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U.S.-China Talks In Alaska Get Off To A Testy Start

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Talks between U.S. and Chinese officials in Anchorage, Alaska, got off to a testy start today. They're the first Cabinet-level meetings between the two countries since President Biden took office. And to get us the latest, we're now joined by NPR China correspondent John Ruwitch.

Hey, John.

JOHN RUWITCH, BYLINE: Hi, Ailsa.

CHANG: So what exactly happened today?

RUWITCH: In opening remarks, Secretary of State Antony Blinken laid out America's concerns with Chinese policy right at the top of the meeting. And those include issues that they've talked about a lot, from Hong Kong to Taiwan, Xinjiang, cybersecurity and what he called economic coercion. And he said China's actions threaten the rules-based order that maintains global stability. Jake Sullivan, who was also there - the national security adviser - chimed in, and he said the U.S. would stand up for its principles and friends.

CHANG: OK, a lot of sensitive issues came up. This obviously sounds like a pretty blunt way to start a meeting. How did the Chinese delegation respond?

RUWITCH: The Chinese team was not having any of it, and they seemed to come prepared to hit right back. Yang Jiechi, who's the No. 1 foreign policy official in China - he's a Politburo member - accused the U.S. of using its military and economic might to suppress other countries. And he also blasted what he called America's struggling democracy and poor treatment of minorities. And he said America should really focus on getting its own house in order rather than pointing fingers. He also had this new comment on cyberattacks, which was interesting, and he called the U.S. the champion in that regard.

After the exchange, a senior Biden administration official told reporters that the Chinese delegation appeared intent on grandstanding, and they were focused on public theatrics and dramatics over substance. And what was kind of interesting about all this is that normally, journalists hear a couple of minutes at the top of a meeting like this. It's mostly a photo op. But there were multiple times during this exchange where journalists were called back into the room by one side or the other so they could air their grievances for all the world to hear.

CHANG: Wow. I mean, did we expect things to get this testy so soon?

RUWITCH: Maybe not this testy, but things have been pretty frosty between the two sides for the better part of a year. I mean, the relationship really tanked during the Trump administration, and there were hopes that the Biden team would shift gears. And so far, though, they haven't really done anything to undo, you know, any of Trump's policies. They've been just about as tough on China as Trump was. In the last couple of weeks alone, they've accelerated outreach to allies and friends to coordinate on China policy, which was, you know, something that's destined to make China unhappy. Before this meeting, Secretary Blinken was in Seoul and before that, Tokyo, where he and his Japanese counterpart put out a pretty tough statement that mentioned China, which is rare for Japan. And then just yesterday, the U.S. side put fresh sanctions on about two dozen Chinese and Hong Kong officials for eroding Hong Kong's democracy and autonomy. When Wang Yi, the Chinese foreign minister, spoke during this meeting, he picked up that point. And he pointedly said that that's no way to welcome guests.

CHANG: OK, so if this is where the two countries are already, where do we go from here?

RUWITCH: Yeah. Well, this was just the start of these meetings. There's supposed to be three fairly long sessions. They're going to continue tomorrow morning. The U.S. side has said, you know, they're hoping for meaningful dialogue with the Chinese here. The Biden administration has been pretty clear that they see the U.S. as being in competition with China, but they also want to cooperate where possible. And as for this meeting in particular, I think, administration officials have said they're not expecting deliverables, right? It's not the start of a new series of talks or a dialogue, and there won't be a joint statement.

CHANG: OK. Well, what about the Chinese government? I mean, what were they expecting to get out of all of this?

RUWITCH: Despite the strong words today, Chinese officials have been pretty open in expressing hope that the relationship can get back on an even keel after the tumult of the Trump years. Officials in China have also said, as the U.S. have said, that the two sides should cooperate where possible and manage their differences appropriately. I mean, the question, I guess, is whether or not they can get beyond recriminations and finger-pointing at this stage, which may be a challenge. The Biden administration wants to deal with China from a position of strength, flanked by allies. China's ruling Communist Party is increasingly self-confident. It believes history is on its side, and it's willing to stand its ground. And so, you know, this initial exchange perhaps points to challenges that lie ahead for the two countries in managing the relationship.

CHANG: That is NPR China correspondent John Ruwitch reporting from the San Francisco Bay Area. Thank you.

RUWITCH: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.