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.
Speaking with the media present, US secretary of state Antony Blinken said he and Jake Sullivan, national security adviser, would express “deep concerns” about Chinese behaviour towards Hong Kong, Xinjiang and Taiwan when they spoke in private with Yang Jiechi, the top Chinese 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 the US of being an imperial power that was weak on human rights and racism in its own country.
In a rare move, Blinken urged the media to stay for his rebuttal — that many nations were happy that 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 the US criticises China for issues such as its 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 aimed at showing Beijing that Joe Biden had a different view of China from when he was vice-president, because of how China had behaved in the intervening years.
The US president has vowed to call out any Chinese abuses. On Friday, he said he was “proud” of how Blinken acted in Alaska. Blinken came to Anchorage after visiting Japan and South Korea where he criticised China in public 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 debate among US-based China experts 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, a German Marshall Fund expert on China, 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. Describing them as ‘red lines’ is a power move that democracies have long fallen for.”
More broadly, the tensions illustrate 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 China 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.”
Chinese analysts said the spat did not rule out co-operation on issues such as climate change. “Having a quarrel does not mean the negotiations will be a failure,” said Zhu Feng of Nanjing University.
After the Alaska meeting concluded, 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 was more substance in private.
But the overall tone underscored that the new US administration has no intention of pushing the “reset” button as China had hoped, and that relations between the powers would not improve in the near term.
Stephanie Segal of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said it was even possible that China 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.”
In a speech in February, Yang blamed Trump for the dismal state of relations, but warned Biden not to cross any “red lines”. Many US-based China experts viewed his comments as a missed opportunity to improve relations. But the Yang-Blinken exchange in Alaska suggests that US-China relations have changed in a more fundamental way.
During the Trump administration, experts questioned whether the confrontational style employed by Trump would disappear with his administration or would stay because of the geopolitical landscape.
“Now it is crystal clear that the return to the status quo is not going to happen,” Gorman said.
Additional reporting by Xinning Liu in Beijing