‹ Back

News - How Superpowers bargain - An Explosive Start to U.S.-China Talks in Alaska

Foreign Policy – March 19, 2021

Discussions between top U.S. and Chinese officials are set to continue this morning in Anchorage, Alaska, after a day of talks that was marked by an unapologetic opening diatribe from a senior Chinese official.

The meeting began with an opening statement by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken laying out U.S. concerns with Chinese actions over Xinjiang, Hong Kong, and Taiwan as well as recent cyberattacks. “Each of these actions threatens the rules-based order that maintains global stability,” Blinken said.

Yang Jiechi, a top-ranking diplomat and former Chinese ambassador to the United States, then excoriated the United States in a 15-minute speech, during which he charged the United States with hypocrisy on human rights and its treatment of minorities, criticized U.S. foreign interventions, and accused U.S. officials of possessing a “cold war mentality.”

“The United States does not represent international public opinion and neither does the western world,” Yang said.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi then followed Yang’s remarks, offering a more conciliatory tone, recognizing Blinken and Sullivan as “true friends of the Chinese people,” while questioning the timing of a U.S. decision to sanction Chinese officials over Hong Kong on the eve of the meeting.

The unexpected outburst from Yang prompted a further response from U.S. officials, as Blinken asked the press to remain in the room while he delivered a careful rebuttal and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan provided a follow-up.

Grandstanding. Following the meeting, a senior administration official released a statement criticizing the Chinese for “violating protocol” by going over the two-minute limit set for opening statements and accused the Chinese delegation of “grandstanding” and focusing on “public theatrics and dramatics over substance.”

The episode is unlikely to rattle the Biden team, but should continue the current of distrust felt by White House officials. As Foreign Policy’s Michael Hirsh wrote on Wednesday, the Biden administration “is preparing for a long-term struggle of wills with little hope of rapprochement.”

Playing to the home crowd? As with so much in public diplomacy, and as the U.S. official noted, the conduct of the Chinese officials has to be considered with a domestic audience in mind. “Yang and Wang have to prove themselves in an official climate back home where anything other than aggressive yelling would be painted by their political rivals as treason or weakness,” said Foreign Policy’s James Palmer, the author of the weekly China Brief. The pressure is that much higher on Yang, Palmer notes, whose overseas education is already met with suspicion from his colleagues.