Whirlwind Weeks of Diplomacy In Beijing Center On Ukraine, Green Tech, Taiwan

Over a whirlwind two weeks of diplomacy in Beijing, China has sought to strengthen its ties to both the United States and Russia—a difficult balancing act. Xi Jinping took a phone call with U.S. President Joe Biden last week which was followed with a four-day trip through China by Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen. The day after Yellen’s departure, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov met with Xi Jinping in Beijing in preparation for “upcoming contacts at the highest level,” a sign that Russian leader Vladimir Putin may be planning a Beijing trip this calendar year. Soon after, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced that Zhao Leji, the third-ranking member of the Politburo Standing Committee, will be leading a Chinese delegation to North Korea—the highest-level contact between the two countries since the pandemic. Xi Jinping also met with former Taiwanese President Ma Ying-Jeou

At The Wall Street Journal, Michael R. Gordon and Andrew Duehren reported that during their phone call, Biden warned Xi against providing lethal aid to Russia to help in the latter’s invasion of Ukraine

“As time has gone on, we’ve really seen the PRC start to help to rebuild Russia’s defense industrial base,” a senior Biden administration official said using the acronym for the People’s Republic of China. 

China, the official added, has been helping to “provide the components that get slowly towards increasing Russia’s capabilities in Ukraine. And that has, of course, longer term impacts on European security.”

[…] Ukraine remains a concern. Following Russia’s February 2022 invasion, the U.S. urged Beijing to use its influence in Moscow to dissuade Russian President Vladimir Putin from considering the use of tactical nuclear weapons. 

But the senior administration official contrasted those gains with Beijing’s ongoing effort “to help Russia reconstitute its defense industrial base.” and added that the U.S. and its Western allies were “quite concerned” about where China appeared to be heading on that issue. [Source]

Biden’s warning to China not to sell weapons to Russia was mirrored by both Janet Yellen during her trip to China and Secretary of State Anthony Blinken during a trip to Munich. Yellen told journalists in Guangzhou that “we’ve been clear with China that we see Russia as gaining support from goods that China, Chinese firms are supplying to Russia,” and said there will be “significant consequences” if such support continues. A day after meeting Chinese foreign secretary Wang Yi at a security conference in Munich, Germany, Blinken said: “For the most part, China has been engaged in providing rhetorical, political, diplomatic support to Russia, but we have information that gives us concern that they are considering providing lethal support to Russia in the war against Ukraine.” Blinken also warned that this would be a serious problem in Sino-American bilateral relations. 

Biden and Xi also discussed other flashpoints, including Taiwan and Chinese behavior in the South China Sea, where Chinese coast guard vessels have been firing water cannons at Philippine resupply ships. Biden, according to the White House, also told Xi Jinping that the United States will continue to place limits on the export of U.S. technologies to China, which Xi holds “creates risks” in the relationship. Since 2022, the U.S. Department of Commerce has placed substantial restrictions on the sale of advanced computer chips to China, as well as the tools to produce them. 

Biden’s call with Xi was followed by Treasury Secretary Yellen’s trip to China. At The New York Times, Alan Rappeport reported on one of Janet Yellen’s diplomatic goals—asking China to reign in its green tech subsidies even as the United States ramps up its own

Ms. Yellen lodged a direct complaint: Cheap Chinese exports of green energy technology are threatening the electric vehicle and solar sectors that the United States has been trying to develop, and the Biden administration is prepared to protect them.

[…] Treasury officials say that they fear that elevated Chinese production targets are causing its firms to produce far more electric vehicles, batteries and solar panels than global markets can absorb, driving prices lower and disrupting production around the world. They fear that these spillovers will hurt businesses that are planning investments in the United States with tax credits and subsidies that were created through the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022, a law that is pumping more than $2 trillion into clean energy infrastructure.

[…] “It’s a very tough sell when we’re doing much the same thing,” said Scott Lincicome, a trade expert at the free-market oriented Cato Institute. “Regardless of whether you think the United States should be pursuing these subsidies, the fact is that the rhetorical and political effect is inevitably going to be undermined when your argument is, do as I say, not as I do.”

[…] Mary Gallagher, a political science professor at the University of Michigan, argues that China’s embrace of excess industrial capacity is a feature of its central government’s economic plan rather than a “bug” because it has allowed the country to lead the world in green energy technology innovation while local governments grapple with the fiscal fallout. Because of China’s dominance of these industries, and of electric vehicles in particular, she said that the United States now has higher priorities than upholding traditional free trade principles. [Source]

Politics aside, Yellen has become something of a cultural icon online. During a 2023 visit to China, Yellen reportedly ate “magic mushrooms” at a Yunnanese restaurant in Beijing. (The mushrooms can be rendered non-hallucinogenic by proper cooking.) She told CNN: “There was a delicious mushroom dish. I was not aware that these mushrooms had hallucinogenic properties.” Her visit to the restaurant set off a craze for the restaurant and the dish, with other branches of the eatery selling out of the mushroom across the country. During this current trip, there has been “breathless state media coverage” of Yellen’s chopstick skills and food choices. A headline from the state-run broadcaster China Central Television read, “U.S. Treasury Secretary Yellen chooses authentic Cantonese cuisine and uses chopsticks well.” Netizens also focused on Yellen’s trip to a brewery in Beijing, where she shared a pint with U.S. Ambassador to China Nicholas Burns. Premier Li Qiang noted that Yellen’s visit has “indeed drawn a lot of attention in society.”

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s visit to China inspired less social media fanfare but was also of great importance. At The Wall Street Journal, Austin Ramzy and Ann M. Simmons reported on Lavrov echoing “the language of the Cold War” during his trip to Beijing

“There is no place for dictatorship, hegemony, neocolonial and colonial practices, which are now being applied by the United States and all the rest of the collective West unquestioningly submitting to the will of Washington,” Lavrov said.

[…Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi] said China “hopes to see a cease-fire and an end to the war [in Ukraine] as soon as possible,” while Lavrov said Moscow was “grateful to our Chinese friends for their objective, balanced position, and for their willingness to play a positive role in the matter of a political and diplomatic settlement.”

[…] Xi and Putin declared a friendship with “no limits” between their two countries in early 2022, shortly before Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022. While Beijing has sought at times to play down that declaration, it has never condemned Putin’s war, or even called it a war, instead describing it as the “Ukraine crisis.”

The China-Russia relationship is underpinned by close personal ties between Xi and Putin. The two men have met dozens of times over the past decade, and the Chinese leader has called Putin his dear friend. China welcomed Putin for another visit last year, his first major foreign trip after he was accused of war crimes in Ukraine by the International Criminal Court. [Source]

At Foreign Affairs, Alexander Gabuev wrote on “Putin and Xi’s unholy alliance,” explaining how the tightening alignment between Russia and Ukraine is among the most important geopolitical outcomes of the war in Ukraine

China and Russia have grown notably closer in the critical area of security and military cooperation. Even amid Russia’s war of aggression, China’s People’s Liberation Army has increased the number of joint activities it performs with the Russian military. In September 2022, despite significant problems on the frontlines in Ukraine, Russia conducted a strategic exercise in its Far East to which China sent 2,000 troops. A few months later, in December, the Chinese and Russian navies held their annual exercise, this time in the East China Sea. In 2023, Beijing and Moscow held three rounds of naval exercises, and in 2022 and 2023, they conducted four joint patrols in Asia with nuclear-armed bombers. These activities still clearly lack the breadth and depth of the joint drills between the United States and its allies in Europe and Asia, but the Chinese and Russian militaries are undoubtedly deepening their interoperability.

[…] The overall warming of attitudes to China is reflected in opinion polls, too, including recent data produced by the joint efforts of the Carnegie Endowment and the Levada Center, the independent Russian polling organization. At the end of 2023, 85 percent of Russians viewed China positively, whereas only six percent had a negative opinion of the country. Nearly three-quarters of Russians do not believe China is a threat to them—against around a fifth of Russians who think China is a threat. Over half of Russians now want their children to learn Chinese, a stunning development. More than 80 percent of people still want their kids to learn English, but the number of people interested in Mandarin is rising rapidly. The most China-friendly attitudes are recorded in the Russian Far East, a region that shares a border with China and is most exposed to the country in day-to-day life. This generally positive public disposition to China has allowed the Kremlin to enter a closer economic, technological, and political embrace with Beijing than ever before.

[…] Unsurprisingly, this shift has only exacerbated the asymmetry that characterizes Sino-Russian relations. As a larger and more technologically advanced economy that maintains pragmatic ties with the West, China has stronger bargaining power and many more options than does Russia, and its leverage over its northern neighbor is growing all the time. Russia is now locking itself into vassalage to China. A couple of years down the road, Beijing will be more able to dictate the terms of economic, technological, and regional cooperation with Moscow. The Kremlin is not blind to that prospect, but it does not have much choice as long as Putin needs Chinese support to fight his war in Ukraine, which has become an obsession. [Source]

After Lavrov’s trip to Beijing, China announced that Zhao Leji, the third-ranking member of the Politburo Standing Committee, will lead a Chinese delegation to North Korea to kick off “China-North Korea Friendship Year.” From The Associated Press:

Zhao’s visit to North Korea will be the first bilateral exchange involving a Chinese Politburo Standing Committee member since the pandemic started. In 2019, the two countries held a pair of summit meetings, for one of which Xi traveled to Pyongyang.

[…North Korean leader Kim Jong Un] traveled to Russia in September for a summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The U.S., South Korea and others accuse North Korea of supplying conventional weapons for Russia’s war in Ukraine in return for advanced weapons technologies and other support.

[…] “China is key to North Korea’s economy. There is a limit that Russia can do for North Korea economically,” Park Won Gon, a professor at Seoul’s Ewha Womans University. “For the short-term assistance, shipments of food or crude oil can be made. But to make its economy grow in the long term, North Korea needs investments and markets. China is the only country that can provide those to North Korea.” [Source]

Chinese experts framed Zhao’s trip as a response to tensions between North Korea and the U.S.-South Korea alliance, and argued that the visit would bring stability to the Korean peninsula. Despite such talk, North Korea and China have an often difficult relationship, even as the former relies on the latter for almost all its economic and security needs. Recent reporting from The New Yorker has revealed that North Korea runs forced labor programs in China in violation of U.N. sanctions. China has denied all knowledge of the programs, claiming it adheres to sanctions despite sustaining “great losses.”

Xi Jinping also met with the former president of Taiwan Ma Ying-jeou in Beijing on Wednesday. The meeting with Ma, who has consistently espoused the view that China and Taiwan should “unify,” was widely perceived as a snub to the incoming administration of Taiwan’s President-elect Lai Ching-te, who is set to assume office in a matter of weeks. At The New York Times, Chris Buckley wrote about the politics of Xi Jinping’s meeting with the former KMT leader of Taiwan:

The meeting at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing was the first time that a Chinese leader has met a former president of Taiwan on Chinese soil. Mr. Xi and Mr. Ma held a handshake for around 15 seconds and smiled for the cameras. They then sat at a long table like two statesman entering negotiations, even though Mr. Ma has long been out of power.

[…] China’s “immediate focus is to push the incoming Lai administration to adopt a more accommodating political stance on cross-strait relations,” said Amanda Hsiao, the senior analyst for China with the Crisis Group, an organization that seeks to defuse wars and crises. “Ma’s visit helps to underscore Beijing’s position that cross-strait dialogue is conditioned on acceptance of the idea that the two sides of the strait belong to ‘one China.’”

[…] “The chances of restoring official dialogue [between China and Taiwan] are not high,” said [Chien-wen Kou, a professor at National Chengchi University in Taipei]. “Inviting Ma Ying-jeou to visit China is also intended to demonstrate that Lai Ching-te, in the Chinese Communist Party’s telling, represents only a minority of public opinion in Taiwan.” [Source]


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