China’s Sharp Words in Alaska Signal its More Confident Posture

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The Biden administration’s strategy to curb Beijing’s behavior faces a stiff challenge as China uses its economic, diplomatic and military might to deflect criticism.

The extraordinary rancor aired by China’s top diplomats in Alaska was a manifestation of a newly combative and unapologetic China, one increasingly unbowed by diplomatic pressure from American presidential administrations.

Just as American views on China have shifted after years of encouraging the country’s economic integration, so have Beijing’s perceptions of the United States and the privileged place in the world that it has long held. The Americans, in their view, no longer have an overwhelming reservoir of global influence, nor the power to wield it against China.

That has made China more confident than it once was in pursuing its aims openly and unabashedly — from human rights issues in Hong Kong and Xinjiang to the territorial disputes with India and Japan and others in South China Sea to, most contentiously of all, the fate of Taiwan, the self-governing democracy that China claims as its own.

While China still faces enormous challenges at home and around the world, its leaders now act as if history were on their side.

China’s top diplomat, Yang Jiechi, delivered a 16-minute jeremiad in Anchorage at the top of a meeting with Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken and President Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, accusing them of condescension and hypocrisy.

Mr. Yang accused Mr. Blinken, center, and President Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, right, of condescension and hypocrisy.
Pool photo by Frederic J. Brown

Chinese officials and experts have recently espoused this new view in speeches and articles, said Kevin Rudd, the former prime minister of Australia and now head of the Asia Society, a New York-based nonprofit.

“We see a hardening and sharpening of the language,” he said in a conference call on Friday as the delegations met. That, he added, reflects “an underlying confidence that China’s time has come and an underlying belief that the U.S. and the West are now in a form of irreversible decline.”

China’s more aggressive diplomatic posture is likely to inflame tensions with the United States, which has itself declared China as a national security rival. China’s hardening views have already surfaced in activity along its borders and in its surrounding waters, where it fought Indian troops last year and menaced ships from several countries, including Japan, Malaysia and Vietnam.

That has led to warnings of the potential for dangerous escalation. “We’re not predicting that there will be a war between the United States and China over Taiwan, but we are worried about it,” Robert D. Blackwill, a fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations and co-author of a new report on the issue, said on Thursday.

Meetings between the Chinese and the Americans have been testy before, but the balance of power between the two countries has changed.

For decades, China approached American governments from positions of weakness, economically and militarily. That forced it at times to accede to American demands, however grudgingly, whether it was to release detained human-rights advocates or to accept Washington’s conditions for joining the World Trade Organization.

China today feels far more assured in its ability to challenge the United States and push for its own vision of international cooperation. It is a confidence embraced by China’s leader since 2012, Xi Jinping, who has used the phrase, “the East is rising, and the West is declining.”

Ng Han Guan/Associated Press

Beijing’s view has been reinforced by the coronavirus epidemic, which China has largely tamed at home, and the internal political divisions roiling the United States. Mr. Yang singled both out in his remarks on Thursday.

“The challenges facing the United States in human rights are deep-seated,” Mr. Yang said, citing the Black Lives Matter movement against police brutality. “It’s important that we manage our respective affairs well instead of deflecting the blame on somebody else in this world.”

The shift in China’s strategy is not simply rhetorical, or “grandstanding” for a domestic audience, as a senior official traveling with Mr. Blinken suggested.

On the litany of issues Mr. Blinken has raised before and during the talks — from Hong Kong to Xinjiang, from human rights to tech — China’s leaders have refused to give any ground. They have done so despite international criticism and even intensifying punitive measures imposed by the Trump and, now, Biden administrations.

In the latest round, the State Department announced this week that it would impose sanctions on 24 Chinese officials for their role in eroding Hong Kong’s electoral system. The timing of the move, just as the Chinese were preparing to depart for Alaska, contributed to the acrimony.

“This is not supposed to be the way one welcomes his guests,” China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, said in remarks in Alaska that were equally pointed as Mr. Yang’s.

Pool photo by Frederic J. Brown

The Biden administration’s stated strategy for dealing with China has been to build coalitions of countries to confront and deter its behavior. Mr. Biden’s team has argued that while President Trump correctly diagnosed China as a rising threat, his erratic policies and mistreatment of allies undercut the effort to counter it.

How successful that strategy will be remains to be seen, but China has in recent years acted as if it were impervious to outrage over its actions, making the task all the more challenging.

For example, the outpouring of international condemnation over the imposition last year of a new national security law to restrict dissent in Hong Kong did nothing to halt a new law this year dismantling the territory’s electoral system.

China also chose Friday to begin its trials of two Canadians who were arrested more than two years ago and charged with espionage in what was widely seen as retaliation for the American effort to extradite a senior executive from Huawei, the telecommunications giant, for fraud involving sales to Iran.

It was striking that Mr. Yang, a veteran diplomat and a member of the ruling Politburo of the Communist Party of China, used his remarks to say that neither the United States nor the West broadly had a monopoly on international public opinion.

That is a view reflected in China’s successful efforts to use international forums like the United Nations Human Rights Council to counter condemnation over policies like the mass detention and re-education programs in Xinjiang, the predominately Muslim region in western China.

“I don’t think 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,” Mr. Yang said. “And those countries would not recognize that the rules made by a small number of people would serve as the basis for the international order.”

Greg Baker/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Mr. Yang also took issue with Mr. Blinken’s assertion that he had recently heard concerns from American allies about coercive Chinese behavior. He noted that the two countries Mr. Blinken just visited — Japan and South Korea — were China’s second and third biggest trading partners, flaunting the growing sway of its economic might.

The confrontation played well with the domestic audience in China, judging by the reactions on the country’s carefully censored social media sites. “Nowadays, who else but China would dare to put the United States in a corner like this on American territory?” one user on Weibo wrote approvingly under a video of Mr. Yang’s remarks.

While American officials said the temperature of the meetings in Alaska went down behind closed doors, few officials or experts on either side are hopeful of a significant improvement in relations. The talks are scheduled to continue for another round on Friday.

“On the whole, this negotiation is only for the two sides to put all the cards on the table, for the two sides to recognize how big and deep each other’s differences are,” said Wu Qiang, an independent political analyst in Beijing, “But in fact, it will not help to bring about any reconciliation or any mitigation.”

Chris Buckley in Sydney and Lara Jakes in Anchorage contributed reporting, and Claire Fu contributed research.

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