What grievances turned a US-China photo op into verbal combat

Both sides came with grievances, but no one thought they'd be aired so publicly.

March 19, 2021, 2:58 PM

The scenes of U.S. and Chinese officials debating across hotel conference room tables in Anchorage, Alaska, were remarkable -- not just because of the palpable tension between the world's two greatest powers, but also because of how publicly the feud unfolded, live before the press.

But both sides were expected to come to the table with a long list of grievances amid one of the lowest moments in what's perhaps the most important relationship between two countries in the 21st century.

The question is what was it that turned brief opening statements into an hour-long fight.

"This was always about the Biden team setting a new baseline. Raising a range of concerns. Dispelling hope there would be a reset. Wasn't a way to make it pretty. But had to happen, in person," according to Eric Sayers, an Asia-Pacific defense policy expert at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington-based think tank.

PHOTO: The US delegation led by Secretary of State Antony Blinken, flanked by US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan face their Chinese counterparts at the opening session of US-China talks in Anchorage, Alaska, March 18, 2021.
The US delegation led by Secretary of State Antony Blinken, flanked by US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan face their Chinese counterparts at the opening session of US-China talks in Anchorage, Alaska, March 18, 2021.
Frederic J. Brown/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

In the hours since the spat, each side has accused the other of starting it by violating protocol. A senior U.S. administration official said in a statement that China's top diplomat spoke too long in remarks "focused on public theatrics and dramatics over substance," while Chinese officials said the U.S. "accused China of unreasonable attacks on China's domestic and foreign policies and provoked disputes," according to Xinhua state news agency.

While both sides had to posture for domestic audiences, particularly the rising nationalist fervor of Xi Jinping, China's increasingly authoritarian leader, the grievances at the heart of the dispute are longstanding.

What set China's top diplomat off?

Seated next to National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, Secretary of State Antony Blinken opened the meeting by welcoming State Councilor Wang Yi, China's foreign minister, and Yang Jiechi, the Chinese Communist Party's foreign affairs chief and effectively China's top diplomat.

He noted America's "deep concerns with actions by China," including its alleged abuses of Muslim ethnic minorities in Xinjiang, its end to democratic self-rule in Hong Kong, its economic coercion against U.S. allies and partners, and its aggressive activities toward Taiwan. Each of those, he said, "threaten the rules-based order that maintains global stability."

"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," Sullivan added.

PHOTO: The Chinese delegation speak with their US counterparts at the opening session of US-China talks at the Captain Cook Hotel in Anchorage, Alaska, March 18, 2021.
The Chinese delegation led by Yang Jiechi, director of the Central Foreign Affairs Commission Office and Wang Yi, China's Foreign Minister, speak with their US counterparts at the opening session of US-China talks at the Captain Cook Hotel in Anchorage, Alaska, March 18, 2021.
Frederic J. Brown/Pool via Getty Images

But their comments sparked a verbal conflict. Speaking largely without notes, Yang Jiechi fought back in a 20-minute speech, taking on several of the issues Blinken raised and going further to challenge the U.S.

"The problem is that the United States has exercised long-arm jurisdiction and suppression and overstretched the national security through the use of force or financial hegemony," said Yang.

What are the US concerns over China?

When the U.S. officials fired back, they made a point to say the concerns they raised were not solely America's, but those of their allies and partners as well.

"What I'm hearing is very different from what you described. I'm hearing deep satisfaction that the United States is back, that we're re-engaged with our allies and partners. I'm also hearing deep concern about some of the actions your government has taken," Blinken said.

At the top of that list are the economic practices employed by China's centrally-planned economic system, including theft of intellectual property, major subsidies for state-owned firms, non-tariff barriers on imports, and unfair treatment of foreign firms, according to the Biden administration's trade office.

That's directly tied to the allegations that Chinese hackers have infiltrated and stolen Americans' personal data and trade secrets, for which Beijing has denied any responsibility.

To critics, that aggression is evident on the high seas, where China has harassed naval vessels near the islands and reefs it claims in the South China Sea, which neighbors like the Philippines and Vietnam dispute. The most contested claim is to Taiwan, which the Chinese government considers a breakaway province and which some analysts fear Xi could move to retake by force.

In addition to harassing Taiwan, Blinken specifically raised issues of human rights, which Biden has vowed to place at the center of his foreign policy. Blinken has called China's systematic oppression of the Uighurs and other Muslim ethnic minorities a "genocide," leaving in place the legal label applied by the Trump administration, and he's continued to sanction Chinese and Beijing-aligned Hong Kong officials for their erosion of democracy and tightened grip on the territory.

How China sees those issues -- and how it fired back

But to China, none of these issues is the United States' business. While Yang more combative, Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi more succinctly laid out the Chinese line.

"In the past several years, China's legitimate rights and interests have come under outright suppression, plunging the China-U.S. relationship into a period of unprecedented difficulty," Wang said after Yang's diatribe. "China urges the U.S. side to fully abandon the hegemonic practice of willfully interfering in China's internal affairs."

To the Chinese, how it treats its Muslim citizens in Xinjiang, the local government in its territory Hong Kong, or what it considers the breakaway province of Taiwan is their prerogative.

In recent years, the U.S. has increasingly sanctioned Chinese officials for human rights abuses, especially for China's tightening grip on Hong Kong and for what Blinken has called a genocide in Xinjiang. The Trump administration also boosted U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, totaling $5 billion in 2020 alone.

Fed up with what they see as intervention, Wang said enough: "This has been a longstanding issue and it should be changed. It is time for it to change."

Yang, a former Chinese ambassador to the U.S., went even further -- blasting what he cast as American hypocrisy. He condemned American military interventions that caused "turmoil and instability," challenged the health of American democracy, and deflected criticism by pointing to racism in the U.S.

"We hope the U.S. side will think about whether it feels reassured in saying those things because the U.S. does not represent the world," he said.

Blinken took most of his time to respond to that last point, saying the U.S. is on a "quest to, as we say, form a more perfect union."

"It's never a good bet to bet against America," he added in closing -- before Yang jumped back in again.

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