosive response: “It is important for the United States to change its own image and to stop advancing its own democracy in the rest of the world. Many people within the United States actually have little confidence in [that] democracy. China will not accept unwarranted accusations from the US side,” Yang said.

Delve deeper: Blinken summed up the meeting with an economy of words. “We got a defensive response,” he said. As for Yang, he rehashed his opening day remarks. “China is going to safeguard [its] national sovereignty, security and our interests to develop China. It is an irreversible trend,” he said, adding: “We hope the United States is not going to underestimate China’s determination to defend its territory and defend its righteous interests,” he said.

China Factor comment: The statements from the US delegation were stark but measured. They reflected the concerns of China’s near neighbors in the Indo-Pacific and its broader democratic allies. Beijing’s response through Yang bordered on the hysterical at times. Yet it illustrated the new hardline nationalistic mantra that has engulfed the ruling Chinese Communist Party. Exceptionalism is in. The facade of moderation is out.