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Talks Turn Testy As Top U.S. And China Officials Meet In Alaska For 2nd Day

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Top diplomats from the U.S. and China are meeting for a second day in Anchorage, Alaska, today. The meeting was supposed to be a chance for the two countries to find ways to cooperate on issues such as climate change despite their many disagreements. Thing is, though, the talks turned testy, with both sides quickly exchanging heated words in their initial remarks that were open to the press.

With us is NPR's Emily Feng, who is following the talks from Beijing. Emily, these talks were the first in-person meetings between the two countries under the Biden administration. They were a chance maybe to move off of some of the acrimony that's really built up under President Trump. So how did these talks get so frosty so fast?

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: Well, as you mentioned, they kind of derailed from the beginning, when both countries sent their envoys out for opening statements and they laid out their priorities that turned out were completely incompatible with those of the other country. So for example, Secretary of State Antony Blinken told the Chinese that he wanted to discuss China's detention of ethnic minorities in Xinjiang and Beijing's crackdown in Hong Kong, which are two issues that China just simply refuses to budge on or even to really discuss because they're considered internal affairs here in Beijing.

And then China's top diplomat, Yang Jiechi, got up, and he took a very confrontational approach in which he basically told the U.S. to get its own affairs in order. He said it's the U.S. that launches cyberattacks, interferes in other countries' politics to disastrous effects and that it mistreats African Americans. And then he made this claim.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

YANG JIECHI: (Speaking non-English language).

FENG: He's saying, "We believe that it's important for the U.S. to change its own image and to stop advancing its own democracy in the rest of the world. Many people within the U.S. actually have little confidence in the democracy of the United States." And then from there, the accusations just started flying.

MARTINEZ: All right. That's coming out hot right off the jump. So how did the U.S. respond?

FENG: Well, I actually want to play you some of that back-and-forth that followed from those remarks because it's really quite extraordinary to hear geopolitical tension between two countries manifest like this in person. So after Yang gave those remarks, U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan, who was also at the Anchorage meeting, responded with this veiled jab.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JAKE SULLIVAN: A confident country is able to look hard at its own shortcomings and constantly seek to improve.

FENG: And Sullivan said that self-reflection is the source of American strength. That's in contrast to China, which has a very closed Communist Party-run state and that's very sensitive to any criticism or dissent. And so that jab really got a rise out of Yang Jiechi, who then followed up with these remarks.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

YANG: (Speaking non-English language).

FENG: You can hear his anger. He's saying, "We all thought too highly of the U.S. We thought the U.S. would follow the necessary diplomatic protocols. Now China must make our position clear. So let me say here in front of the Chinese side that the U.S. does not have the qualifications to say it speaks to China from a position of strength."

MARTINEZ: Those veils are pretty thin on those jabs. Do we know if the meetings continue to be rancorous?

FENG: Well, they have their last meeting in a few hours, and the reports are that things have become more civil once reporters left the room. But before that last meeting, both Yang and his Chinese colleague Wang Yi, a councilor, put out statements in Chinese state media saying the U.S. had spoke way too much in their opening statements and had made unreasonable accusations towards China. So you see this posturing that both sides have that they're doing for their own home audiences continue around the meetings.

MARTINEZ: All right, Emily. So taking a step back for a second, I mean, what does this initial meeting mean for U.S.-China relations?

FENG: Unfortunately, it looks like things will stay pretty much the same as they were under Trump. Under Biden, you did see U.S. rhetoric on China mellow briefly. China was described, yes, as a competitor, but also as a potential collaborator on issues like climate change. Substantively, though, the Biden administration did not roll back any of Trump's China policy. So we still have got trade sanctions in place. There are visa restrictions on Chinese students and journalists, sanctions on Chinese officials and also on companies like Huawei, the Chinese telecom firm. The real problem is that both sides see the other as responsible for the deep freeze in their relations, and they just will not take the other side's position into account. So the two countries continue to be stuck in the same place over and over again. It will take deft diplomacy and concessions from both sides to move forward. But it doesn't look like that will happen at the Anchorage meeting.

MARTINEZ: That's NPR's Emily Feng in Beijing.

Emily, thanks a lot.

FENG: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF HANDBOOK'S "STARRY SKIES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.