US, China conclude ‘tough’ talks in Alaska, acknowledge deep-seated differences

The Chinese delegation led by Mr Yang Jiechi (centre) and Mr Wang Yi (second from left) speak with their US counterparts in Alaska, on March 18, 2021. PHOTO: AFP
The US delegation led by Mr Antony Blinken (centre) face their Chinese counterparts at the US-China talks in Alaska, on March 18, 2021. PHOTO: REUTERS
Mr Yang Jiechi (left) and Mr Antony Blinken (right) at the opening session of US-China talks in Alaska, on March 18, 2021. PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON - Talks between the United States and China in Alaska concluded on Friday afternoon (March 19), with both sides acknowledging frankly the deep-seated differences between them but expressing hope of cooperation on issues of common interest.

"We expected to have tough and direct talks on a wide range of issues, and that's exactly what we had," National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters in Anchorage, Alaska, after the Chinese delegation departed the hotel conference room.

Standing beside Mr Sullivan, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that China's actions in Xinjiang, Hong Kong, Tibet and Taiwan, as well as its cyber attacks, were areas "where we are fundamentally at odds".

"It's no surprise that when we raised those issues, clearly and directly, we got a defensive response," said Mr Blinken.

But he also identified areas where America and China can work together, saying that they had intersecting interests on Iran, North Korea, Afghanistan and climate change.

"On economics, on trade, on technology, we told our counterparts that we are reviewing these issues with close consultation with Congress, with our allies and partners," Mr Blinken added.

All these are areas in which America imposed sanctions, tariffs, or other restrictions on China under the previous Trump administration, policies that the Biden administration must now decide how to proceed on.

China's top diplomat Yang Jiechi separately told the media that the talks were "candid, constructive and beneficial", but that "of course, there are still differences between the two sides."

"China will firmly safeguard its national sovereignty, security, and development," Mr Yang said, according to footage from the state-owned China Global Television Network (CGTN).

Speaking after Mr Yang, China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi said they had told the US once again that China's sovereignty was a matter of principle.

"We hope the US will not underestimate China's determination to defend its territory, to safeguard its people, and to maintain its interests," said Mr Wang.

The relatively conciliatory tone of Friday's comments was a turnaround from the public criticisms that Washington and Beijing levelled at each other on Thursday, the first day of the talks.

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The US said China's actions destabilised the international rules-based order, while China highlighted Washington's own human rights record and accused it of hypocrisy.

The US later condemned China's harsh words as grandstanding while China slammed America for being unreasonable in speaking for longer than initially agreed upon. But the mood appeared to improve behind closed doors.

Mr Biden later indicated he was on the same page as Mr Blinken, telling reporters before he departed on a visit to Atlanta that he was "very proud of the secretary of state".

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"The American side felt that they had to make clear that they were going to speak out about things that concern Americans, regardless of whether Beijing wanted to hear those messages or not. And clearly, the Chinese side felt the same," said American Enterprise Institute research fellow Zack Cooper.

In this regard, the talks were never about breakthroughs but about each side taking the measure of the other and making clear their positions and lines in the sand, experts said.

"The American side felt that it was important to test whether Beijing is willing to negotiate in good faith on issues that are important to the United States," said Dr Cooper.

But "deeds, not words" has been a watchword of the Biden team, and they have made clear that they will base their assessment of the US-China relationship, "not on whether the meetings are cordial, but on whether they get results out of the meetings", said Dr Cooper.

"That's frankly a pretty big change from the way that the US has often approached these engagements. I think that's the right approach," he said.

"But we're in for a more tense relationship than has tended to be over the last few decades."

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