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Anchorage and the New (Old) Cold War

Frederic J. BROWN / POOL / AFP

So, the first day of the U.S.-China ministerial meeting underway in Anchorage didn’t go so well. Both sides shredded the rigid protocol that usually guides these occasions to launch extended attacks. The effect was a notably undiplomatic clash between diplomats – one that quickly veered into jabs on domestic policy.

While China’s nothing-to-see-here denials of the well-documented mass incarcerations in Xinjiang provided a major target for American diplomats, Chinese delegates took aim at domestic American race relations, particularly anti-Black racism.

Both Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan responded by pointing to American openness. Blinken said:  “We make mistakes. We, we have reversals, we take steps back. But what we’ve done throughout our history is to confront those challenges — openly, publicly, transparently — not trying to ignore them, not trying to pretend they don’t exist.” Sullivan echoed him with: “a confident country is able to look hard at its own shortcomings and constantly seek to improve, and that is the secret sauce of America.”

I have a lot of respect for this tradition of openness in the United States – I think it’s one of its greatest gifts to the world. However, the secret sauce has to be tasted in the context of the full burger. In other words, it has to be seen against ongoing attempts to limit voter rights, stalling police reform, and mounting evidence that the right-wing sentiments that ex-President Trump rode to power enjoy significant support within law enforcement institutions. The problem is baked into the system, a reality that China then uses as a convenient form of whataboutism.

The fact that the meeting took place in the same week as a mass shooting targeting Asian women in Atlanta wasn’t lost on anyone. The specific complications of this tragedy includes a police spokesperson saying the shooter was ‘having a really bad day.’ It was soon revealed that the same spokesperson had also posted images on Facebook linking Asians to COVID-19 – again, Trumpian tropes alive and well in American institutions.

Unlike their Chinese counterparts, Americans are free to decry these abuses on social media – a massive difference. But if these American discussions don’t lead to a fundamental reckoning within American institutions, what is the impact of all that free speech? I’m not sure Blinken’s fellow Americans are as optimistic that transparency will necessarily lead to justice. 

The Anchorage meeting made clear that domestic abuses on both sides are being weaponized in a geopolitical struggle, very reminiscent of how the Soviet Union tried to use the Civil Rights struggle against the United States in the decolonizing world. But the fact that decades later many of the problems being weaponized remain very similar, is sobering. 

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