Chinese, US Officials Meet in Alaska Amid 'Gunpowder And Drama'

2021-03-19
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Chinese, US Officials Meet in Alaska Amid 'Gunpowder And Drama' U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken (2nd R), joined by National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan (R), speaks while facing Yang Jiechi (2nd L), director of the Central Foreign Affairs Commission Office, and China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi (L) at the opening session of U.S.-China talks at the Captain Cook Hotel in Anchorage, Alaska, March 18, 2021.
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The United States and China traded barbs in Anchorage, Alaska on Friday ahead of their first top-level diplomatic talks since President Joe Biden took office, with Beijing rejecting criticism of its human rights record.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken confronted his counterpart Wang Yi and Chinese State Councilor Yang Jiechi with criticism of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) polices in Tibet, Hong Kong and Xinjiang, where at least 1.8 million Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities have been sent to "re-education" camps linked to widespread reports of torture, abuse of women and forced labor from former detainees.

“Each of these actions threaten the rules-based order that maintains global stability,” Blinken said of China's actions in Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Taiwan, and of cyber attacks on the United States and economic coercion against U.S. allies.

“That’s why they’re not merely internal matters, and why we feel an obligation to raise these issues here today," he told Yang and Wang during opening remarks ahead of behind-closed-door talks.

China has said the camps are vocational training centers, or places where Muslims are "deradicalized," although the authorities routinely suppress everyday aspects of Islamic practice, including fasting, pilgrimage, study of the Quran, and the wearing of veils and beards.

National security adviser Jake Sullivan said China was engaged in an "assault on basic values."

"We do not seek conflict but we welcome stiff competition," he said.

Foreign minister Wang also hit out at U.S. sanctions on 24 of its senior officials linked to Beijing's dismantling of Hong Kong's electoral system earlier this month.

"Is this a decision made by the United States to try to gain some advantage in dealing with China?" Wang said, saying it "will not shake China’s position or resolve on those issues."

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U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken (R) speaks while facing Yang Jiechi (L), director of the Central Foreign Affairs Commission Office, and China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi (2nd L) at the opening session of U.S.-China talks in Anchorage, Alaska, March 18, 2021.
There is no way to strangle China'
Yang also hit back, saying Washington shouldn't "condescend" to China, nor be so keen to promote its system of governance at a time of great domestic unrest in the U.S.

"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."

"China will not accept unwarranted accusations from the U.S. side ... There is no way to strangle China,” he said. "I think we thought too well of the United States."

Blinken said U.S. allies Japan and South Korea had expressed support for renewed diplomatic engagement under the Biden administration, however.

"I’m hearing deep satisfaction that the United States is back, that we're reengaged,” Blinken, who flew back to the U.S. on Thursday from Seoul. "I’m also hearing deep concern about some of the actions your government is taking."

The State Department said the Chinese delegation had exceeded an agreed two-minute time-limit for opening remarks on each side.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said Yang and Wang had made a "stern" response in response to U.S. provocation.

"It was the U.S. 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," Zhao told a regular news briefing in Beijing.

"It was not the original intention of the Chinese side," he said.

The Associated Press quoted a senior Biden administration official as saying that talks had nonetheless been "substantive, serious and direct" behind closed doors, and lasted longer than the two hours originally scheduled for them.

National pride in play
Zhang Yong, a scholar of international relations from the northern Chinese city of Taiyuan, said Yang and Wang's comments were aimed at a domestic audience.

"The tougher they appear, the more popular they will be, and the more they will be able to stoke feelings of so-called national pride at home, both within CCP ranks and outside the party," Zhang told RFA.

"A tougher foreign policy is the official party line of the CCP now ... we have to be [seen as] strong," he said.

Wu Qiang, former politics lecturer at Tsinghua University in Beijing, said the meeting was a turning point for U.S.-China relations, which are now entering a new cold war era.

"[This meeting] will only convince both sides of how wide and deep the differences between them are," Wu said. "It will likely be a turning point after which China and the United States move towards a new cold war."

"Both sides will step up their long-term preparations after these talks, and Beijing will prepare for a possible war with the United States in the Pacific."

U.S. political scientist Dali Yang said the talks had already worked for China at one level, because they had established a sense that the two sides were sitting down together as equals.

"To a certain extent there was a sense of being on an equal footing with the U.S.," Yang said. 

Uyghurs, who have been encouraged by U.S. policies since 2020 to highlight and sanction abuses in the XUAR, want Washington to press the issue in Alaska, said Dolkun Isa, president of the Germany-based World Uyghur Congress, in a letter to Blinken before the talks.

U.S. responses to rights abuses in the XUAR provide "a great example for the international community," while Washington's official genocide designation in January by former State Secretary Mike Pompeo, endorsed since by the Biden administration, "has been nothing less than a landmark in the international recognition of the Uyghur genocide."

Isa called on Blinken to press China to stop "genocide and crimes against humanity," close the internment camps, unconditionally release all detainees, halt forced labor, allow access by independent observers to the region, and comply with international standards of justice in addressing the issue.

In a sign that Beijing wants to double down on the XUAR repression, China sent politburo member Wang Yang on an inspection tour of the XUAR on the eve of the Alaska meeting, the official Xinhua news agency reported.

Wang, accompanied by XUAR party chief Chen Quanguo, visited the major population centers of Urumchi, Kashgar, Qumul, Turpan, Kizilsu, and Sanji where he urged local officials to wholeheartedly implement the current policies in the region -- measures that the U.S. and others have labelled crimes against humanity and genocide.

Xinhua said Wang urged XUAR to implement the spirit of a hard-line speech by CCP chief Xi Jinping at a recent Xinjiang work conference, where he said repressive policies, including internment camps, are “totally correct” and must continue.

Reported by Qiao Long, Jane Tang and Lau Siu Fung for RFA's Mandarin and Cantonese Services. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.

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