War Stories

A Cold Welcome in Alaska

Why did Biden’s team seem so unprepared for the hostility of their Chinese counterparts?

One man in the foreground speaking. Another in the background, in a mask, looking on.
National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan speaks as Secretary of State Antony Blinken looks on at the opening session of U.S.-China talks in Anchorage, Alaska, on Thursday. Frederic J. Brown/Getty Images

It’s no surprise that the Biden administration’s first meeting with Chinese officials went badly. Secretary of State Antony Blinken all but said in advance that it would, calling the session a “one-off,” rather than the start of negotiations, and saying he’d use it as an opportunity for an “airing of grievances” about China’s bad behavior.

It is surprising, though, that the meeting went so badly, and even more surprising that Blinken and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, who led the U.S. delegation, seemed surprised that it did.

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Blinken started Thursday’s session, held in Anchorage, Alaska, reading a two-minute statement—with reporters and cameras present—condemning China’s suppression of democracy in Hong Kong, genocide in Xinjiang province, cyberattacks on America, and myriad violations of the rules-based world order. It should have come as no shock that China’s top diplomat, Yang Jiechi, would return fire with a 16-minute barrage against America’s sins—its endless invasions abroad, its coercive brand of diplomacy, its own cyberattacks (at which “the U.S. is the champion”), the killings of Black Americans, and the deterioration of American democracy.

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Soviet diplomats ran the same game plan in the 1950s, answering any American criticism of the Kremlin’s mass oppression and political prisons by citing lynchings in Alabama—and, though the two superpowers’ systems were far from morally equivalent, the reply stung and had an impact in many third-world countries with Black or brown majorities, where Washington and Moscow were competing for influence. In more recent decades, Chinese diplomats too have taken umbrage at public criticism of what they regard as “internal” matters.

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Yet Blinken seemed startled and kept the reporters in the room while he issued a long rejoinder. Sullivan chimed in, telling the Chinese across the table, “A confident country is able to look hard at its own shortcomings and constantly seek to improve—and that is the secret sauce of America.” Yang then denounced Sullivan for speaking “condescendingly,” adding, “The United States does not have the qualification to say it wants to speak to China from a position of strength.”

In the weeks leading up to this trip, Blinken and other officials had publicly said that they would be meeting with the Chinese from “a position of strength”—always a mistake, as it seems designed to provoke and also conveys an impression of weakness, as those truly occupying a position of strength generally don’t feel compelled to say they do.

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It might have been better if Blinken had replied to Yang’s initial fusillade with a terse, witty sentence or two—anticipating such a barrel bomb, he could have written it in advance (Yang no doubt wrote his remarks days ahead of time)—and then moved on to the behind-doors session.

The Chinese behaved oddly as well. Hua Chunying, the foreign ministry’s spokeswoman, chided Biden’s team in a tweet for saying that the U.S. won’t improve relations with China until China stops subjecting Australia to economic coercion. “The U.S. is now switching from ‘America First’ to ‘Australia First’?” Hua tweeted. This line will no doubt please—rather than alienate—America’s Asian allies.

What were all of these diplomats doing? Bill Bishop, a longtime China watcher who writes the Sinocism newsletter, tweeted that Yang was aiming his remarks at “an audience of one”—Chinese President Xi Jinping. “Yang has been criticized for being too soft on America,” Bishop added, “he has to perform.” (In his demand for subordinates’ total loyalty, Xi seems to be similar to Donald Trump.)

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On the other side, Blinken and Sullivan may have had one eye on dispelling the concern, especially among Republicans back home, that Biden might appease China. But judging from their reactions to Yang’s torpedo, it seems more likely—and disconcerting—that they were simply unprepared for this.

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We don’t yet know what happened after the reporters and cameras left the room. A “senior official” said Thursday night, that, after the stormy public ripostes, the two sides “got down to business” and held “substantive, serious, and direct” discussions that went “well beyond the two hours we had allotted.” This language—“substantive, serious, and direct”—is reminiscent of the term “frank and businesslike” invoked by public-affairs officials in the Cold War era to describe particularly tense meetings between U.S. and Soviet diplomats.

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The U.S. and Chinese delegations are meeting again on Friday. Nothing is expected to come out of the session. The best hope is that it won’t put the kibosh on the possibility of joint action—which both nations need to take—on climate change, counterterrorism, nuclear nonproliferation, and other issues where they have common or converging interests.

Biden’s policy toward China is to contain Beijing’s aggressiveness by coordinating with traditional U.S. allies. Biden, Blinken, and Sullivan have all said that allies give the U.S. an edge in the competition, since we have them and China does not. The view is a refreshing contrast to Trump, who saw China as a threat (except when he was touting Xi as a great friend and leader) but alienated the allies who were needed for a coordinated response.

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In this respect, the Biden team’s Asian voyage has been a mixed bag so far. Leaders of Japan, South Korea, and India have seemed pleased to be treated to the new administration’s first foreign trip, but it has highlighted conflicting interests as well as common ones. The joint statement released after Blinken’s meeting in Seoul, for instance, said nothing about “denuclearization of North Korea”—Biden’s security objective in the region—or about China. South Korean President Moon Jae-in avidly wants a peace deal with the North and, to that end, wants to avoid—much less join an alliance built on—confrontation with Beijing.

When Blinken goes to Europe next week for the annual meeting of NATO ministers, he will find that several allies there—notably Germany and France—want no part of what they see as a “cold war” with China, either. They rely on China for trade, don’t view the distant Pacific as a theater for national-security concerns, and so don’t view China as any sort of threat.

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In any case, Biden and his team may have let their China Threat rhetoric get out too far ahead of them. China does have ambitions to tilt the world order in its favor; its military strength is growing in the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea; it is embedding its technology and supply lines throughout the world. But China has many vulnerabilities. Its air force and navy aren’t yet capable of sustaining military operations far off its shores; its Belt and Road Initiative, to lock developing countries into exclusive economic relations, is spawning backlash; it is heavily dependent on the West for semiconductor chips and other advanced technologies. Biden seeks to exploit these vulnerabilities; other countries in the Indo-Asian region—alarmed by Xi’s aggressive behavior and harsh rhetoric—are more willing than a few years ago to make a pact with the U.S. on this front.

There’s nothing wrong with calling out the Chinese leaders on their destabilizing actions, but it is dangerous to match them in confrontational rhetoric. Doing so projects a lack of confidence and an insouciance toward escalating tensions. Nobody wants war with China, least of all the countries that Biden is recruiting in a more cohesive alliance. The main aim of countering China is to prevent and deter war. That should govern the substance and tone of the next meetings.

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