In a speech earlier this month, Secretary of State Antony Blinken outlined the foreign-policy template for the Biden administration. Notably absent, considering the stance of the United States over the previous two decades, was the mention of terrorism. But frequently raised was America’s relationship with China, which Blinken called “the biggest geopolitical test of the 21st century.”
On Thursday, the Biden and Xi administrations began their relationship with a testy first encounter between high-level officials. When Blinken and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan spoke with top Chinese diplomats Yang Jiechi and Wang Yi in Anchorage, Alaska, on Thursday, Sullivan began the meeting saying that the U.S. does “not seek conflict, but we welcome stiff competition,” adding that “we will always stand up for our principles, for our people, and for our friends.”
After years of trade war and sanctions levied by the Trump administration — which Biden has yet to roll back — the diplomats from Beijing did not respond all that diplomatically. When Blinken said the U.S. intends to hold China accountable for its anti-democratic restrictions in Hong Kong and its genocidal acts against Uighur Muslims in its western provinces, Yang Jiechi pushed back. While the Americans stuck to the two-minute allotment for opening statements, the Chinese officials spoke for 20 minutes, accusing the U.S. of hypocrisy and bullying other countries. Yang Jiechi said that the “U.S. does not represent the world, it only represents the government of the United States.” Wang Yi added that China would not accept “the unwarranted accusations from the U.S. side.” Yang also pointed out America’s long tradition of human-rights abuses, and said that Black people are being “slaughtered” in the U.S.
When Wang finished, aides began to usher reporters out of the room, until Blinken said, “hold on one second,” and pushed back. “We make mistakes,” the secretary of State said. “We have reversals, we take steps back. But what we’ve done throughout our history is to confront those challenges — openly, publicly, transparently — not trying to ignore them.” By the end of the meeting, little common ground was covered. The Chinese officials accused the U.S. of being “condescending, while a U.S. official told CNN that the delegation from Beijing seemed “intent on grandstanding.”
While Biden and Blinken have not stepped back from many of the hawkish economic policies of the Trump administration, the meeting on Thursday marks one major change between the two presidents. In front of his rallygoers and Twitter followers, Trump often postured about holding China “accountable.” In private, however, former National Security Adviser John Bolton alleges that the ex-president told Xi he should “go ahead with building” concentration camps to detain Uighur Muslims. As for Blinken, it’s unclear how this apparent harmony of public and one-on-one messaging will affect the next day of conversations between the rival and entangled nations.