Bitter summit shows no reset in chilly US-China relations

As US and Chinese officials landed in Anchorage this week, the temperature was well below freezing. But when they sat across the table at the Captain Hook hotel, another brutal chill hit the room.

Antony Blinken, US secretary of state, told the media that he and national security adviser Jake Sullivan would express “deep concerns” about Chinese behaviour towards Hong Kong, Xinjiang and Taiwan when they spoke in private with Yang Jiechi, China’s top foreign policy official, and Wang Yi, foreign minister.

After short opening statements from the Americans, Yang lambasted the US in a 16-minute speech that accused it of being an imperial power that was weak on human rights and racism at home. In a rare move, Blinken urged reporters to stay for his rebuttal — that many nations were happy the US was re-engaging and worried about China — while Sullivan lamented the “long-winded statements”.

“My bad,” Yang replied sarcastically. “When I entered this room, I should have reminded the US side of paying attention to its tone.”

The barbed public exchange was extraordinary but the views were not. China increasingly says US democracy is flawed, while Washington criticises Beijing over issues such as human rights abuses of Uyghurs in Xinjiang.

“What’s different is for that to be aired so publicly in the opening of a two-day diplomatic meeting,” said Sheena Greitens, a China expert at the University of Texas at Austin. “It seems to have been important for the Biden team to signal the ways in which there is continuity with the Trump administration which is … obviously a bit surprising.”

Greitens said the blunt US approach was intended to illustrate that China’s behaviours had led Joe Biden to change his view of Beijing from when he was vice-president. The US president has vowed to call out any Chinese abuses and said he was “proud” of how Blinken acted in Alaska. The secretary of state came to Anchorage after visiting Japan and South Korea, where he publicly criticised Beijing and unveiled new sanctions on Chinese officials.

Biden also recently held the first summit of the “Quad”, a partnership with Japan, India and Australia designed to counter Chinese influence. While the US statement in Alaska angered the Chinese officials, who would have been under domestic pressure to respond strongly, there was among US-based China experts debate about its efficacy.

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

“I hope the approach moves beyond simply pushing back and that we don’t get a China policy that is being dictated by Trump from his political grave in … that they’re so worried the Republicans will label them soft on China.” But Lindsay Gorman at the German Marshall Fund think-tank, said it was important to be direct.

“China has succeeded by sweeping issues like human rights abuses in Xinjiang and the crackdown on democracy in Hong Kong under the rug,” she said. “Describing them as ‘red lines’ is a power move that democracies have long fallen for.” More broadly, the tensions highlight a fundamental battle between two competing visions.

As China becomes a stronger economic and military power, it is resisting what Yang called the “so-called rules-based international order”. Communist party officials often repeat a popular refrain that, “the east is rising and the west is declining”.

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

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

Chinese analysts said the spat did not mean co-operation on issues such as climate change was impossible. “Having a quarrel does not mean the negotiations will be a failure,” said Zhu Feng of Nanjing University. After the meeting, Yang said the two sides had held candid but “constructive” discussions.

Blinken said they had frank talks on issues such as Iran and North Korea, suggesting there were more substantive conversations in private. But the overall tone underscored that the Biden administration has no intention of pushing the “reset” button as China had hoped and relations were unlikely to improve in the near term.

Stephanie Segal of the Center for Strategic and International Studies think-tank said it was even possible that Beijing would face a tougher time from Biden on human rights than it had from Trump, whose China policy became mired in inter-agency infighting. “The Biden administration has elevated human rights as a priority,” she said.

“You could see them be tougher and more unified than the Trump administration because there won’t be the kind of daylight that existed between agencies.” Yang has previously blamed Trump for the dismal state of relations and warned Biden not to cross any “red lines”. Many US-based China experts viewed his comments as a missed opportunity to improve ties. But the Yang-Blinken exchange in Alaska suggests that relations have changed in a more fundamental way.

Experts had questioned whether the confrontational style employed by Trump would disappear with his administration or remain because of the geopolitical landscape. “Now it is crystal clear that the return to the status quo is not going to happen,” Gorman said.

Written by: Demetri Sevastopulo and Tom Mitchell
© Financial Times

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