MANAGING EDITOR ZHI JIAO DANIELLE GOH WRITES — Anyone who still had a tiny bit of hope for a positive change in the approach towards U.S. – China relations under the Biden administration would lose faith after watching the U.S./China talks in Alaska.
The meeting this week in Anchorage was the first high-level gathering between the U.S. and China since U.S. President Joe Biden took office. The two-day talk was attended by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Yang Jiechi, director of the Central Foreign Affairs Commission of the Chinese Communist Party.
What was thought to be a four-minute scheduled photo session, with each side making a short public opening statement, turned into a one-hour-and-fifteen-minute exchange. At the start of the meeting, Blinken laid out American concerns regarding China’s human rights issues in Hong Kong and Xinjiang. Director Yang responded by affirming China’s position that it is “firmly opposed to U.S. interference in China’s internal affairs.”In addition, he mentioned Black Lives Matter as an example of U.S. human rights violations. Reporters were called back twice into the room as both sides wanted to add their rebuttals.
To unravel this diplomatic spat, here are two startling photos trending on Weibo, China’s Twitter-like social media site.
The photo on the left, taken in 1901, shows the Qing government of China with the Eight-power Allied Forces, including the U.K., the U.S. and Japan. That same year, China signed the Boxer Protocol (Xinchou Treaty), heightening a century of humiliation for the Chinese. During this period of foreign intervention and subjugation to the West, China lost wars and had to offer major concessions to the Western powers — Hong Kong was lost to Great Britain, Taiwan and Dalian ceded to Japan.
This traumatic past played a part in driving the modernization of China and at the same time generated a “Never Again” mentality for the Chinese. 1901 is considered a Xinchou year. In the ancient Chinese calendar, every 60 years is a cycle. Now, in 2021 (120 years later, another Xinchou year), China is no longer the weak Qing government it used to be. With cutting edge 5G technology, rapid economic growth – lifting 100 million people out of poverty – and as a member in many international organizations such as the UN, China has returned as a major power.
What China sought at the Alaska meeting was at least a measure of respect, but unfortunately, the U.S. offered little. This takes us to the photo on the right, showing Director Yang openly criticizing the U.S. in opening remarks which he denoted as “speak[ing] to China in a condescending way from a position of strength.”
Still, all this tense talk doesn’t necessarily serve as a harbinger of negative U.S.-China relations to come. The term “cooperation” was mentioned 7 times during the exchange – by Chinese diplomats. Despite the echoing of the Thucydides’s Trap, which predicts that a rising power will almost always come to blows with the threatened established one, there is still optimism for collaborations between the U.S. and China.
But before the two major powers can begin to cooperate, it is important for both sides to stay humble and modest. China has learned so many valuable lessons from the West, such as capitalistic economic reform with Chinese characteristics and active participation in multilateral trade treaties like Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP).
Perhaps it is time for the U.S. to meet China at least half-way, and transform competitiveness into a win-win diplomatic partnership.