A divisive exchange between senior foreign policy officials exposes the deepening distrust between the powers.
By William Mauldin
ANCHORAGE, Alaska—High-level talks between the Biden administration and Beijing that veered into acrimony put the U.S.-China rivalry in sharp relief, complicating efforts by the two powers to erect guardrails and keep tensions from spiraling further.
The two-day meetings, which ended Friday, covered an array of issues that over the past year sent U.S.-China relations to their most unsteady point in decades: China’s clampdown on Hong Kong, repression of Muslims in Xinjiang and aggressive behavior with its neighbors. The two sides also explored some areas of hoped-for common ground.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken told reporters afterward that the governments “are fundamentally at odds” on issues such as Hong Kong and cyberattacks, though interests intersect on Iran, North Korea, Afghanistan and climate change.
“We were clear-eyed coming in, we’re clear-eyed coming out, and we will go back to Washington to take stock of where we are,” national security adviser Jake Sullivan said.
Yang Jiechi, China’s senior-most foreign-policy official, also noted “important disagreements” remained, and in remarks to Chinese state media suggested Beijing wouldn’t back down. “China will unswervingly defend its national sovereignty, security and development interests. China’s development and strengthening is unstoppable,” said Mr. Yang.
The talks were the first under the Biden administration and tested its strategy to compartmentalize the countries’ relationship into what Mr. Blinken said are competitive, collaborative and adversarial components.
To that end, in the week ahead of the talks, the Biden administration rallied support among allies in Asia and imposed sanctions on senior Chinese legislators—moves that in part sparked Beijing’s anger as the talks opened Thursday.
In his opening remarks, Mr. Blinken launched into China’s cyberattacks, its threats against Taiwan and others, and its clampdowns in Xinjiang and Hong Kong as “threatening the rules-based order that maintains global stability.”
Mr. Yang, in turn, criticized the U.S. for undermining global stability by using force around the world, and he said the U.S. doesn’t serve as a model to others. He listed the U.S.’s problems with racism, mentioning the Black Lives Matter movement, and declining domestic confidence in U.S. democracy.
Although U.S. officials played down the public sparring, the divisiveness, on display in front of reporters, exposed a deepening distrust between the two governments that is likely to make cooperation more difficult.
“Anyone who was hoping there would be a significant de-escalation—largely people in the business community—can see that’s not going to be possible, at least in the near term,” said Allison Sherlock, a China analyst at the consultancy Eurasia Group.
On Friday in their last meeting, Messrs. Blinken and Sullivan and Mr. Yang and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi gathered with a smaller group of aides to try to set up a way to manage difficulties ahead, officials said.
Foreign-policy specialists said the acrimony shows shifting perceptions that each has about the balance of power between the two nations, increasing the likelihood of miscalculation and conflicts over hot spots like control of critical technologies and China’s claims against Taiwan and Japan and in the South China Sea.
A new target is the U.S. electric-vehicle maker Tesla Inc. China’s government is restricting use of Tesla vehicles by members of the Chinese military and employees in sensitive posts in government and business, citing national-security concerns over data collected by the cars, according to people familiar with the effort.
Both governments face pressing domestic issues, giving them reason to try to limit costly confrontation. President Biden has placed priority on reining in the pandemic and shoring up the recovery in the Covid-19-battered economy. In dealing with China, administration officials said it will band together with allies to give the U.S. what the White House on Thursday called “a place of strength.”
Chinese President Xi Jinping is also trying to bolster the Chinese economy, as he prepares for a pivotal period in his control over the Communist Party. He is expected to seek a third term as party leader next year and can ill afford a full-blown crisis with the U.S. in the run-up.
Still, he and other officials have in recent months played up perceptions that “the East is rising and the West is declining,” citing the Communist Party’s perceived superiority in governance.
Mr. Yang, a member of the party’s ruling body, channeled that sentiment in responding to Mr. Blinken on Thursday. “The United States does not have the qualification to say that it wants to speak to China from a position of strength,” Mr. Yang said. He accused the U.S. of being condescending and waved his finger at Mr. Blinken and Mr. Sullivan.
Mr. Yang’s remarks drew plaudits in China, where they were circulated on social and mainstream media.
People’s Daily, the Communist Party’s flagship newspaper, posted a warning to the U.S. on several of its social-media accounts in English and Chinese, to “stop interfering in China’s internal affairs” and, echoing Mr. Yang, said: “The U.S. is not qualified to talk to China in such a condescending way.”
U.S. officials accused Mr. Yang of grandstanding for a domestic audience and said Mr. Blinken and Mr. Sullivan continued to engage their Chinese interlocutors on substance.
“We will still have business to conduct,” Karine Jean-Pierre, the White House’s principal deputy press secretary, told reporters. “America’s approach will be undergirded by confidence in our dealing with Beijing.”
Still, the thrust of Mr. Yang’s remarks presages difficult dealings ahead, said Michael Pillsbury, a China expert at the Hudson Institute, a conservative think tank, who advised the Trump administration on China.
“The tone seems to be different. Now China is not just equal to us, they are superior,” said Mr. Pillsbury. He said the U.S. needs to find more leverage over China.
A key part of the Biden strategy to compete with Beijing—working with U.S. allies—also angers Beijing, which sees the alliances as central to U.S.’s effort to constrain China’s ascent and limit its influence. Beijing has over the past year escalated tensions with U.S. allies such as Japan and Australia and other U.S. partners such as Taiwan and India, whose troops clashed with Chinese forces along their Himalayan border.
“China sees itself in an increasingly hostile global environment,” said Eurasia Group’s Ms. Sherlock. From that perspective, she said, Mr. Yang’s outburst Thursday served to make Beijing’s frustrations public. “It does represent a sharpening attitude for dealing with the U.S.,” she said.
—Liyan Qi and Alex Leary contributed to this article.