The verbal salvos between top American diplomats and their Chinese counterparts seemed more like testosterone-driven exchanges between professional wrestlers at the opening session of the US-China high-level meeting in Anchorage, Alaska, held last Thursday and Friday.
It was the first face-to-face meeting between top American and Chinese diplomats since President Joe Biden took office on January 20.
The Chinese side was led by its top diplomat Yang Jiechi, director of the Central Foreign Affairs Commission Office of the Communist Party of China, and State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi, and the US delegation was led by Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan.
Chinese state media outlets have called the meeting a historic event, and of course, it was a significant event setting the stage for geopolitics and international affairs in the future. It was perhaps the first time US diplomats had had to face such fire and fury from their counterparts publicly since the collapse of the Soviet Union. It was also probably the first time China had challenged American supremacy publicly.
The US State Department released a transcript of the top Chinese diplomats’ opening remarks outlining Beijing’s foreign-policy stance for the near future. Although there was a heated exchange, China drew a “red line” that will be the core element of the geopolitical contest between the world’s two superpower countries in the future.
There are at least seven takeaways for international-relations students from the war of words between two countries.
First, for China, neither the US nor the Western world represents the whole world’s public opinion.
Yang said in his opening remarks, “We hope that when talking about universal values or international public opinion on the part of the United States, we hope the US side will think about whether it feels reassured in saying those things, because the US does not represent the world. It only represents the government of the United States.
“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, 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.”
Second, Beijing neither accepts US interference in China’s internal affairs nor is willing to trade off its core interests such as territorial integrity and sovereignty.
Wang warned, “Xinjiang, Tibet and Taiwan are an inalienable part of China’s territory. China is firmly opposed to US interference in China’s internal affairs. We have expressed our staunch opposition to such interference and we will take firm actions in response.”
Third, the Chinese diplomats expressed stiff disagreement with the US claim over universal norms and values. Refuting Blinken’s claim of the “universal” standards and values of human rights and democracy, Yang said, “Our values are the same as the common values of humanity. Those are: peace, development, fairness, justice, freedom, and democracy.”
He added, “We believe that it is important for the United States to change its own image and to stop advancing its own democracy in the rest of the world.”
For the Chinese, the US versions of democracy and human rights are not universal values. Yang said China would not accept the standards of democracy and human rights imposed by the US. He further said, “the United States has its style – United States-style democracy – and China has Chinese-style democracy.”
Fourth, China neither feels pressure from the US alliance nor accepts the US right to speak on behalf of others.
Responding to the second round of remarks made by Blinken that China has been coercing America’s allies and friends, and Sullivan revealing that the secret of the US success in forging alliances and partnerships was the application of US values, Yang said, “As long as China’s system is right with the wisdom of the Chinese people, there is no way to strangle China. Our history will show that one can only cause damages to himself if he wants to strangle or suppress the Chinese people.”
Adding to this, Wang said, “If the United States would indiscriminately protest and speak up for those countries just because they are your allies or partners, then it will be very difficult for international relations to develop properly.”
He added, “So we don’t think one should be so testy as to accuse some other country of coercion. Who is coercing whom? I think history and the international community will come to their own conclusions.”
Fifth, in China’s view the rule-based international order should be based on the prevailing international law and followed by all. Yang said, “What China and the international community follow or uphold is the United Nations–centered international system and the international order underpinned by international law, not what is advocated by a small number of countries of the so-called ‘rules-based’ international order.”
It seems Yang was referring indirectly to the joint statement of the recent Quad summit. The Chinese bluntly implied that the current American mindset of the “rule-based international order” is based on the notion that “all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others, as illustrated by George Orwell’s novel Animal Farm.
Sixth, the Chinese side said it would tolerate no more humiliation and insults from the US. Wang bluntly said, “In the past several years, China’s legitimate rights and interests have come under outright suppression, plunging the China-US relationship into a period of unprecedented difficulty.
“This situation must no longer continue. China urges the US side to fully abandon the hegemonic practice of willfully interfering in China’s internal affairs. This has been a long-standing issue and it should be changed. It is time for it to change.”
The Chinese diplomats told their US counterparts that the long practice of long-arm jurisdiction and suppression and overstretched national security through the use of force or financial hegemony are over. The US must change its behavior right now.
Last, the Chinese told the American strategists that the US needs China for its economic interest, but China doesn’t need the US now.
Referring to former president Donald Trump’s trade war, Yang said, “We’ve had a confrontation in the past, and the result did not serve the United States well. What did the United States gain from that confrontation? I didn’t see any, and the only result was damages done to the United States. And China will pull through and has pulled through such confrontation.”
The overall Chinese message to the US is straightforward and clear. The American strategists expected that China’s participation in the globalized economic system and with economic and social development would lead to reform such that China resembled the US politically and economically. Instead, after harnessing all the opportunities from the global economic system, China gained confidence that it has the capacity to alter the global economic system to continue its own political system.
Therefore, China has challenged US primacy publicly.