Sharp Rhetoric Sets Tone for Biden-era U.S.-China Diplomacy

The first face-to-face dialogues between the United States and China during Joe Biden’s presidency commenced with rancorous opening remarks delivered in front of the international press in Anchorage, Alaska on Thursday. The fireworks started when senior Chinese diplomat Yang Jiechi launched into a 16-minute diatribe about faltering American democracy, anti-Black violence, and U.S. hegemony. This round of talks between Secretary of State Antony Blinken, adviser Jake Sullivan, State Councilor Wang Yi, and Yang Jiechi was seen as the first opportunity to delineate the policy issues that will define the next four years of the relationship, while setting the stage for a future conclave between Biden and Xi Jinping. At The New York Times, Lara Jakes reported on the conflict on display in the opening statements:

Even before the Biden administration’s first face-to-face meeting with senior Chinese diplomats on Thursday, American officials predicted the discussions would not go well. They were right: The traditional few minutes of opening greetings and remarks dissolved into more than an hour of very public verbal jousting, confirming the expected confrontational tone between the geopolitical rivals.

[…] At one point, [Yang Jiechi] said the United States would do well to repair its own “deep seated” problems, specifically pointing to the Black Lives Matter movement against American . At another, after it looked as if the opening remarks had concluded and journalists were initially told to leave the room to let the deeper discussions begin, Mr. Yang accused the United States of being inconsistent in its championing of a free press.

[…] In an implicit contrast with China, Mr. Blinken said the United States had a long history of openly confronting its shortcomings, “not trying to ignore them, not trying to pretend they don’t exist, trying to sweep them under the rug.” And he recalled a meeting from more than a decade ago between Joseph R. Biden Jr. and Xi Jinping when both men, who now lead their respective countries, were vice presidents. [Source]

At the Associated Press, Matthew Lee and Mark Thiessen also reported on the meeting:

“We believe that it is important for the United States to change its own image and to stop advancing its own democracy in the rest of the world,” [Yang] said. “Many people within the United States actually have little confidence in the democracy of the United States.”

[…] Blinken appeared to be annoyed by the tenor and length of the comments, which went on for more than 15 minutes. He said his impressions from speaking with world leaders and on his just-concluded trip to Japan and South Korea were entirely different from the Chinese position.

“I’m hearing deep satisfaction that the United States is back, that we’re reengaged,” Blinken retorted. “I’m also hearing deep concern about some of the actions your government is taking.” [Source]

The posturing comes after a year of tensions over COVID-19, the Xinjiang camps, the Hong Kong crackdown, and economic sanctions. China’s opacity with the WHO’s virus origin investigation team sparked “deep concerns” in the White House. On the eve of talks, the United States placed financial sanctions on 24 Chinese and Hong Kong officials, including Politburo member Wang Chen, for undermining Hong Kong’s autonomous election system. In the waning days of the Trump administration, the State Department designated China’s Xinjiang policies “genocide” and a “crime against humanity”. During confirmation hearings, Blinken concurred with the determination. In response, Yang Jiechi said Xinjiang and Hong Kong are “red lines” off limits to the United States. Even naming the talks proved contentious. The Chinese side insisted that they were a continuation of the Bush- and Obama-era “strategic dialogues” canceled under Trump. The Biden administration claimed they were a “one-off.”

For the Chinese side, the meeting was an opportunity to demonstrate China’s strength to domestic audiences. Some observers said Yang’s and Wang’s sharp tones reflected a new “Wolf Warrior” ethos embraced by China’s diplomats in recent years. Yang’s speech was popular among Chinese audiences. “Nowadays, who else but China would dare to put the United States in a corner like this on American territory?” wrote one Weibo user, according to the New York Times. Hu Xijin, the editor of Global Times, tweeted a gif comparing the dialogue to a scene from the popular nationalist cartoon Year Hare Affair, adding “It shows the era in which the US can pretend it has enough power and morality to talk down to China is over.” The enthusiastic online reception of Yang’s speech was the intended outcome, argued China Media Project’s David Bandurski in an essay analyzing “Multiplayer Diplomacy”:

Enter the diplomatic neologism, designed for its viral nature, and its capacity to channel events into themes that are both reductive and deeply evocative. Let’s just consider the term “bandwagoning,” or daijiezou (带节奏), the second employed by Zhao Lijian. This is an online term that first emerged as online gaming slang in Chinese eSports and from such team-based multiplayer games as League of Legends (英雄联盟). It refers to the way an experienced player can organize their virtual teammates to launch a tough and coordinated attack that “elevates the tempo” (带起一波节奏).

[…] No other commentary is provided with the post, but the implication is clear. The People’s Daily is encouraging Chinese who might share such viral content in the view that the talks are taking place in an atmosphere of complete disrespect for China, adding to the deep historical scorecard of indignities – running from the Opium Wars to the Treaty of Versailles and the “Shandong question” and onward through to the 21st century.

[…] Terms like “bandwagoning,” accompanied by viral messages like those above that seek to provoke and exploit domestic reactions, suggest that the public theatrics are here to stay, that they are a crucial component of Chinese diplomacy in the “New Era.” Involving and engaging the digital Chinese public, in ways that curtail substantive discussion at home, has already become a salient feature of this new multiplayer diplomacy. [Source]

In the United States, the Biden administration has focused heavily on bolstering a system of international alliances that atrophied under President Trump’s leadership. In the weeks before the meeting, President Biden met virtually with the leaders of India, Japan, and Australia, a group called “the Quad,” to refocus the informal alliance around China. Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III traveled to Tokyo and Seoul to strengthen the United States’ ties with its Asian allies. A number of writers proposed further methods the United States could take to pull the bilateral relationship back from the brink. Ian Johnson recommended the return of people-to-people exchanges related to culture and media:

One, the Biden administration should offer to restart the Peace Corps and Fulbright scholarship programs in China, two key ways that Americans have learned about the country over the past decades. The Trump administration canceled both as part of an effort to isolate China. All that accomplished instead was to hurt America’s ability to train a new generation of scholars and analysts.

Two, in exchange for this, the U.S. government should stop vilifying China’s Confucius Institutes as sinister propaganda machines. These are largely cultural centers and much like educational outposts from other countries trying to push a good image of themselves. American universities should prevent Confucius Institutes from offering accredited courses — no university should allow a foreign government to set its curriculum — but the centers should be able to function off campus, much like Germany’s Goethe Institutes or British Councils do.

Three, the Biden administration should allow back into the United States some of the scores of Chinese journalists expelled by the Trump administration last year — provided that Beijing also agrees to welcome again accredited journalists from American news organizations and commits to not harassing them. [Source]

Johnson’s piece was a call for the return of “engagement,” a U.S. policy many observers declared dead after the breakdown in relations in 2020. At War On The Rocks, Evan S. Medeiros and Jude Blanchette wrote about the enduring necessity of engagement, and argued that rumors of its death are greatly exaggerated:

Moreover, America’s engagement policies — dialogue, cultural exchanges, etc. — were not based on a naive certainty that China would liberalize politically and economically. Certainly, one can find rosy public statements linking engagement with Chinese reform, but it’s revisionist to claim that this was the foundation for U.S. policy and strategy. Successive U.S. presidents — Republican and Democratic — believed, rightly, that the best strategic bet for the United States was to try to shape China to be more open at home and responsible abroad, and then adjust its strategy if that reality did not materialize. Xi made clear that such changes were not going to occur, and U.S. policy has been adjusting ever since. The nature and scope of those adjustments are the subject of current debates.

The outright rejection of engagement as one policy tool, within a broader toolkit, to shape China also ignores the debates it prompted within China. Throughout much of the 1980s and 1990s, both liberal reformists and more conservative authoritarians battled over the future direction of the country.

Finally, engagement itself remains essential to the success of more competitive strategies and policies. The United States needs its allies and partners to effectively compete with China, but none of those countries — in both Europe and Asia — wants to be drawn into a Cold War or be forced to make stark choices between one side or the other. Washington needs engagement and dialogue to reassure both China and America’s allies that while the United States will defend its interests, it also wants to bound competition, reduce mistrust, and remain open to cooperation. [Source]

While the two sides met in Alaska, the Chinese government held the hastily announced of Michael Spavor, one of two Canadian hostages taken after Meng Wangzhou’s arrest in Vancouver, in Dandong, China. Canada’s former ambassador to China said Canada, and Spavor, are “stuck in this geopolitical that is going on between the United States and China.” The trial ended two hours after it began. Authorities did not publish a verdict but according to statistics complied by Safeguard Defenders, a human rights NGO, 99.96% of Chinese trials end in conviction. Neither diplomats nor foreign journalists were allowed to observe the trial. Donald Clarke, a specialist in Chinese law, wrote:

“This is as clear a violation of the Canada-China Consular Agreement as can possibly exist. No doubt they are justifying the exclusion on the grounds that state secrets are involved, but the grounds don’t matter; any denial of access is a breach of the Agreement. Art. 8(5) says, “A consular officer shall be permitted to attend the trial or other legal proceedings.” No exceptions. [Source]

Legal scholar Jerome A. Cohen lamented: “Are we back to the days of Chinese-Western conflicts over Imperial China’s criminal prosecutions of Western sailors at the end of the 18th century and early 19th century?” At The Globe and Mail, Nathan VanderKlippe reported on what the secretive trial portends for Spavor’s future:

The brevity of Mr. Spavor’s trial indicates certainty by the court in the charges against him, suggesting a light sentence is unlikely, said Margaret Lewis, a professor at the Seton Hall University School of whose research focuses on law in China and Taiwan.

Politically, the quick hearing “also demonstrates to me confidence in the message that: This is our court. This is our judicial system. We are calling the shots here. And we are not going to let outside pressure change what we do,” she said.

Police surrounded the Dandong courthouse with caution tape in advance of Mr. Spavor’s arrival, keeping foreign media and diplomats from approaching the building, a signal “that the courthouse is a fortress and no one is getting in,” Prof. Lewis said. Ten diplomats from eight countries attended the hearing, in a show of support for Mr. Spavor, whose arrest has been widely described as hostage diplomacy. They stood outside on the sidewalk and adjusted their ties and watched their reflection in their gleaming leather shoes. [Source]

 

 

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