It was supposed to be a simple photo op with two American and two Chinese officials making brief remarks to kick off two days of hotly anticipated high-level talks -- the first since President Joe Biden took office.
But those statements gave way Thursday to a remarkable hourlong back-and-forth of verbal attacks and accusations.
The jabs speak to how tense relations are right now between the world's two largest economies -- one, a rising nationalist power no longer afraid to hold back on the world stage, and the other, the world's superpower reasserting itself amid a period of tumult and change.
What Chinese officials showed in Anchorage, Alaska, is that they won't back down either. Top diplomat Yang Jiechi lectured Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan for nearly 30 minutes, rejecting U.S. concerns over issues like Hong Kong and cyberattacks and mocking America over its democracy and human rights record.
As the press was set to leave the room, Blinken told them to stay, firing back in brief remarks about the United States and its allies and partners' "deep concern" about Chinese actions and defending the U.S. as a nation that confronts its "challenges openly, publicly, transparently."
Blinken and Sullivan's defenses prompted another round from Yang, even as press exited the room. As reporters returned, a visibly annoyed Yang accused the U.S. side of breaking protocol with its remarks and added, "The United States does not have the qualification to say that it wants to speak to China from a position of strength."
Expectations that these meetings would resolve major issues were already low on both sides. But the undiplomatic exchanges that played out in front of cameras are a symbolic sign of the deep strain in U.S.-Chinese relations, even for the Biden administration and its calls to find areas of cooperation.
"I do hope this conversation would be one carried out with confidence on both sides, so it's not lectures or long-winding statements. It's the opportunity for us to explain where we're coming from, to hear where you're coming from," Sullivan said in response to Yang's initial lengthy remarks.
Instead, a senior U.S. administration official blasted the Chinese delegation as "intent on grandstanding, focused on public theatrics and dramatics over substance." The official accused Yang of breaking protocol and dismissed the spat as "exaggerated diplomatic presentations ... aimed at a domestic audience" in a statement to reporters afterward.
Chinese officials so publicly confronting the U.S. is not just to please its increasingly nationalist and autocratic leader Xi Jinping, but also to assert itself on the world stage.
"The United States itself does not represent international public opinion, and neither does the Western world," Yang said, bashing the U.S. for creating "turmoil and instability" with military interventions in Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan and "obstacles for normal trade activities" with Trump's tariffs.
Wang Yi, China's foreign minister, played something of a good cop to Yang's bad cop, greeting Sullivan and Blinken as "two friends for the Chinese people." But he too urged the U.S. "to fully abandon the practice of willfully interfering in China's internal affairs" -- pointing to the sanctions earlier this week on 24 Chinese and Hong Kong officials as insulting.
That's unlikely to happen, given broad support in the U.S. and among American allies for taking on China. Nearly half of Americans say China is their country's greatest enemy, according to Gallup, a figure that has doubled in the last year. Favorable views of China have fallen to a historic low of 20%, Gallup said.
Blinken told Yang that after his trip to Japan and South Korea this week and dozens of phone conversations with foreign counterparts, "I have to tell you, 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 reengaged with our allies and partners. I'm also hearing deep concern about some of the actions your government is taking."
In particular, Blinken and Sullivan raised China's treatment of Muslim ethnic minorities in Xinjiang, end to democratic self-rule in Hong Kong, economic coercion against U.S. allies and partners and aggressive activities toward Taiwan.
"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," said Sullivan, claiming earlier that they will raise "frankly, directly and with clarity ... the concerns on the minds of the American people" and shared by "our allies and partners in the broader international community."
Before the meeting, there was some hope on both sides that the U.S. and China could at least avoid further deterioration in relations after four years of Trump's efforts to break apart U.S.-China relations economically and diplomatically.
"It's good that we're opening up these channels of communication," a senior U.S. official told reporters during a briefing Tuesday night, with a second adding, "This is very much about sitting down, getting an understanding of each other, and then taking that back and taking stock."
China's Ambassador to the U.S. Cui Tiankai similarly called for cooperation during his own briefing Wednesday, saying, "I hope that it will become a beginning and that the two sides will start a candid, constructive and rational process of dialogue and communication ... that the two sides will come with good will and leave with better mutual understanding."
But now, even that seems unlikely. While both sides called for cooperation on issues like the coronavirus pandemic or climate change, it's unclear how they'll be able to compartmentalize those issues with tensions spilling out into public remarks and bubbling up in increasingly frenzied domestic audiences back home.
"Gone is the optimism about China's behavior becoming more moderate, as well as the belief that Beijing is ready to be a net contributor to global goods. In its place is a more assertive approach designed to mitigate the Chinese Communist Party's capacity and will to advance objectives antithetical to U.S. interests," wrote Eric Sayers, an Asia-Pacific defense policy expert at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington-based think tank.