The weather in Alaska is brutal. Temperatures from November to March range between -35 and -18 degrees Celsius, and some residents see no sunshine at all for 60 consecutive days each year, due to its close proximity to the north pole.
It might come as no surprise, therefore, that last week’s diplomatic meeting in Anchorage, between delegations from China and the United States, was somewhat chilly. The meeting was the first high-level in-person talks since President Biden took office and China’s delegation may have anticipated a return to pleasantry politics and diplomacy after four years of Trump tactics and name-calling.
However, any such expectations were shattered when Antony Blinken, the US state secretary, opened the meeting with a litany of condemnations of China’s disregard for the global “rules-based order”. From complaints about China’s human rights abuse of Uyghurs in Xinjiang, to its aggressive behaviour towards Taiwan and Hong Kong, to the economic backlash against Australia, the Americans didn’t hold back.
Yang Jiechi, China’s most senior envoy, was well prepared to respond in kind, highlighting America’s hypocrisy with the treatment of its own minorities, describing the police violence against African Americans as an outright “slaughter”. A retaliatory 16-minute-long list of complaints against the United States included a not-so-gentle reminder of America’s history of militant interference in foreign countries’ domestic politics, including in China.
So far, so frosty. However, the situation is probably not as dire as it may appear on the surface. In fact, David Rubenstein, a former US government policy advisor described that the early exchanges as a “good thing” and officials in the West have applauded Biden’s camp for being brave enough to denounce publicly their counterparts’ human rights abuses. Officials in the East also walk away content, knowing their display of force will be well received by the Politburo.
The US may have walked away from these talks empty handed, but perhaps that was always the intention. With an ace up its sleeve in the shape of Quad, a partnership with Japan, India and Australia designed specifically to counter Chinese expansion in the South Eastern Pacific, it is possible Biden’s administration was determined to demonstrate up front that it will not shy away from confrontation.
The diplomatic air between China and the US may not have cleared yet. However, officials have reported that after the opening salvos, talks behind the scenes were constructive, so there is room to hope that the somewhat frigid relations might yet warm up, by degrees.