US-China Alaska Talks: Substandard Diplomacy, “Dense” Translation-Dual Failure?

Hemant Adlakha, Honorary Fellow, ICS


The top diplomat “pair” in the Biden administration’s Team China was in Alaska last week to indulge their counterparts from Beijing. As it were, the first high-official talks between the US and China reached anti-climax from the word go. The highlights of two-day drama in Anchorage included hungry visitors, purple hair and Blinken and Yang “going purple in the face.” But why did the first top level diplomatic show since President Biden took office two months ago ended in a no-show?

 Image: US-China talks in Alaska     

The US and Chinese delegation concluded two days of talks in Alaska on last recently. The two sides’ first in-person contact since the Joe Biden administration came to office ended as abruptly as the “strategic dialogue” was suddenly announced. For China, the Party politburo member and director of the CPC Central Foreign Affairs Commission Yang Jiechi and foreign minister Wang Yi attended the summit in Anchorage, Alaska. The US side was represented by secretary of state Antony Blinken and White House national security advisor Jake Sullivan. Interestingly, despite prevailing tensions on both sides, the snow-covered, quiet Alaskan capital was brought alive all thanks to sparks flying between the top diplomats – something as theatrical and as spectacular the world had not witnessed for a very long time. The other highlight at the talks, or rather a “duel” just short of a fistfight, was the “purple hair” woman – an instant hit with millions of Chinese netizens than with people in America still struggling to cope with fast spreading corona pandemic.

Amid two sides accusing each other of not observing diplomatic protocols, the most controversial features in talks in Anchorage was the so-called translation follies committed by the “purple hair” woman sitting next to Antony Blinken. While analysts in the US criticized the presence side-by-side of the woman at the high-level dialogue as “unprofessional.” In China, on social media – reports claim the Alaska talks had remained the “hottest” agenda on WeiBo with 28.2 billion clicks during the two days – “purple hair” woman, identified as the official US translator, was blamed for inadvertently adding fuel to the uncharitable beginning of the talks. Allegedly, her Chinese language expressions were found to be far more “attacking” and “aggressive” than what Blinken actually said in his opening two-minute remarks. 

  Image: US-China trade angry words…     

To commit diplomatic faux pas is one thing; strategic miscalculation quite another. During the Cold War early phase, the US Ambassador George Kennan was “punished” by the USSR as persona non grata in 1952 for comparing Stalin’s Moscow to Hitler’s Berlin. Calling Kennan’s folly a colossal gaffe – “unthinkable for a trained diplomat” – an article in The American Prospect a decade ago cited the legendary Cold War historian John Lewis Gaddis describing Kennan as the only American ambassador “to be ejected during more than 230 years of the US diplomatic relations.” Gaddis is also well-known for writing the outstanding biography of the US diplomat who most hated the Russian communism, entitled George F. Kennan: An American Life. Not surprisingly, Gaddis wrote of Kennan’s recall from Moscow “an inglorious conclusion to an illustrious career.”

It is not known if Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s level of hatred for Mao’s or rather Xi’s China, matches George Kennan’s for communist Russia. Indeed, what is certain is unlike the then US President Eisenhower or his Secretary of State John Foster Dulles who told Kennan after he returned home “there was no position for him in the administration,” Blinken need not worry about “inglorious end” to his career. For Biden, a seasoned Cold War Warrior himself – as the Chinese address the US President – has applauded his secretary of state for “tough and direct” face-to-face in Alaska. According to a Reuters report cited by the USNEWS, when asked about the outcome of the talks on the first day, President Biden told reporters at the White House the following morning: “I am very proud of secretary of state.”

However, notwithstanding Blinken-Sullivan being given a clean chit by the White House, the first reactions to a rare and fiery kick-off on the opening day when the two sides publicly   “skewered each other’s policies in front of TV cameras” have been mixed and varying to say the least. Referring to “unusually pointed remarks” in the course of both Blinken and Yang Jiechi taking aim at each other’s country’s policies, the Washington Post termed the talks as “staid diplomatic meeting.” In the words of Nick Wadhams of Bloomberg, the talks were a no-show from the start. “Several current and former State Department diplomats said they were horrified, saying we lost control of the meetings from the start and gave the Chinese an easy opportunity to tee off on them,” Wadhams wrote.

Image: Zhang Jing, China’s star interpreter in Alaska    

In China, on the other hand, the government, the media and scholars have reacted from measured and sober tone to hyperbolic and angry outbursts. However, at the end of the talks, Yang Jiechi, China’s top diplomat who led the Chinese side at the talks said: “The dialogue was candid, constructive and helpful.” State councillor and Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi expressed confidence that “the door for China-US dialogue would always be open.” Usually not cited in the international press, the English-language China Daily headlined the outcome of two-day talks absolutely miserly: “High-level talks ‘constructive’”. Wang Fan, vice-president of China Foreign Affairs University, told China Daily: “Dialogue is better than confrontation, and such a dialogue itself means a positive impact.”

  Image: A purple-haired US translator   

Notably, reactions from China’s nationalist commentariat and some non-official media backed by the Party were in sharp contrast as compared with the press release issued after the talks concluded on the second day. For the early sharp anti-US reactions, my two articles – one a couple of days before the talks and one a day after the opening day talks – reflect the Chinese leftist perceptions on the US as well as on the dialogue in Alaska. Following the dialogue, as the Chinese media prefers to refer to Alaska talks, more commentaries have been appearing in the leftist news online platforms and media websites.

Surprisingly, a leading Chinese leftist website carried a signed commentary on Wednesday, entitled “Is Thucydides trap Finally Here?”. Surprising for two reasons, namely during his first official visit to the USA as China’s president six years ago, on the day Xi Jinping arrived in Seattle, President Obama’s use of the term Thucydides trap to describe the US-China competitive rivalry took the leader of the world’s second largest economy by surprise. Next day, after sufficient briefing from his accompanying aids, Xi rejected his hosts’ mistaken analogy and said: “There is nothing called Thucydides trap in the world.” The second reason being the Chinese Communist Party itself dismissed the concept as nothing but a “discourse trap.” Soon after President Xi embarked on his second term as China’s and the CPC’s top leader, the party’s leading theoretical journal Qiushi called upon the party ideologues to avoid falling into trap and instead “construct an IR theory with Chinese characteristics.”

  Image: Icy US-China relations and hot spat   

In a strange and unusual way, another commentary signed under a historian’s blog and posted on the website – China’s equivalent to – justifies Beijing abandoning its taoguangyanghui or “keep a low profile” practice in foreign policy in the face of all-round “attack” on China, especially as was on display in Alaska. The article “Goodbye, taoguangyanghui” applauded the aggressive stance of Yang Jiechi. The article opens with quotes from Yang’s 16-minute “counter charge” – “The US is not qualified to condescendingly speak to China,” “This old disease of America needs to be cured” and “the Chinese people will not swallow this anymore.” The article concludes by saying [the Alaska talks] was an equal dialogue between two major powers, and what China said was the diplomatic discourse of a sovereign nation. “Ours is a call to the world that China has said goodbye to the era of keeping a low profile,” the article emphatically stated. (Emphasis given)   

Finally, let us return to the “spectacle” of “purple hair” woman translator. Not only Lam Chung-Pollpeter, the official White House translator went viral on WeiBo for her translation “misdeed,” she was declared no match as compared to “translation beauty” or “translation wonder-woman” or “translation goddess” – Zhang Jing, China’s own official interpreter at the talks. Commenting on the quality of interpretation by the two top language professionals representing America and China at the talks respectively, a popular Chinese digital news platform wrote: “there were several bright spots in the performance of Zhang Jing; whereas her American counterpart, Lam Pollpeter, looked dwarfed.”

Image: T-shirts carrying “China won’t be bullied anymore”   

Blaming America’s diplomatic gaffe and American substandard translation for the dashing of hopes in Alaska that exposed the growing rift between the two powers, the news platform expressed disappointment over the outcome and evaluated Biden administration as “insincere”. China’s English language “independent” online daily, Caixin Global, while refraining from commenting on Lam’s translation, termed the ties between the two largest economies not only as “frosty” but caught in Thucydides trap. “No matter whether Democrats or Republicans win the US presidential election in 2024 or 2028, we are going to see at least 10 years of frosty ties between Beijing and Washington” Caixin Global commented.               

This is revised, updated version of an earlier article titled “No-show in Alaska: Diplomatic or Translation Failure?” published by NIICE, Kathmandu on 1 April, 2021

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