Top US and Chinese officials have offered sharply different views of each other and the world as the two sides met face-to-face for the first time since Joe Biden became US president.
In unusually pointed public remarks for a normally staid diplomatic meeting, US secretary of state Antony Blinken and Chinese Communist Party foreign affairs chief Yang Jiechi took aim at each other’s policies at the start of two days of talks in Alaska.
The contentious tone of their public comments suggests the private discussions will be even more rocky.
The meetings in Anchorage are a new test in increasingly troubled relations between the two countries. They are at odds over a range of issues from trade to human rights in Tibet, Hong Kong and China’s western Xinjiang region, as well as over Taiwan, China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea and the coronavirus pandemic.
Mr Blinken said the Biden administration is united with its allies in pushing back against China’s increasing authoritarianism and assertiveness at home and abroad.
Mr Yang then listed Chinese complaints about the US and accused Washington of hypocrisy for criticising Beijing on human rights and other issues.
Mr Blinken responded by drawing attention to China’s actions in Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Taiwan, and of cyber attacks on the US and economic coercion against America’s allies.
He said: “Each of these actions threaten the rules-based order that maintains global stability.”
“That’s why they’re not merely internal matters, and why we feel an obligation to raise these issues here today.”
US national security adviser Jake Sullivan amplified the criticism, saying China has undertaken an “assault on basic values”.
He said: “We do not seek conflict, but we welcome stiff competition.”
Mr Yang responded by calling for America to stop pushing its own version of democracy at a time when the United States itself has been roiled by domestic discontent.
He also accused the US of failing to deal with its own human rights problems and took issue with what he said was “condescension” from Mr Blinken, Mr Sullivan and other US officials.
The Chinese foreign affairs chief said: “We believe that it is important for the United States to change its own image and to stop advancing its own democracy in the rest of the world,” he said.
“Many people within the United States actually have little confidence in the democracy of the United States.
“China will not accept unwarranted accusations from the US side,” he added, saying that recent developments had plunged relations “into a period of unprecedented difficulty” that “has damaged the interests of our two peoples.
“There is no way to strangle China,” he said.
Mr Blinken appeared to be annoyed by the tenor and length of the comments, which went on for more than 15 minutes.
He said his impressions from speaking with world leaders and on his just-concluded trip to Japan and South Korea were entirely different from the Chinese position.
“I’m hearing deep satisfaction that the United States is back, that we’re re-engaged,” Mr Blinken retorted. “I’m also hearing deep concern about some of the actions your government is taking.”
Underscoring the animosity, the US state department blasted the Chinese delegation for violating an agreed upon two-minute time limit for opening statements and suggested it “seem(ed) to have arrived intent on grandstanding, focused on public theatrics and dramatics over substance”.
“America’s approach will be undergirded by confidence in our dealing with Beijing – which we are doing from a position of strength – even as we have the humility to know that we are a country eternally striving to become a more perfect union,” it said.
US-Chinese ties have been torn for years, and the Biden administration has yet to signal whether it is ready or willing to back away from the hard-line stances taken under Donald Trump.
Just a day before the meeting, Mr Blinken had announced new sanctions over Beijing’s crackdown on pro-democracy advocates in Hong Kong.
In response, China stepped up its rhetoric opposing US interference in domestic affairs and complained directly about it.
“Is this a decision made by the United States to try to gain some advantage in dealing with China?” state councillor Wang Yi asked.
“Certainly this is miscalculated and only reflects the vulnerability and weakness inside the United States and it will not shake China’s position or resolve on those issues.”
Former president Mr Trump had taken pride in forging what he saw as a strong relationship with Chinese leader Xi Jinping.
But the relationship disintegrated after the coronavirus pandemic spread from the Wuhan province across the globe and unleashed a public health and economic disaster.