Opening Biden administration talks with China 'tough and direct'

Frederic J. Brown, with Francesco Fontemaggi in Washington
·3-min read

The first talks between President Joe Biden's administration and China were "tough and direct," a senior US official said Friday, amid rising tensions between the rival world powers.

The meeting had begun Thursday with the top diplomats of both sides exchanging fiery broadsides, setting the stage for tense discussions as Washington seeks to hem in China's expanding influence, and with Beijing's Yang Jiechi accusing the Americans of trying to "strangle" his country.

But after three rounds of talks in frigid Anchorage, Alaska, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the economic giants had found areas where their interests overlap.

He said the American side was candid about its concerns over Beijing's behavior toward Hong Kong and Taiwan and its actions in cyberspace.

"But we were also able to have a very candid conversation over these many hours on an expansive agenda," said Blinken.

"On Iran, on North Korea, on Afghanistan, on climate, our interests intersect," he told reporters.

Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi said Beijing hopes the US will meet it halfway with mutual respect, according to Chinese state news agency Xinhua.

But Wang, it said, "made it clear to the US side that sovereignty and territorial integrity are major issues of principle."

Wang said Washington should not "underestimate the Chinese people's will to safeguard national dignity and legitimate rights and interests," Xinhua said.

- US 'clear-eyed' on differences -

The talks, two months into the Biden administration, were set up as an exchange of views, and no agreements or pacts were expected.

Biden inherited the tense relationship from his predecessor Donald Trump, and has indicated so far that he is holding the same tough line, viewing China as the number one US competitor, economically, politically and militarily, in the decades to come.

The two sides have increasingly butted heads over a broad range of issues, from geopolitical competition in the Western Pacific, Southeast Asia and Indian Ocean, to trade relations and the handling of the Covid-19 outbreak, which began in central China.

Washington has been particularly critical of China's growing political control in Hong Kong, its threats against Taiwan, and its mistreatment of the large Uighur minority, which US officials label a policy of "genocide."

China though rejects the criticisms, saying the US is interfering in its domestic affairs.

"We expected to have tough and direct talks on a wide range of issues, and that's exactly what he had," White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said after the talks.

"We are clear-eyed coming out, and we will go back to Washington to take stock of where we are," he said.

The talks opened late Thursday with fireworks, the two sides lashing out at one another over human rights and geopolitics.

Blinken accused China of actions that "threaten the rules-based order that maintains global stability."

- 'Cold War mentality' -

Yang blasted back against Blinken's "condescending" language, accusing him of setting up a show of strength for the cameras in the room.

"When I entered this room, I should have reminded the US side of paying attention to its tone in our respective opening remarks, but I didn't," said Yang, according to a US translation of his remarks in Chinese.

Sullivan said that the United States didn't want conflict, but "we welcome stiff competition."

Yang called on him to "abandon the Cold War mentality," saying Beijing wanted "no confrontation, no conflict."

And the Chinese side rejected Blinken's claim that his discussion with "nearly a hundred counterparts" around the world showed that most of them appreciated the US global role and had "deep concern" over Beijing's behavior.

"Between our two countries we've had confrontation in the past, and the result did not serve the United States well," Yang retorted.

Beijing accused the US of an aggressive, undiplomatic approach in receiving guests in frigid Alaska.

"When the Chinese delegation arrived in Anchorage, their hearts were chilled by the biting cold as well as the reception by their American host," said Foreign Ministry Spokesman Zhao Lijian early Friday.