A US-China Puppet Show

China relies on an exceptional national consciousness to stabilize its authoritarian rule. While bombastic rhetoric about the U.S. is a performance staged for Chinese citizens, any clues about developments in the U.S.-China relationship remain to be seen.


The first high-level talks with China since President Joe Biden took office occurred in Anchorage, Alaska. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan represented the U.S., while Yang Jiechi, director of the Central Foreign Affairs Commission Office of the Chinese Communist Party, and Foreign Minister Wang Yi represented China. According to protocol, before the first round of closed-door meetings began, representatives from both parties were scheduled to deliver simple, two-minute opening remarks to the press. As prescribed, Blinken and Sullivan spoke for a total of five minutes. Unexpectedly, however, Yang came out firing, followed by unrestrained criticism from Wang. After speaking for 20 minutes, they were still not done, and held reporters back so they could talk for nearly five minutes more.

Most news reports used the phrases “tit for tat” and “verbal sparring” to describe the fiery scene. Both sides probably satisfied their respective domestic audiences, which is the purpose of domestic propaganda. This is particularly true for China, which, over the past four years, remained quite restrained in response to Donald Trump’s arrogance. Of course, since the U.S. agreed to these talks, the Americans wanted to use them as a pretext to express their views. Blinken, in particular, took the opportunity to cite crimes by China that are threatening global stability, such as the issues of Taiwan, Hong Kong and Xinjiang, cyberattacks on the U.S. and China’s exertion of economic coercion on U.S. allies. This was unacceptable to Yang, who couldn’t wait to offer a rebuttal, regardless of international etiquette.

Yang exclaimed that Taiwan, Hong Kong and Xinjiang are inseparable parts of China, and firmly rejected U.S. meddling in domestic affairs. He went on to say that America’s values are not international values, and the U.S. has its own deeply rooted problems related to African American inequity. The U.S. should not use national security as an excuse to interfere with trade dealings and should dispense with asserting long-arm jurisdiction. Furthermore, the U.S. is unqualified to treat China with condescension and criticize the country; the Chinese will not stand for it. Yang spoke harshly, telling the U.S. to “start from a position of strength, and then speak to China.” Although Wang played the good cop, using a slightly more conciliatory tone, he still admonished the U.S. as one would a child, saying that it needed to correct its bad habit of readily interfering in China’s domestic affairs. He also pledged that in the future, China would not accept unfounded criticism from the U.S.


Blinken did not give an inch; instead he reminded the other side that when Biden was still Barack Obama’s vice president and visited then Vice President Xi Jinping, he tactfully reasoned with Xi, saying “It’s never a good bet to bet against America.” Blinken offered the same advice, the implication being that China would be wise to listen. Sullivan put in a good word for the U.S., saying it is not looking for conflict, but rather welcomes competition. As he stated loftily, “We will always stand up for our principles, for our people and for our friends.” Off to the side, China expert Laura Rosenberger could be seen frequently passing notes to Blinken, who is fluent in French and prides his experience working for the Obama administration during his trips to Asia. From this exchange, it is apparent that China is no longer the main enemy.


It seems that, in the short run, Russia is America’s primary adversary, whereas China is a country that can be reasoned with, and hostility is therefore unnecessary. The mutual tension stems from being put on the spot, as Biden’s official national security strategy has yet to be released. The purpose of this round of talks was to test the waters, a venture to speak and size each other up. This was just a warm-up before the real act, so, of course, there was no dramatic table-thumping. China was the guest, and the U.S. let it take a swing, appearing to accept the blow. What we were paying close attention to was whether the two sides have made any secret deals. In other words, the Chinese representatives actually had to put on a show, inadvertently revealing that Xi’s political power might not be stable.

International politics is a game of mutual deception, where national interests are placed above all else. Since the beginning, both the U.S. and China have talked about Taiwan as they do Hong Kong and Xinjiang. China says it is an inseparable part of China, and the U.S. is concerned about safeguarding human rights. On the surface, it seems that the two sides have drawn a red line that neither will budge on, and both hope the other doesn’t cross. The problem is, Taiwan is not the same as Hong Kong or Xinjiang. In essence, we are not under China’s jurisdiction, while Xinjiang legally and essentially belongs to China. The U.S. does not need to put Taiwan in the same category as Xinjiang. The second best thing would be for the U.S and China to come to an agreement and for each accept their own boundaries. Should the U.S. find itself at a disadvantage and agree to divide up the Pacific Ocean, Taiwan will be on dangerous ground.

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