At first glance, the US-China dialogue in Anchorage, Alaska, last week appeared to be a disaster. When US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan sat down with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Yang Jiechi, the ruling Communist Party's top diplomat, the pleasantries were kept to the minimum.
Mr Blinken said in his opening statement that China’s actions in Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Taiwan “threaten the rules-based order that maintains global stability”, and that “the alternative to a rules-based order would be a far more violent and unstable world". Once Mr Sullivan added that “the areas of concern” the US wanted to discuss ranged from “economic and military coercion to assaults on basic values”, the fuse seemed to have been lit.
In a series of biting responses, Mr Yang upbraided the US for thinking it had the right "to speak to China in a condescending way from a position of strength", rejected the notion of "the rules-based order", and said that America should "stop advancing its own democracy in the rest of the world" since it needed to fix its own system and improve its own human rights record at home.
Contrasting Beijing’s record with Washington’s, Mr Yang added: “We do not believe in invading through the use of force, or to topple other regimes through various means, or to massacre the people of other countries.” Pointing out that the US had announced sanctions on 24 Chinese officials over changes to Hong Kong’s electoral system just before the summit, Mr Wang said: “This is not supposed to be the way one welcomes his guests.”
The attending press corps was clearly shocked by the blunt language. A common conclusion was that the verbal fireworks presaged a "new Cold War", with Beijing and Mr Yang receiving most of the blame for the fracas. "These harsh exchanges will only contribute to the dangerous decay in relations between the world's two most powerful countries," Ian Johnson, the veteran China-watcher, wrote.
But these impressions may be both misplaced and misleading, for a number of reasons.
Firstly, while vehemently put, many of Mr Yang’s criticisms were at least partly justified. He is not alone in finding US advocacy of the rules-based order hypocritical when America refuses to join bodies such as the International Criminal Court, demands China adhere to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea even though the US has not signed up to it, and has a history of ignoring “international law” whenever it suits it to do so.
Similarly, plenty would agree with him that "the universal values advocated by the United States" do not "represent international public opinion", nor that "the rules made by a small number of people" should "serve as the basis for the international order".
Secondly, it seems unlikely that this incident blew up on the spot. Mr Yang, who has a history of grabbing headlines, may well have been determined to hold forth aggressively come what may – and not just to impress an increasingly nationalistic domestic audience.
As a shrewd analysis in The Diplomat magazine put it: "For over a decade, Beijing has been demanding 'mutual respect' from Washington. Now it seems China's diplomats are going to start returning perceived disrespect from their US counterparts with disrespect. Put simply, China doesn't see itself as the junior partner in the US-China dynamic, and is no longer willing to play that role."
The idea that Mr Yang and Mr Wang showed up to make that plain is backed by a commentary in China's state-run Global Times, which said that "international negotiations must be based on equality between the two sides. It is not about one side claiming the role as the headmaster and lecturing the other side at will. In front of the international media, the Chinese side offered a lesson to not just the Americans but also US allies and the entire world". The officials' purpose, it continued, was "very clear" – "to ensure that the US would not misjudge from the start".
What does all this amount to in practice? Less than the coverage suggested, according to the Singapore-based American security analyst Blake Herzinger, who wryly tweeted: “Nobody thought there would be a reset. China didn’t win anything. Nobody ate America’s lunch. US-China relations have not changed in a meaningful way in the last two months. Honestly, some of you need to take a breath.”
What the strong words have left in their wake, however, is a bracing clarity. It may well be helpful that the two sides set out their stalls without the customary diplomatic obfuscation, in displays where "everyone kept smiles in public" and "anger was not expressed openly", as Global Times put it.
“The dramatic public exchange has set a more honest approach for a competitive era,” concluded Thomas Wright, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “Historically, the most volatile periods of rivalry between major powers are in the early stages. The red lines become apparent only through interactions in crises. The greatest risk is for either side to miscalculate the resolve or intentions of the other.”
If there is one positive takeaway from the tempestuous Anchorage meeting, it may be that now, at least, there ought to be less danger of that.
“Co-operation benefits both sides,” were some of Mr Yang’s occasionally more emollient words. How to put that into practice is the next challenge.
Sholto Byrnes is an East Asian affairs columnist for The National