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Alaska summit: China had 'defensive response' when US raised hot-button issues, Antony Blinken says

·5 min read

US and Chinese officials concluded two days of talks in Anchorage, Alaska, on Friday with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken saying his team received a "defensive response" when it raised contentious issues. Beijing's delegation did not offer any comments to reporters assembled outside the hotel meeting room.

The first high-level meeting between the Chinese and President Joe Biden's administration ended shortly after noon local time after what Blinken called "a very candid conversation on an expansive agenda".

"We certainly know, and knew going in, that there are a number of areas where we are fundamentally at odds," Blinken said, citing Xinjiang, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Tibet and China's actions in cyberspace. "And it was no surprise, when we raised those issues directly, we got a defensive response."

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Blinken said the two sides also discussed areas where their interests aligned, including Iran, North Korea, Afghanistan and climate change, as well as areas of difference, such as trade and economics.

Reporters gathered outside the negotiating room shouted questions to the departing Chinese delegation: "when will you next talk to the US delegation" and "do you regret coming here" but got no response.

"We expected to have tough direct talks on a wide range of issues, and that's exactly what we had, the opportunity to lay out our priorities and intentions and hear from the Chinese side, their priorities and intentions," national security adviser Jake Sullivan said.

"We were clear-eyed going in and we're clear-eyed coming out. So we'll go back to Washington and continue to take stock of where we are" and consult further with allies.

Analysts said the Biden administration likely would be in no hurry to sit down with Beijing again any time soon - but would be eager to hold another round of meetings with nations similarly frustrated with Beijing.

"There will be no rush with China, an obvious rush with allies," said Richard Boucher, a senior fellow with the Watson Institute and former US consul general in Hong Kong.

Yang Jiechi (centre) and Wang Yi led the Chinese delegation. Photo: AFP alt=Yang Jiechi (centre) and Wang Yi led the Chinese delegation. Photo: AFP

As if on cue, the State Department announced on Friday that Blinken planned to visit Brussels next week for a meeting of the 29 foreign ministers of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) with "concerns over China and Russia" among the main topics, Philip Reeker, acting assistant secretary for European and Eurasian affairs, told reporters in Washington.

This followed Biden's virtual hosting of the Quad - a strategic grouping comprising the US, Japan, Australia and India - this month and a whirl of meetings in Tokyo and Seoul this week by Blinken and US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin, who then headed for New Delhi.

But for better or worse, Washington and Beijing's fates are inextricably linked and the US should avoid slamming the door, analysts said.

"Despite what happened in the last 24 hours, a private, sustained strategic dialogue is in the interests of the United States, not as a favour to China, but as a tool of American national security," Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, told lawmakers at a hearing on Friday.

If nothing else, analysts said, the vitriol that welled up Thursday - a "frank exchange of views" in diplo-speak - served to air long-festering frustrations.

Some saw the mutual outburst as a harbinger of further worsening relations after years of trade wars, military chest-thumping and name-calling, fuelled in part by a strident US Congress.

"Whether Democrat or Republican, it will be hard to be seen as getting pushed out of the way by China," said Grant Newsham, a research fellow at the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies and former diplomat.

On Friday, a bipartisan group of 17 US senators said they would introduce a resolution "condemning the Chinese government's ongoing crackdown against democracy and fundamental freedoms in Hong Kong". A day earlier, three Republican senators, including Tom Cotton of Arkansas, reintroduced a bill that would revoke the permanent normal trading status Washington has had with Beijing for the past two decades.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken (far right) speaks as Chinese diplomats Yang Jiechi (left) and Wang Yi (second from left) listen during the opening session of US-China talks on Thursday. Photo: AP alt=US Secretary of State Antony Blinken (far right) speaks as Chinese diplomats Yang Jiechi (left) and Wang Yi (second from left) listen during the opening session of US-China talks on Thursday. Photo: AP

Other analysts said, having grandstanded for their respective home nations, the two sides would slowly and warily establish new terms and reinforce red lines.

Some early evidence of this saw a quick change in tone on both sides, with an unnamed senior administration official noting more productive talks behind closed doors within hours of the public showdown, and Chinese diplomats issuing similar statements.

Friday also saw markedly less bravado in China's state-controlled press. "China-US Alaska dialogue 'could still be meaningful' despite tough opening," said the headline on a lead article in the nationalistic Global Times.

What's clear to both sides, analysts said, is that the old playbooks are being torn up with Washington keen to see a results-oriented relationship and the Chinese eager to show they will stand firm in the face of US criticism, especially over human rights.

"In this regard, both sides have accomplished their chief objectives for the meeting," said Zack Cooper, research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. "The fundamental nature of the relationship has changed, and now both sides will understand that more fully."

"This meeting was never about deliverables."

This article originally appeared in the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the most authoritative voice reporting on China and Asia for more than a century. For more SCMP stories, please explore the SCMP app or visit the SCMP's Facebook and Twitter pages. Copyright © 2021 South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

Copyright (c) 2021. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.