ANCHORAGE — Even before the Biden administration’s first face-to-face meeting with senior Chinese diplomats on Thursday, American officials predicted the discussions would not go well. They were right: The traditional few minutes of opening greetings and remarks dissolved into more than an hour of very public verbal jousting, confirming the expected confrontational tone between the geopolitical rivals.
U.S. officials said the two days of talks would continue, but immediately accused the Chinese delegation of violating the format for the sensitive discussions that had sought to find some common ground amid the many conflict points between them.
Yang Jiechi, China’s top diplomat, accused the United States of taking a “condescending” approach to the talks and said the American delegation had no right to accuse Beijing of human rights abuses or give lectures on the merits of democracy.
At one point, he said the United States would do well to repair its own “deep seated” problems, specifically pointing to the Black Lives Matter movement against American racism. At another, after it looked as if the opening remarks had concluded and journalists were initially told to leave the room to let the deeper discussions begin, Mr. Yang accused the United States of being inconsistent in its championing of a free press.
“I don’t think the overwhelming majority of countries in the world would recognize the universal values advocated by the United States, or that the opinions of the United States could represent international public opinion,” Mr. Yang said through an interpreter. “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.”
Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken appeared taken aback but adopted a more resolute tone. He had opened the talks with an anodyne recitation of issues that would be broached over the three rounds of discussion over two days — from cooperation on climate change and controlling the pandemic to American concerns about Chinese trade policy and military aggressions. Mr. Blinken also said China’s human rights abuses “threaten the rules-based order that maintains global stability.”
But after Mr. Yang’s lengthy comments — which American officials called a violation of an agreement that had limited the opening remarks to two minutes — Mr. Blinken motioned for the dozen or so journalists to remain for his response.
In an implicit contrast with China, Mr. Blinken said the United States had a long history of openly confronting its shortcomings, “not trying to ignore them, not trying to pretend they don’t exist, trying to sweep them under the rug.” And he recalled a meeting from more than a decade ago between Joseph R. Biden Jr. and Xi Jinping when both men, who now lead their respective countries, were vice presidents.
“It’s never a good bet, to bet against America,” Mr. Biden had said then, according to Mr. Blinken, who added, “That remains true today.”
As journalists were again asked to leave after the American response, Mr. Yang turned directly to the TV cameras and said, in English, “Wait.” He then launched into another long critique of U.S. policy.
Several times over the course of an hour, Beijing’s diplomats criticized new economic sanctions that were issued against 24 Chinese officials on the eve of the talks. “This is not supposed to be the way one should welcome his guests,” said the Chinese foreign minister, Wang Yi.
The sanctions punished Chinese officials whom the Biden administration said had undermined democracy in Hong Kong by rewriting the territory’s election laws and pushing the changes through its pliant Communist Party-controlled legislature. Biden administration officials had earlier said the sanctions were not deliberately timed to affect the talks in Anchorage.
But they clearly offended the Chinese diplomats, who seized on them as proof that the diplomatic overture was intended not to set ground rules for a bilateral understanding of each capital’s priorities, but to give the United States a home-turf platform for embarrassing Beijing.
The tit-for-tat, which a senior U.S. official later described as “grandstanding” by the Chinese for their domestic audience, left little doubt that not much would be achieved from the diplomatic discussions.
After an often-conflicting strategy for dealing with China over the last four years — which pit President Donald J. Trump’s desire for a trade deal against punishing Beijing for its rampant abuses of minority Uyghurs, military aggressions in regional waters and refusal to immediately address the coronavirus outbreak — the Biden administration has sought to take a fresh approach.
The new policy toward China is one based largely on competition — economic and diplomatic — but it is also prepared to alternately cooperate or confront Beijing when necessary. The talks in Anchorage were meant to set a baseline for that approach.
It is now unclear how much cooperation between the two nations will be possible, although that will be necessary to achieve a host of shared goals, including limiting Iran’s nuclear program and North Korea’s weapons systems.
Senior Biden administration officials had earlier joked that hopes of making much progress in the talks were so low that it would be more efficient for both sides to simply fax over their respective talking points.