The first U.S.-China dialogue under the Biden administration opened in Anchorage, Alaska on March 18, featuring U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan as well as Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Yang Jiechi, the director of the Office of the Central Commission for Foreign Affairs. The talks got off to a rough start, as the public remarks at the start were the diplomatic equivalent of fireworks.
The U.S. hosts gave opening remarks, followed by a lengthy rebuttal from Yang and, to a lesser extent, Wang. Then reporters were supposed to leave, but Blinken and Sullivan encouraged them to stay for a response from the U.S. side. Once again reporters began to be ushered from the room, only to have the Chinese delegation demand to get one last word in before the public segment of the talks concluded.
Afterward, a senior U.S. official went to the media to accuse the Chinese delegation of “grandstanding focused on public theatrics and dramatics” and complaining that Yang had “violat[ed] protocol” in his lengthy opening statement.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian denied that, instead accusing the U.S. of breaking protocol. “It is because the U.S. side failed to keep to the set time limit and provoked disagreements first that the opening statements were fiery and theatrical, which is not what China wishes to see,” Zhao said.
Nothing that was said was new, from a content standpoint. It’s no surprise that China sees U.S. criticisms of its rights record, for example, as hypocritical “interference.” But generally both sides hold their fire to some extent when talking before reporters. On Thursday, there was a deep sense that the private discussions spilled out into the open even before the meat of the talks even began.
The opening statement from Blinken was mostly standard fare, or what has become standard in U.S. rhetoric on China over the last few years. He mentioned “our deep concerns with actions by China, including in Xinjiang, Hong Kong, Taiwan, cyber attacks on the United States, and economic coercion toward our allies.” He also pre-emptively addressed the standard Chinese objection that these are internal affairs: “Each of these actions threaten the rules-based order that maintains global stability. That’s why they’re not merely internal matters and why we feel an obligation to raise these issues here today.”
Sullivan likewise mentioned “areas of concern, from economic and military coercion to assaults on basic values.” These remarks were blunt, but not of the range of ordinary for U.S. officials in comments with China.
The response from the Chinese delegation, however, was jaw-dropping. In a lengthy tirade – one reporter clocked it at just under 20 minutes – Yang rejected the very idea that Washington has the standing to criticize China. His rebuttal is worth going into in some detail, because it seems to signal a new Chinese approach to U.S. relations. For over a decade, Beijing has been demanding “mutual respect” from Washington. Now it seems China’s diplomats are going to start returning perceived disrespect from their U.S. counterparts with disrespect.
In his comments, Yang rejected the very idea of the “rules-based order” that features so prominently in U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy. “What China and the international community follow or uphold is the United Nations-centered international system and the international order underpinned by international law, not what is advocated by a small number of countries of the so-called ‘rules-based’ international order,” he retorted. Yang similarly rejected the U.S. stance as an arbiter of “universal values,” emphasizing that “The United States itself does not represent international public opinion, and neither does the Western world.”
The crux of the Chinese rebuttal was attacking the idea that China has to listen to criticisms from the U.S. – or at least listen without striking back, which is precisely what Yang did.
“On human rights, we hope that the United States will do better on human rights,” he said. “China has made steady progress in human rights and the fact is that there are many problems within the United States regarding human rights, which is admitted by the U.S. itself as well,”
“So 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,” Yang said. That is a typical message, but this time it was delivered with unusual force – and directly to the face of U.S. officials.
While Yang’s speech took the lion’s share of attention, the best summary of the Chinese demand came from Wang: “China urges the U.S. side to fully abandon the hegemonic practice of willfully interfering in China’s internal affairs. This has been a longstanding issue and it should be changed. It is time for it to change.”
As I mentioned above, the comments from Blinken and Sullivan were fairly typical for U.S. officials at this sort of meeting. The main takeaway from the Chinese side is that they want to change the dynamic of the relationship, to a “new normal” were such direct criticism from Washington is no longer acceptable. In private conversations, Chinese scholars have long complained bitterly about the lack of respect from the United States. Under Xi Jinping, when China sees itself as having fully arrived on the world stage, Chinese diplomats seemed primed to demand U.S. respect, rather than asking for it.
Indeed, Yang took on the role of a lecturer, rapping the knuckles of his younger U.S. counterparts: “When I entered this room, I should have reminded the U.S. side of paying attention to its tone in our respective opening remarks, but I didn’t.”
[I]sn’t this the intention of United States… that it wants to speak to China in a condescending way from a position of strength? … [T]he United States does not have the qualification to say that it wants to speak to China from a position of strength. The U.S. side was not even qualified to say such things even 20 years or 30 years back, because this is not the way to deal with the Chinese people. If the United States wants to deal properly with the Chinese side, then let’s follow the necessary protocols and do things the right way.
What’s behind the change in approach? Wang’s remarks also hinted that the U.S. decision to pass new sanctions on Hong Kong the day before the dialogue may have contributed to the fiery nature of Thursday’s discussions. Wang mentioned the sanctions at some length in his opening remarks, commenting, “[W]e wonder if this is a decision made by the United States to try to gain some advantage in dealing with China, but certainly this is miscalculated and only reflects the vulnerability and weakness inside the United States.”
In addition, China may be seizing the opportunity of a new U.S. administration to try to reset the parameters of U.S.-China relations for good. But China’s new response is also an indication that U.S. criticisms have moved to encompass China’s “core issues,” with attacks on Beijing’s approach to Hong Kong and Xinjiang highlighting most U.S. comments. Beijing might be unhappy with U.S. complaints about IP theft and trade practices, but don’t rise to the same level of concern as perceived attacks on China’s sovereignty.
And on the big picture level, as I’ve written before, triumphalism is the order of the day in China. In official circles there is a pervasive sense that the United States has entered a terminal decline, while China’s continued rise is unstoppable. In keeping with that dynamic, Yang and Wang both dismissed the idea of U.S. “strength” vis-à-vis China with remarkable contempt.
Put simply, China doesn’t see itself as the junior partner in the U.S.-China dynamic, and is no longer willing to play that role. This has been a core tenet of Xi Jinping since even before he became president, as embodied in one of his very first slogans, calling for a “new type of great power relations” for U.S.-China ties. But Beijing is apparently putting it into action regardless of the lack of U.S. buy-in.
Meanwhile, Wang told Chinese media that the second round of talks had gone smoothly. Asked about the tense atmosphere at the first round, the foreign minister replied, “It can’t be considered tense. Both sides elaborated on their respective positions.”
The delegations are scheduled to meet for a final round of talks at 9 a.m. local time on March 19, before each side returns to their respective capitals.