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The first talks between Beijing and the Biden administration concluded Friday in Anchorage, Alaska. Although both sides labeled them constructive, there was no shortage of tough and candid words. Susan Thornton, an American diplomat who formerly served as the assistant secretary for East Asian and Pacific affairs, and Stanford University's Elizabeth Economy join Nick Schifrin to discuss.
The first meeting between Beijing and the Biden administration concluded today in Anchorage, with both sides calling the discussions constructive.
But, as Nick Schifrin reports, the talks began with tough and candid words right from the opening moment.
Thank you very much for making the journey to meet with us.
It was supposed to be a short photo-op, Secretary of State Tony Blinken and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan opposite China's top diplomats, Yang Jiechi and Wang Yi.
But, immediately and over three 2.5-hour sessions across two days, the U.S. criticized what it considers Chinese misbehavior, the internment of Muslim Uyghurs, the destruction of Hong Kong democracy, increased threats to Taiwan, coercing U.S. allies, including the trial of a Canadian today in secret behind police guard, and cyberattacks.
Each of these actions threaten the rules-based order that maintains global stability. That's why they're not merely internal matters, and why we feel an obligation to raise these issues here today.
In response, Yang used his two-minute allotment to spend 16 minutes accusing the U.S. of hypocrisy.
Yang Jiechi (through translator):
Many people within the U.S. actually have little confidence in the democracy of the United States. The challenges facing the U.S. in human rights are deep-seated. They did not just emerge over the past four years, such as Black Lives Matter.
Hold on one second, please.
Blinken then changed the plan, and told the media to stay, so he could respond on camera.
It's never a good bet to bet against America.
At that point, the U.S. camera left. The Chinese objected, and called for the cameras to return to resume the tit for tat.
One can only cause damage to himself if he tries to strangle or suppress the Chinese people.
Yang's unabashed willingness to confront reflects President Xi Jinping's unwillingness to change behavior because of international pressure.
Xi calls for China to — quote — "stand tall in the East" and has dramatically modernized China's military. The diplomats fronting that policy are called Wolf Warriors, after the movie series where a former Chinese soldier wins the day and kills the American villain.
Actor and director Wu Jing told us in 2019 the film's nationalism reflects Beijing's refusal to abide Western criticism.
Wu Jing (through translator):
In Chinese modern history, China has been bullied for a long time.
We can't continue to allow China to rape our country, and that's what they're doing.
But the U.S. is also more confrontational. Many Trump administration initiatives remain in place, billions of dollars of tariffs, restrictions that go into effect on Monday on U.S. companies selling technology to Chinese companies, and sanctions over Hong Kong's crackdown, including 24 new sanctions just 40 hours before the meeting began.
Following the meetings, the Chinese said there were differences, but:
Man (through translator):
Strategic dialogue is direct, frank, and constructive. It's very conductive to the relations between the two sides.
Blinken said the U.S. and China could cooperate, even as Beijing rejected the U.S.' handful of criticisms, from Xinjiang to cyberspace.
It's no surprise that, when we raised those issues clearly and directly, we got a defensive response.
But we were also able to have a very candid conversation over these many hours on an expansive agenda. On Iran, on North Korea, on Afghanistan, on climate, our interests intersect.
And for more on the meeting in Anchorage and overall U.S.-China policy, we turn to two views.
Susan Thornton, first, had a 28-year career as an American diplomat, most recently as acting assistant secretary for East Asian and Pacific affairs during the Trump administration. She is now a visiting lecturer at Yale Law School. And Elizabeth Economy, a senior fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution, her most recent book is "The Third Revolution: Xi Jinping and the New Chinese State."
Welcome back to "NewsHour" to both of you.
Susan Thornton, let me start with you.
You heard right at the end there both diplomats suggest that these talks were constructive, despite the tone at the beginning. Do you support that?
Yes, I think this meeting was about restarting diplomacy with China after a four-year hiatus, basically, under the previous administration.
And you do diplomacy to engage counterparts in private to try to find a way forward on areas where you have overlapping interests. And Secretary Blinken mentioned there at the end a number of areas, North Korea, Afghanistan, Iran, climate change, where there are overlapping interests.
And to sit together with the other side and find out where those areas are and a way forward, that's the art of the goal. So I think that the circus in front of the cameras to start off was a bit unfortunate. I am not sure that that is necessarily a productive way to start this off, but it looks like they were able to savor something for the end.
Liz Economy, are these meetings about overlapping interests? And were the beginning of the meeting unproductive?
I actually have a slightly different view from Susan.
I think, yes, there was some objective of trying to find some common ground and common purpose. But I think at least the White House pretty clearly stated up front that they saw this opportunity to sort of lay out the U.S. position, how it was approaching China, sort of the foundational principles of the U.S.-China relationship, one rooted in values and alliances and multilateral institutions, and also an opportunity to share some pretty significant areas of concern, I think, around human rights and regional security.
So, I think, yes, there are some areas of common purpose and common ground, but even in those areas, let's face it, we are talking about high-level agreement on things like North Korea and Afghanistan and Iran. The path to getting actual constructive cooperation will be much more challenging.
I do think climate offers a real opportunity, but I see it a little bit differently, I would say, from Susan.
Susan Thornton, as Liz Economy was just saying, part of this was the Biden administration saying that they wanted to lay out their priorities. Many of those mirror some of the Trump policies.
And the Biden team talks about confronting China from a position of strength, a reference to the domestic economy and allies. Do you support that approach?
Well, I guess what I would say is that the laying out of our concerns with China has been done over and over again in public for the last five years. So, I don't think there is much point in flying all the way to Alaska and sitting down, risking COVID protocols, et cetera, to just lay out again our concerns.
The Chinese are well aware of the concerns. And they made it pretty clear what they think of those and have over the past many years. And it has not changed. And it doesn't really get you anywhere, I would say.
So, I think the point of going to Alaska, again, is to get into private conversations to figure out how to manage the differences, how to engage in dialogue where you can find progress on areas, and to figure out where the overlapping areas of cooperation are. And I don't know how much progress we made on that, but I hope we made some.
The issue about kind of coming at it from a position of strength, I mean, my preference would be — and, frankly, maybe it is because I live in a rural part of the country where people just get stuff done, but I really think we need to calm down a bit about China.
I don't think that China is 10 feet tall. I don't think America is going anywhere. And I think there is a lot of miscommunication going on, on both sides. But the best way to deal with China is just to get into the details and start working.
Less talking and more doing, that would be my preference for dealing with the issues.
Liz Economy, take on those two points, that there is no point in flying to Alaska to air grievances publicly, and that China is not 10 feet tall.
So, I think again that the point is not simply to air grievances, but really to say, this is how we are going on approaching this relationship, right? This is fundamentally different than the Trump administration tackled the issue.
Again, this is an administration that has sort of outlined a strong commitment to values, to American values, to alliances and to multilateral institutions. So, all three things represent a fairly significant break from what has come before.
In terms of whether China is 10 feet tall, no, I agree with Susan it is not 10 feet tall. But I do think that Xi Jinping presents a vision of a reordered world order. It's — China has a sense that it wants to reconstitute the very geographic construct of its own country, right?
It wants to claim Taiwan. It wants a wide swathe of the South China Sea. It wants the United States out of East Asia as the dominant power. It wants its own values and technologies and political interests sort of embedded in other countries.
And Xi Jinping has talked about leading the reform of the local governance system. So he really does have a different vision of what this world is supposed to look like over the next 10, 20 and 30 years. And so it may not be 10 feet tall, but I think its vision is definitely 10 feet tall and does require us to understand where he wants to take China and what that means for the United States and our interests.
I'm sorry to ask you this in advance. I only have one minute left.
So, in 30 seconds, do you believe that China is a fundamentally different country under Xi Jinping?
I think that there is a lot of continuity that we see with Xi Jinping. And I am not that surprised by anything we see in China.
There's — it is not coming out of the blue. Certainly, there has been regression on human rights and in a lot of practices domestically, in China's domestic politics, certainly now also vis-a-vis the United States. They are starting to pursue a policy of indigenization of their technological industries.
But I think, in general, the error that the U.S. makes is in thinking that we are going to have some kind of fundamental way of changing China. I personally don't think China represents an existential threat. I think we need learn to live with China and coexist. They are not going anywhere, but we are probably not going to be able to change them fundamentally.
Liz Economy, sorry, 30 seconds.
China is not an existential threat.
China is pretty close to an existential threat. I agree we're probably not going to be able to change China until China inside itself wants to change. But we can work with our allies and partners to constrain China and to push back where it actually does challenge our fundamental interests.
Susan Thornton, Liz Economy, thank you very much.
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