In a protracted, unplanned public spat in Anchorage late on Thursday, China and America’s top diplomats traded barbs for over an hour in front of astonished journalists.
The openings to diplomatic summits are usually dull and carefully choreographed, a showcase for the world’s cameras before the doors close and the real talks begin.
So if the people now in charge of probably the world’s most consequential bilateral relationship were unable to keep tensions under wraps for just a few minutes of news bulletin footage, it suggests even more turbulent times lie ahead.
Speeches from both delegations were meant to last two minutes each, the US diplomats said afterwards. But once they had made brief remarks, China’s top diplomat Yang Jiechi took the floor for more than 16 minutes full of broadsides against a Washington he denounced as bullying, racist and hypocritical.
The US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, felt compelled to respond. Then, as he asked journalists to leave, Chinese counterparts attacked US commitment to free press as they responded to his response.
The fierce comments from both sides were probably directed as much at domestic audiences as their counterparts across the table.
Under Xi Jinping, China’s foreign ministry has encouraged an aggressive nationalism, with its diplomats recast as aggressive “wolf warriors”, defending the country in battles of words and social media overseas.
President Biden is under pressure from both Democrats and Republicans to take a hardline approach to Beijing, a rare issue of bipartisan consensus, as he feels his way towards a new relationship with a major competitor and rival.
Donald Trump’s initial warm embrace of China, including his apparent eagerness to overlook human rights abuses in pursuit of a trade deal, had soured into confrontation and racist attacks by the end of his term in office. Critics, including Biden, denounced his approach as erratic and dangerous.
But with human rights and economic concerns about China mounting, it has also become clear that engagement, the cornerstone of US diplomacy with China since Richard Nixon re-established ties in the 1970s, is no longer considered effective.
China is economically powerful, and territorially aggressive, from its border with India to the South China Sea. The two countries are at odds over everything from trade tariffs to cybersecurity to the handling of an international probe into the origins of Covid-19, and both are determined not to look weak.
“We do not seek conflict, but we welcome stiff competition, and we will always stand up for our principles, for our people, and for our friends,” the US national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, said.
Shoring up regional alliances with other democratic nations, a pointed departure from Trump’s America First approach, is expected to form a key part of the Biden administration’s China policy.
The meeting in Anchorage came when Blinken and Sullivan were on their way back from visiting Washington’s allies in east Asia, Japan and South Korea.
That alone could have added tensions to the first face-to-face encounter with their Chinese counterparts. But both sides also took aggressive policy steps in the run-up to the summit, while insisting the timing was unrelated to the talks.
The US had put new sanctions on 24 Chinese officials, saying they had undermined democracy in Hong Kong. The foreign minister, Wang Yi, was among the officials to attack this move, insisting “this is not the way one should welcome guests”.
China for its part scheduled controversial trials of two Canadians to bookend the talks. Ottawa says the men were being held in “hostage diplomacy”, after it had arrested a top Chinese tech executive on a US extradition warrant.
However, the public spat was followed by “substantive, serious, and direct” conversation, US officials told CBS, raising hope that while both sides want to make a strong stand, they are also eager to try and find ways to work together on vital issues of shared interest, from North Korea’s nuclear programme to tackling climate change.