The March 18 Anchorage meeting between U.S. and China diplomats got bad press, and for good reason. The opening session, televised for the world to see, was highly disputatious. The opening remarks were more like salvos, testing the enemy’s defenses. The follow-up remarks were unscripted and went way over time, aggravating both parties and the media, which was removed and then re-allowed entry. Pity the poor interpreters scrambling to keep up with the diatribe.
The good news about the testy Alaskan talks on March 18, 2021 is that both sides felt free to throw down markers and establish rhetorical lines in the sand that could be later redrawn and deemed a diplomatic success. The bombast alone did not blow a détente out of the water, and talks continued. Not unlike a Machiavellian business negotiation, each side asked for, indeed, demanded, more than it could realistically hope to get.
Beyond the smoke, rubble and detritus of a meeting described as “reeking of gunpowder and drama” by China’s foreign ministry spokesman, was the necessary human drama of two sides engaging one another. It was more about strutting one’s stuff than an intimate tango, but even a cock-of-the-walk gives one a chance to size up a rival and make subsequent calculations accordingly.
Behind all the bluster, faking and strategic feints, there had to be, for both sides, a growing appreciation that behind the stubborn facade was a rival worthy of respect, even if no one went out of their way to express respect. It was a preliminary, a testing of the waters, a scrimmage before the game.
And as such, it could be deemed a qualified success. Both sides were in a fundamental way playing to the home audience, and it’s hard not to do so when the television cameras are rolling. As for what took place later, behind closed doors, reports have been tight-lipped, though not at all grim. It’s one thing to talk tough in front of the camera, but another to roll up shirt sleeves and negotiate weighty matters in private.
Both happened in Alaska and the yin and yang of the public and private meetings that followed will set the tone for future interaction. It’s a bit like athletes trash-talking before a big game, the main purpose of which is to rile up and align fans. In contrast, the game that follows is subject to a strict etiquette by which each side is under advisement to keep the theatrics to a minimum and get down to the basics of engaging on the field. Diplomatic duels, no less than a fencing match or other athletic contests, are subject to a complex arcana of rules and regulations.
Yang Jiechi, one of China’s most respected diplomats, brought a bit of drama to what might have otherwise been a dull, interminable meeting of masked men facing off across the cheap carpet of a second rate conference hall when he departed from prepared comments to vocalize a few inconvenient truths about America’s blood-ridden imperial history.
This is somewhat out of character for Yang, who is known for keeping an even keel throughout most of his long career. He can be dispassionate when called for, such as during the tense negotiations that followed the April 1, 2001, clash in the sky between a U.S. spy plane and a Chinese jet fighter.
The mutual mid-air taunting off Hainan Island, in which the U.S. flew provocatively close to Chinese military installations and the Chinese responded by sending up a hot-dog jet pilot, tragically resulted in the pilot’s death and the downing of the U.S. plane. Some analysts fully expected a shooting war to follow, but calmer heads prevailed on both sides and Yang Jiechi was a key contributor to the de-escalation of tensions.
So, the outset of the Alaska meeting in which this hard-to-ruffle diplomat was practically trembling with visible agitation could have been the beginning of the end instead of the end of the beginning. But both sides, professionals to the core, said what they felt necessary, and have since retreated into boilerplate comities allowing for tempers to cool.
What the Chinese regarded, with some justification, as a rude welcome full of snubs, slights and ritual humiliations was almost a non-starter, and the displeasure was duly noted.
“The United States does not have the qualification to say that it wants to speak to China from a position of strength,” complained Yang Jiechi, who in the early years of his long and respected career, showed a great deal of enthusiasm for America. He was known to be close to the Bush family and served as China’s ambassador in Washington from 2001-2005. Although he attended college in England, his daughter went to Yale. He was also the foreign minister of China from 2007-2013.
Now a member of the Politburo, Yang has a voice that carries at home and abroad. He knows when to hold and when to fold, he can turn it on and off. Arguably the only Politburo member who really understands America, it is shocking to hear him essentially exclaim, “You aren’t nearly as good as we thought you were!”
This was Yang’s reaction to the “non-welcome welcome” from U.S. Secretary of State Blinken who started things off by chastising China for falling short of U.S. standards and urging it to get in alignment with U.S. norms, because the U.S. sees U.S. norms as the gold standard for the rules-based international order.
What does a grizzled diplomat say to a narcissistic host who is neither gracious nor accommodating nor particularly wise?
“Zhongguo ren bu chi zhe yi tao!”
Those seemingly innocuous words, a hard-to-translate idiom, can carry a great deal of heat.
In essence, Yang summed up the collective frustration of his side by saying:
“The Chinese people will not put up with this BS anymore!”
Already, T-shirts are being printed and sold online with this memorably cryptic expression on it.
Yang’s piquant statement cut through the propagandistic pabulum prepared in advance by both sides and cut to the core of the matter.
The Xinhua read-out of the meeting offered predictably bland, boilerplate rhetoric:
“The essence of China-U.S. relations is of mutual benefit and win-win results, rather than a zero-sum game. The two countries will gain from cooperation and lose from confrontation.”
Yang’s eight-syllable quip contained more information than reams of Xinhua commentary.
Both sides started out with prepared statements packed with self-referential feel-good phrases but then tempers flared and the conversation heated, and maybe that’s not such a bad thing.
“Bu da bu cheng jiao” is a Chinese expression meaning “It takes a fight to get to know each other.” Or, to put it more succinctly: “No fight, no friendship.”
Antony Blinken and Jake Sullivan went to great lengths to wag the finger at China for not abiding by the American way. Yang, who lived in DC for four years, and Wang Yi, a suave diplomat, wagged the finger back.
The exchange of snubs and insults might have resulted in talks being called off, but it didn’t. Nobody walked out, and the talks continued. Both sides deserve credit for this restraint and maturity, which hints that a real dialogue has begun.
“It takes a fight to get to know each other,” echoes the cry, but it is not a battle cry.
It’s a homespun way of saying it’s time to cut the BS, get past differences and get down to serious business.