Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan hosted the first high-level U.S.-China diplomatic conference of the Biden era last week in Alaska. What was meant to be a minutes-long photo op at the start of the meeting turned into an impromptu war of words that lasted over an hour. During the exchange, Blinken cited what Vice President Joe Biden had once told Xi Jinping: Never bet against the United States. (King George III, imperial Spain, the Nazis, imperial Japan, and the Soviet Union could not be reached for comment.)
Blinken opened the meeting by pressing his Chinese counterparts over abuses of Uighurs, Tibetans, and Hong Kongers. He also brought up security issues related to the cyber domain and Taiwan. While the United States will seek cooperation with China, Blinken said, the relationship will be “adversarial where it must be.” Since normalizing relations with China, no U.S. secretary of state ever publicly uttered harsher words to Chinese officials to their faces.
In reply, the Chinese delegation accused the United States of being an aggressive actor and expressed concerns about human rights abuses in the United States—referring to Black Lives Matter—while bragging about China’s progress on human rights. Blinken was secure enough about America’s liberal democracy to respond by pointing out the phrase “a more perfect Union” in the preamble to the Constitution, observing that our national charter has embedded in it an understanding that the United States is imperfect but that we openly debate our imperfections, however painful they are, so we can strive to fix them.
Blinken also rejected the accusation of U.S. aggression. He noted that he was just coming back from Asia, and that U.S. allies like Japan and South Korea are worried about China’s aggressions, and expressing “deep satisfaction that the United States is back, that we’re re-engaged with our allies and partners.”
The two-day meeting ended on Friday. Then, after the weekend went by, Secretary Blinken yesterday announced that the United States would impose sanctions on two Chinese officials involved in the “repression of Uighurs”—acts Blinken rightly described as “genocide and crimes against humanity.”
Let’s put the Alaska conference and yesterday’s announcement in context. Over the last couple of weeks, the United States has gotten into a heated argument with the Chinese and sanctioned Chinese officials; President Biden has called Vladimir Putin “a killer”; and the U.S. military attacked Iran-backed militias. Can the United States afford containing and, when necessary, coercing three adversaries—two with nuclear arms and one with nuclear aspirations—at once?
A better question is whether the United States can afford not to. Putin invaded Georgia and Ukraine with no serious penalty, thanks in part to his possession of the world’s largest nuclear arsenal. Russia and China are increasing their partnership. Containing one requires containing the other. Iran, with help from Russia, has set the Middle East on fire. American commentators might like to talk about energy independence, but the United States is only self-sufficient, not truly independent, because vital U.S. allies still rely on Middle Eastern oil. On top of that, China is trying to establish a military base in Iran and is expanding its footprint in the Middle East.
The good news is that the United States has the necessary resources to build up capabilities to meet all three challenges at once and more. As Blinken correctly noted, the U.S. alliance system is voluntary. Yet, most of the world has decided to join it. Their power is ours, as exemplified in NATO members’ decision to expend blood and treasure in Afghanistan in defense of the United States. It is America’s liberal values that allow for such an alliance system.
Here, though, is the upside of the Chinese delegation’s criticism in Alaska of the United States. Whataboutism and lecturing directed at our diplomats on human rights matters is nothing new. The Soviets did it too. In fact, they did it enough to help shame us into passing the Civil Rights Act (an assertion not meant to diminish the role of the American activists who deserve the lion’s share of credit for the bill’s passage). For that, the Soviets deserve our gratitude. Likewise, the more that the Chinese try to shame us, the more reasons we will have to fix our society’s injustices and thereby grow stronger and better.
The Alaska conference made it clear that ideology and different understandings of human nature and potential are at the center of the U.S.-China dispute. In America, a citizen whose rights are violated has the potential to make us better once his rights are restored. In China, he’s a liability that might bring down the system. Lucky us, we’re confident enough in the superiority of our system to be able to take a criticism or two. Keep ’em coming, comrades!