Senior Biden administration officials squared off against their Chinese counterparts in Alaska on Thursday, with the two sides trading charges of global coercion and undermining international order.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken bluntly told a group led by two senior Chinese officials that the United States will confront growing Chinese expansionism and authoritarianism in places like Xinjiang, Hong Kong and the South China Sea, while punishing continuing cyberattacks on U.S. companies.
“Each of these actions threaten the rules-based order that maintains global stability,” Mr. Blinken said. “That’s why they’re not merely internal matters and why we feel an obligation to raise these issues here today.”
Yang Jiechi, the Chinese Communist Party’s top foreign affairs official, replied in kind, warning at one point that Washington would not be able to “strangle” China.
Talks between a U.S. delegation led by Mr. Blinken and White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan involved Mr. Yang, director of the ruling Communist Party’s Central Commission for Foreign Affairs, and Foreign Minister Wang Yi.
The meeting took place against a backdrop of Chinese warnings against U.S. interference in Beijing‘s internal affairs and demands that Washington back off economic measures imposed under the Trump administration.
The Anchorage meeting is the first high-level meeting with Chinese representatives for the Biden administration, which is conducting a policy review for China.
Mr. Yang issued a lengthy response in his opening statement charging that the United States is using military power and financial supremacy to pressure countries. He said America was undermining the future of international trade.
Mr. Yang accused Mr. Blinken of “condescension” and said Beijing firmly opposes what he called U.S. interference in “internal affairs” of China in Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Taiwan.
“China will not accept unwarranted accusations from the U.S. side,” he said. “There is no way to strangle China.”
Mr. Blinken, fresh from talks with allies in South Korea and Japan this week, making an unscheduled public reply to the Chinese officials’ lengthy remarks, said: “I’m hearing deep satisfaction that the United States is back, that we’re reengaged. I’m also hearing deep concern about some of the actions your government is taking.”
Mr. Yang threatened “firm actions” against interference and insisted that China follows United Nations rules, “not rules of a few countries.”
“We believe that 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,” Mr. Yang said. “Many people within the United States actually have little confidence in the democracy of the United States.”
The meeting in Anchorage took place a day after the administration imposed sanctions on 24 Chinese officials as punishment for their role in the crackdown on democracy in Hong Kong.
Mr. Sullivan, the national security adviser, told the Chinese delegates: “We do not seek conflict, but we welcome stiff competition, and we will always stand up for our principles, for our people, and for our friends.”
Mr. Wang, the other senior official, said Mr. Blinken and Mr. Sullivan were “true friends of the Chinese people” but criticized “unwarranted accusations” from the U.S. government and the recent imposition of sanctions over Hong Kong.
“This is not supposed to be the way one should welcome his guests,” Mr. Wang said.
Mr. Wang also challenged Mr. Blinken‘s characterization of China bullying its neighbors. “Who is coercing who?” he said.
Mr. Blinken set the U.S. tone for the talks in Japan and South Korea this week, bluntly telling reporters China poses a threat to the region and to international norms. The United States will continue pressuring Beijing to abide by international rules, he said.
“We are clear-eyed about Beijing‘s consistent failure to uphold its commitments, and we spoke about how Beijing‘s aggressive and authoritarian behavior are challenging the stability, security and prosperity of the Indo-Pacific region,” Mr. Blinken said in Seoul before leaving for Alaska.
Earlier, during a stop in Japan, Mr. Blinken told Nippon TV that the United States and Japan “share a deep concern … which is China acting more repressively at home and more aggressively abroad, including particularly in the region, whether it’s with regard to the Senkaku Islands or Taiwan, the South China Sea.”
The comments represent a sharp departure from the more conciliatory approach toward China under the Obama administration, when President Biden was vice president. Critics said the policy amounted to appeasement of China‘s communist leadership.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian told reporters in Beijing that Chinese officials expect to press the American officials to respect China‘s “core interests.”
“There’s no room for China to compromise on issues related to sovereign security and core interests, and its determination and will to safeguard its core interests is unwavering,” Mr. Zhao said.
The Trump administration earlier this year formally charged China with committing “genocide” in western China against the minority Muslim Uighur population. Sanctions also were imposed on Chinese officials for violating an agreement with Britain to preserve democratic government in Hong Kong.
The Trump State Department also declared Chinese claims to sovereign control of some 90% of the South China Sea — where Beijing has been deploying missiles on disputed islands — to be illegal under international law.
The Chinese officials are expected to ask the Biden team to halt sanctions, tariffs and restrictions on Chinese companies and people that were imposed under the previous administration’s hard-line approach. China also wants to resume regular high-level dialogues that were curtailed under Mr. Trump, who deemed most such contacts unproductive.
China also wants the administration to end export restrictions on high-technology products to companies such as Huawei Technologies and microchip manufacturer Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corp., The Wall Street Journal reported.
Beijing also wants visa restrictions lifted for Communist Party members, Chinese students and state-media representatives, and the reopening of the Chinese Consulate in Houston that was shuttered over allegations that it was being used as a center for intelligence gathering. The Chinese also reportedly want to arrange a summit between Mr. Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Chinese state media set Beijing‘s tone for the talks. The nationalistic, Communist Party-affiliated Global Times warned that few results are expected from the Alaska sessions because the American side had made progress unlikely.
“Due to a series of offensive words and deeds by the U.S., the Chinese public has little expectations that this dialogue can achieve any substantive results,” the paper said in an editorial, adding that China “as a whole is prepared for greater tensions” between the world’s two largest economies.
The State Department announced Tuesday news sanctions on 24 Chinese officials, including Wang Chen, who sits on the elite 25-member Chinese Communist Party Politburo, and You Quan, head of the CCP’s United Front Work Department, which conducts foreign influence operations.
U.S. officials who briefed reporters before the meeting in Anchorage sought to downplay expectations of a breakthrough in relations.
“We think it’s really important … that we’re very clear with delivering the same messages in private that you have heard from us in public,” one official said. “That includes making very clear our deep concerns about a range of issues, whether it’s Xinjiang, Hong Kong, Chinese economic coercion of our allies and partners, China‘s increasingly aggressive activities across the Taiwan Strait.”
The meeting, U.S. officials said, will assist with the policy review on China currently underway.
“What we will hear from Yang Jiechi and Wang Yi in this conversation will be important to informing where we go in our China strategy going forward,” the official said.
Pressuring North Korea
The Biden administration has talked of some limited areas where the two countries can work together, including fighting the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change and perhaps a peace deal in Afghanistan.
In Seoul, Mr. Blinken said China could play a role in pressuring its ally North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons.
“China has a critical role to play in working to convince North Korea to pursue denuclearization,” he said. “China has a unique relationship with North Korea. Virtually all of North Korea’s economic relationships, its trade, are with or go through China. So it has tremendous influence.”
North Korea announced this week that it has no interest in holding talks with the Biden administration.
In a statement, Choe Son-hui, first vice foreign minister, said the United States must abandon its “hostile policy” before any talks can take place.
“What has been heard from the U.S. since the emergence of the new regime is only a lunatic theory of ‘threat from North Korea’ and groundless rhetoric about ‘complete denuclearization,’” Mr. Choe said.
The administration’s offer of talks with Pyongyang was dismissed as a “time-delaying trick,” he said.
In a preview to China‘s approach to the Alaska talks, the Global Times published six points that “China has to let the U.S. understand.”
Among the points: that Beijing has no aggressive aims in the region and that it is Washington‘s attempt to “contain” China that has prompted Beijing‘s large-scale military buildup. The quality of the bilateral relationship, the newspaper said, is up to the U.S.
“If the U.S. is willing to coexist and cooperate with China in peace, China welcomes that and will work hard to make that relationship work. If the U.S. is determined to engage in confrontation, China will fight to the end,” the newspaper said.
Analysts say this Chinese tactic in such diplomatic exchanges is to press its standard propaganda points, and then seek to control the discussion by having U.S. officials refute them. The Chinese are then able to shift the discussion to topics Beijing wants to discuss while ignoring American comments.