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Foreign Policy

A Hot Exchange in Cold Alaska

Mar 25, 2021
  • David Shambaugh

    Professor of Asian Studies, Political Science & International Affairs, Director of the China Policy Program,George Washington University

The temperature was 14 degrees Fahrenheit (-10 Celsius) outside when the most senior diplomats from the United States and China sat down at the Hotel Captain Cook in Anchorage, Alaska on March 19—but the political temperature inside was scalding hot. What normally begins with a perfunctory exchange of greetings and generalized statements about the importance of the relations before permitted journalists and television cameras (known as a “press spray”), quickly descended into an acerbic war of words between the two sides. 

That the two sides hold deep and significant differences over an expansive range of issues is no secret. It was certainly anticipated that the scheduled exchange would be tough and likely acrimonious. That much was predictable not only because of the chasm of differences, but because Secretary of State Antony Blinken had publicly signaled in advance that the American side was going to detail its discontent over an expansive range of China’s behavior (internal and external). Beijing knew in advance what was coming (whether it was wise to have signaled it so publicly in advance is debatable)—but the Chinese side knew it was walking into an antagonistic and confrontational meeting. And they came prepared for such. 

Secretary Blinken and National Security Advisor Sullivan opened with (the agreed to) ten minutes of rather anodyne and boilerplate introductory statements—the toughest sentence of which came from Blinken: “We’ll also discuss our deep concerns with actions by China, including in Xinjiang, Hong Kong, Taiwan, cyberattacks on the United States, and economic coercion towards our allies.” 

Politburo member and most senior Chinese diplomat Yang Jiechi then countered with an expansive, 17 minute statement—in which he also offered standard boilerplate language concerning China’s diplomatic principles and recent events in China (the recent parliamentary “two sessions” and 14th Five-Year Plan). But Yang also seized the opportunity to lecture (in six separate and searing paragraphs) the Americans about the multiple shortcomings of the United States. 

Yang’s blistering statement has been widely reported in the media around the world (and to great acclaim inside China). It included sharp accusations and critiques of U.S. democracy, Washington’s “cold war mentality”, America’s own human rights problems (as epitomized by the Black Lives Matter movement), invasions, use of force, and “massacre the peoples of other countries”, “long-arm jurisdiction and suppression…through the use of force or financial hegemony.” Yang concluded with a claim that, “I don’t think that the overwhelming majority of countries in the world would recognize that the universal values advocated by the United States or that the opinion of the United States could represent international public opinion.” 

After Yang completed his scathing critique, State Councilor Wang Yi embellished further by accusing the American side of not following normal etiquette as hosts, having slapped further sanctions on Chinese and Hong Kong officials the day before. Wang then threw down the gauntlet: “China has not in the past, and will not in the future, accept unwarranted accusations from the U.S. side. China’s legitimate rights and interests have come under outright suppression… China urges the U.S. side to fully abandon the hegemonic practice of willfully interfering in China’s internal affairs.” 

Such a scolding has likely been given by Chinese officials to their American counterparts many times in the past, including by Wang Yi and Yang Jiechi (who is known in diplomatic circles as “Tiger Yang”)—but the Big Difference this time was that it was done publicly in front of television cameras for the world to see and hear live in real time. What the world saw and heard was the “new China”—a much more confident, combative, assertive, and acerbic diplomatic style than in the past (which has been described as “wolf warrior diplomacy”). 

Yang’s and Wang’s extended remarks were met with brief rejoinders from Blinken and Sullivan, in which they acknowledged American “imperfections, ”before the cameras were ushered out of the room. Neither side provided any real readouts about the subsequent two days of closed-door sessions, but both described the talks as “candid, frank, and constructive”—diplospeak for tough and disagreeable exchanges. Nonetheless, the two sides did discuss areas of the world and issues on which their mutual interest intersect and where there is better possibility of cooperation or at least coordination: concerning Iran, North Korea, and climate change. 

What these heated exchanges in frigid Alaska also reveal is a deep difference in the two political cultures. On the Chinese side, three things were exemplified in Yang’s and Wang’s remarks. First, the insistence and paramount importance of maintaining “face” in public. The American side “shamed” China publicly in Secretary Blinken’s opening remarks—such public embarrassment is intolerable in Chinese society and culture. Second, the 1949 Chinese communist revolution had at its core the regaining of self-respect and self-dignity in the eyes of foreigners (notably the West), and it is on this basis that China has insisted on being treated with respect and equality. Blinken’s remarks were interpreted as culturally condescending by the Chinese side. Third, given China’s newfound wealth and power, it is no longer willing to even tolerate discussions with foreigners about what it defines as its “internal affairs.” 

On the U.S. side, American political culture also explains a lot. When Americans have differences with others (including other Americans) it is believed that transparently, even publicly, airing those differences is the best way to deal with them. Second, the Biden administration deeply believes in the post-World War II “liberal international order” and is basing its foreign policy on rebuilding and strengthening that order. At the heart of it lies defending liberal and democratic values. Third, Americans believe in resisting other nations that seek to challenge and contest the leading U.S. international position in the world. These factors animated the U.S. side’s posture in Anchorage. 

If the United States and China are going to be able to manage their increasingly fraught relationship and full-scope competition in the future, both sides need to look beyond the issues on the agenda and give greater consideration deeper cultural drivers that animate the ways in each side thinks of itself and thus approaches the other.

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