China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi said that in recent years, the US-China relations have run into unprecedented difficulties.(Reuters)
China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi said that in recent years, the US-China relations have run into unprecedented difficulties.(Reuters)

Fiery start to US-China talks shows acrimony is here to stay

Top diplomats from the world’s two largest economies criticized each other over everything from trade to human rights in a high-stakes first encounter Thursday in an Alaskan ballroom.
Bloomberg |
PUBLISHED ON MAR 19, 2021 06:56 PM IST

The first face-to-face meeting between the US and China since President Joe Biden took office was bound to be confrontational. The question now is whether the two sides can find a way cooperate after unloading so many grievances in public.

Top diplomats from the world’s two largest economies criticized each other over everything from trade to human rights in a high-stakes first encounter Thursday in an Alaskan ballroom. US Secretary of State Secretary of State Antony Blinken accused Beijing of undermining global stability, while his counterpart, Yang Jiechi, said the US wasn’t “qualified to speak to China from a position of strength.”

The barbs on both sides appeared intended for domestic consumption, with Biden seeking to show his supporters that he’s tough on China and President Xi Jinping needing to satisfy his own increasingly nationalistic population. Still, the unusually acrimonious exchange showed the world just how hard it will be to repair a relationship that deteriorated rapidly under Donald Trump.

“It’s not surprising for the Alaska meeting to start with a strong smell of gunpowder,” said Zhu Feng, a professor of international relations at Nanjing University. “It is obvious that a new equation for China-US relations is emerging. That is conflict, competition and cooperation.”

The diplomatic blow-up tamped down investor sentiment in China, contributing to a slide of about 3% in China’s CSI 300. Regional shares were already under pressure following an overnight tumble on Wall Street.

The delegations are due to meet for a final time on Friday morning after two rounds of closed-door talks following their initial exchange. While it was unclear whether the private discussions were more productive, a senior US administration official said the talks were “substantive, serious and direct” and went beyond the allotted time.

“Perhaps it will give the Biden administration a little bit of leeway to start actually talking about issues, to start trying to come to some common understanding with the Chinese,” said William Zarit, a senior counselor at the Cohen Group and ex-US minister for commercial affairs in Beijing. “Most of these things are really to show strength in domestic politics here in the US”

Both sides have highlighted numerous areas where they need closer cooperation, including climate change and pandemic relief. Biden administration officials have also expressed openness to relax some visa restrictions on Chinese nationals put in place under Trump, but not his tariffs and sanctions as demanded by China.

Before the meeting, officials in Beijing had raised the possibility of a virtual summit between Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping to coincide with Earth Day next month if the talks went well. But there had been unease among some in the Biden administration about meeting the Chinese side so soon, and the early response was that it may have been a miscalculation, according to one person familiar.

The meeting laid bare a battle between two world views shaking global institutions and disrupting industries from semiconductors to social media. With an economy set to overtake the US’ within a decade and an increasingly modern military, China has decided to draw a line against what it sees as foreign interference. The US, meanwhile, has decided it must contain Beijing’s growing global influence.

Show of Strength

Trump’s decision to run against China in last year’s election campaign, as Xi rounded up dissidents at home and the coronavirus surged around the world, accelerated the process. Biden administration officials in Anchorage, including National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, faced pressure to overcome skepticism that their plan to rebuild the US’s alliance network could be more effective than Trump’s “America First” policies.

The US delegation was hoping to show strength by hosting the meeting on American soil after a week of meetings showcasing their Asia-Pacific alliances, including a budding partnership with India. While in Asia, Blinken signaled Biden would keep up the pressure on Beijing, accusing China of “coercion and aggression” and tightening sanctions against lawmakers responsible for crackdowns in Hong Kong.

But the Chinese officials -- emboldened by the country’s rapid recovery from the world’s first coronavirus outbreak and the domestic turmoil in the US-- had similar plans. Yang and Foreign Minister Wang Yi had for weeks warned Washington that they wouldn’t tolerate any foreign power crossing “red lines” like Taiwan and Hong Kong.

The pair unloaded China’s most critical talking points on the US, citing the killing of Black Americans and the Black Lives Matter movement as evidence of US hypocrisy. The comments were lapped up on China’s heavily censored social media, with posts citing Yang accumulating hundreds of thousands of likes in a matter of hours.

Shi Yinhong, director of Renmin University’s Center on American Studies in Beijing, said both sides appeared to be hardening their positions on fundamental issues. While there might be some scope for collaboration on issues such as Iran, North Korea or Myanmar, he said, it was “quite, quite limited.”

“It’s probable that after this Anchorage diplomat summit, Sino-American relations may deteriorate further,” Shi said.

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