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US and China publicly rebuke each other in first major talks of Biden era

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The United States and China have publicly clashed during their first face-to-face high-level talks since Joe Biden took office, with one senior Chinese official urging the US to address “deep-seated” issues such as racism, and accusing his American counterparts of “condescension”.

Any hopes that the meeting, in Anchorage, would reset bilateral ties after years of tensions over trade, human rights and cybersecurity during Donald Trump’s presidency evaporated when the US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, and the national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, opened their meeting with China’s top diplomat Yang Jiechi and the state councillor Wang Yi.

After Blinken referred to rising global concern over Beijing’s human rights record, Yang said: “We hope that United States will do better on human rights. The fact is that there are many problems within the United States regarding human rights, which is admitted by the US itself,” he said in a 15-minute speech that appeared to irritate Blinken.

He added that US human rights issues were “deep-seated … they did not just emerge over the past four years, such as Black Lives Matter”.

In his opening remarks Blinken had said world leaders had voiced “deep satisfaction” that the US was re-engaging with the international community after four years of Trump’s “America first” doctrine. “I’m also hearing deep concern about some of the actions your government is taking.”

Blinken, who added he had heard similar sentiments during his visits this week to Japan and South Korea, said the Biden administration and its allies were united in pushing back against China’s increasing authoritarianism and assertiveness at home and abroad.

In response, Yang angrily demanded that the US stop pushing its own version of democracy at a time when it was dealing with discontent among its own population.

“We believe that it is important for the United States to change its own image and to stop advancing its own democracy in the rest of the world,” he said. “Many people within the United States actually have little confidence in the democracy of the United States.”

Yang said: “China will not accept unwarranted accusations from the US side,” adding that recent developments had plunged relations “into a period of unprecedented difficulty” that “has damaged the interests of our two peoples”.

Afterwards, Zhao Lijian, a spokesman at the Chinese foreign ministry, told a press briefing in Beijing that China had not intended for the talks to take a “confrontational” turn, and that was not what Beijing was aspiring to.

“It was the US side that ... provoked the dispute in the first place, so the two sides had a strong smell of gunpowder and drama from the beginning in the opening remarks. It was not the original intention of the Chinese side,” Zhao said.

But the discord continued, with the US accusing China of “grandstanding”, while Chinese state media blamed US officials for speaking too long and being “inhospitable”.

The US claimed the Chinese delegation had broken an agreement to keep opening statements to two minutes, with one US official suggesting it “seem[ed] to have arrived intent on grandstanding, focused on public theatrics and dramatics over substance”.

The US state department said: “America’s approach will be undergirded by confidence in our dealing with Beijing, which we are doing from a position of strength even as we have the humility to know that we are a country eternally striving to become a more perfect union.”

Meanwhile the country’s netizens praised the Chinese delegation and accused the US side of showing “zero sincerity”.

Some social media users in China even likened the talks to the Hongmen Banquet, a historical event that took place more than 2,000 years ago in which a rebel leader invited another to a feast with the intention of murdering him.

The meetings were supposed to be an opportunity for each side to assess the other amid increasing tensions over trade, Chinese human rights abuses in Tibet, Hong Kong, and China’s western Xinjiang region, as well as over Taiwan, China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea and the coronavirus pandemic.

“Each of these actions threaten the rules-based order that maintains global stability,” Blinken said, referring to China’s actions in Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Taiwan, as well as cyber-attacks on the US and economic coercion against Washington’s allies. “That’s why they’re not merely internal matters, and why we feel an obligation to raise these issues here today.

“We will … discuss our deep concerns with actions by China, including in Xinjiang, Hong Kong, Taiwan, cyber-attacks on the United States, economic coercion of our allies,” Blinken said. “Each of these actions threaten the rules-based order that maintains global stability.”

Yang countered: “The United States uses its military force and financial hegemony to carry out long-arm jurisdiction and suppress other countries. It abuses so-called notions of national security to obstruct normal trade exchanges, and incite some countries to attack China.

“Let me say here that in front of the Chinese side, the United States does not have the qualification to say that it wants to speak to China from a position of strength.”

The US had been looking for a change in behaviour from China, which earlier this year expressed hope for a reset to sour relations. However, on the eve of the talks, Beijing presaged a contentious meeting, with its ambassador to Washington saying the US was full of illusions if it thought China would compromise.

Blinken and Yang’s opening remarks, which were open to the media, lasted for more than an hour – far longer than is customary at high-level meetings. The two delegations then disagreed over how long reporters should be permitted to stay and witness the altercation between the world’s two biggest economies.

One senior US official, who did not want to be identified by name, told reporters: “The Chinese delegation … seems to have arrived intent on grandstanding, focused on public theatrics and dramatics over substance. They made that clear by promptly violating protocol.”

The US would continue with its meeting as planned, the official said, adding that “exaggerated diplomatic presentations often are aimed at a domestic audience”.

Before taking office, Biden had been attacked by Republicans who feared his administration would be too soft on China. But in recent weeks, top Republicans have given the president a gentle nod for revitalising relations with US allies in order to confront China, a shift from Trump’s go-it-alone strategy.

While much of Biden’s China policy is still being formulated, including how to handle the tariffs on Chinese goods implemented under Trump, his administration has so far placed a stronger emphasis on democratic values and allegations of human rights abuses by China.

On the eve of the talks, the US issued a flurry of actions directed at China, including a move to begin revoking Chinese telecoms licences, subpoenas to multiple Chinese information technology companies over national security concerns, and updated sanctions on China over a rollback of democracy in Hong Kong.

Yang questioned Blinken on whether the sanctions were announced ahead of the meeting on purpose. “Well, I think we thought too well of the United States. We thought that the US side would follow the necessary diplomatic protocols,” he said.

China, however, indicated this week that it was set to begin trials of two Canadians detained in December 2018 on spying charges soon after Canadian police detained Meng Wanzhou, the chief financial officer of the telecoms equipment company Huawei Technologies, on a US warrant.

Meng awaits the results of a case that could see her extradited to the US, but China’s foreign ministry rejected assertions that the timing of the trials was linked to the Anchorage talks.

The talks in Anchorage were expected to continue on Friday.