‘Fundamentally at odds’: China, U.S. retreat to their corners after Alaska talks

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The first showdown is over, and each side came out throwing punches.

Now China and the United States will huddle with their partners in hopes of building international support to pressure the other on multiple fronts.

Senior officials from the two countries held three sessions in Anchorage, Alaska, on Thursday and Friday — the first high-level gathering of U.S. and Chinese officials since President Joe Biden took office. The gathering began with bitter exchanges, and ended with somber words.

“There are a number of areas where we are fundamentally at odds,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said as the last session drew to a close Friday, “including China’s actions in Xinjiang, with regard to Hong Kong, Tibet, increasingly Taiwan, as well as actions that it is taking in cyberspace. And it’s no surprise that when we raised those issues clearly and directly we got a defensive response.”

Early next week, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov will visit China, with the United States sure to be on the agenda. The Biden administration’s relationship with both countries is on a downward slide. Biden recently agreed that Russian dictator Vladimir Putin is a “killer,” while Putin replied by ominously wishing Biden “good health.”

While Lavrov is in China, Blinken will be heading to Brussels, where he will participate in a NATO gathering and discuss China with European allies. The Biden administration says it wants to rally a coalition of countries to stand up to Beijing on fronts ranging from cyber to human rights to trade practices.

The Biden administration is looking at taking actions in the next few weeks to punish China over what U.S. officials say is a genocidal campaign against Uighur Muslims in its Xinjiang region, according to a China analyst in touch with Biden administration officials.

The actions will likely include new economic sanctions and could also involve some coordinated measures with countries in Europe which, too, are alarmed by the Xinjiang crisis.

“It’s going to be a tense relationship probably for a generation,” said Matt Kroenig, a former Pentagon official who now serves as deputy director of The Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security. “And maybe there will be areas for cooperation on issues like climate change or arms control. But overall, the relationship will get worse before it gets better.”

‘Strength and action’

In Washington, the Biden administration’s tough line on China is being well received. Biden is eager to seek ways to work with Republicans on China-related matters, and shows of bipartisan harmony are likely to be more common in the coming months.

In fact, after their sessions with Chinese officials Yang Jiechi and Wang Yi ended Friday, Blinken and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan met with Alaska’s senators, Dan Sullivan and Lisa Murkowski, both of whom are Republicans.

One package of legislation that could offer a shot at showing a united front is being pulled together by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer. It is expected to include earlier legislative work Schumer did with GOP Sen. Todd Young of Indiana. The emerging package, which some observers hope could reach the floor as early as April, would focus heavily on investing in science and technology to outcompete the Chinese.

The U.S. and its partners may also take other moves that are more shrouded but highly consequential.

Earlier this week, for instance, the U.S. issued subpoenas on multiple Chinese companies that, according to the Commerce Department, “provide information and communications technology and services in the United States.” The move signaled a potential crackdown on Chinese companies that could pose what the administration sees as a national security risk to America.

One thing not likely to happen soon? A face-to-face meeting between Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping, under whom the Chinese government has taken an increasingly repressive and authoritarian turn.

Biden administration officials insist they want to find ways to work with China on issues of common interest, such as climate change and battling pandemics. So it’s likely the two sides will continue to engage at various levels, even if it’s through phone calls and on the sidelines of other forums.

“We’ll continue to work with China going forward,” Sullivan said as the meeting was wrapping up Friday.

A spokesperson for the State Department did not immediately answer questions about the potential future U.S. actions.

The politics of pressure

The Biden administration, like the Trump administration before it, describes China as America’s top geopolitical rival. In Washington, that feeling is widely shared among members of both political parties.

On Friday, a bipartisan group of lawmakers introduced a resolution blasting the Chinese government for its evisceration of democracy in Hong Kong. The resolution also calls on the Biden administration to use sanctions and other tools to punish Chinese officials for the crackdown.

Some U.S. lawmakers also weighed in with sharp barbs against Beijing as the meeting in Alaska was going on.

“I have many policy disagreements with the Biden administration, but every single American should unite against Beijing’s tyrants,” said Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.), who praised Blinken and Sullivan for telling their Chinese counterparts not to bet against the United States.

The Chinese Communist Party is a weak and callous regime, asserted Rep. Mike McCaul (R-Texas), the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “Strength and action are the only things the CCP understands,” McCaul said in a statement.

Thursday’s gathering in Anchorage began with a public portion featuring some pointed verbal jousting by both sides.

Blinken told Chinese officials that the U.S. would continue to speak out about Beijing’s crackdowns in Hong Kong and on Uighur Muslims, along with other points of contentions. Despite China’s insistence that these are internal matters, they threaten the rules-based international order, Blinken said, making them fair game for American comment and action.

Yang shot back that the United States is an international bully and that it has its own poor human rights record, including mistreating Black Americans. Wang said the Chinese people were “outraged” by the U.S. decision earlier this week to impose a series of sanctions on Chinese officials said to be involved in the crackdown on Hong Kong.

Usually these opening remarks take just a few minutes, but the U.S. side decided to respond to the Chinese allegations, and then the Chinese officials took a second opportunity to lay out their grievances, dragging out the public portion.

A senior Biden administration official afterward accused the Chinese side of “grandstanding,” while the Chinese Foreign Ministry said that upon reaching Anchorage, its diplomats’ “hearts were chilled by the biting cold as well as the reception by their American host.”

The actual, closed portion of the first session was “substantive, serious, and direct,” the senior administration official said. “In fact, the discussion went well beyond the two hours we had allotted. We used the session, just as we had planned, to outline our interests and priorities, and we heard the same from our Chinese counterparts.”

It’s difficult to say how much of the public back-and-forth was theatrics for each country’s respective domestic audiences versus messaging to each other.

Chinese diplomats, however, have been more aggressive on the global front in recent years, often deploying harsh language that analysts say is largely about shoring up nationalist sentiment in China. These diplomats have been referred to as “Wolf Warriors.”

Even if the Wolf Warriors’ main goal is to boost Chinese nationalism, the harsh rhetoric has annoyed foreign officials.

China “obviously feels it can afford to be more assertive, to the point of being combative,” a former senior U.S. national security official said. “It probably plays well in China but also helps cement a growing sentiment here that the Chinese Communist Party is Enemy No. 1.”

Chinese officials have tried to cast this week’s discussions as the start of a series of talks — a so-called “strategic dialogue.” But the Biden administration has dismissed that, saying it was a “one-off” gathering.

The goal, they said, was to give both sides a chance to lay out their disagreements as well as talk about where they can work together.

“Beijing has been talking about its desire to change the tone of the relationship, and of course, we’re going to be looking at deeds, not words on that front,” a senior administration official told reporters earlier this week.

“And we’re of course coming to these discussions with a very clear-eyed view about [China’s] pretty poor track record of keeping its promises.”

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