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Beijing makes Biden an offer he must refuse

Posted By on August 24, 2020 @ 14:30

Whatever Beijing may think about Donald Trump’s term as US president, we now know that its greatest wish is for US–China relations to return to the days of Barack Obama’s administration, when the two countries’ leaders met to discuss issues of bilateral importance and dialogue dominated. This special relationship (based on—you guessed it—mutual respect and win–win cooperation) is what China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi offered to a new US administration during a lengthy interview with state media outlet Xinhua [1] on 5 August.

Wang’s remarks are eerily reminiscent of Beijing’s line when Scott Morrison replaced Malcolm Turnbull as Australia’s prime minister in 2018 [2], and which reappeared in the lead-up [3] to the federal election in May 2019. Each time, Beijing and its advocates said that the new Australian government had a golden chance to ‘reset the relationship’, change the tone of its policy towards Beijing and reverse some key decisions taken out of misplaced Cold War thinking.

In short, we were told that any problems or tensions between our two nations were the simple result of misguided thinking in Canberra.

Now, Wang is making this same offer to Joe Biden should he win the November US election.

‘We are ready to restart the dialogue mechanisms with the US side at any level, in any area and at any time. All issues can be put on the table for discussion’, Wang said.

‘Our message is quite clear: We urge the US to stop acting with arrogance and prejudice, but enter into constructive dialogue with us on an equal footing. We hope that it will work with us to ease current tensions and put the relations back onto the right track of no conflict, no confrontation, mutual respect and win–win cooperation.’

This could all be music to Biden’s ears, as he prizes his ability to establish working relationships with other leaders. ‘[A]ll politics is personal, particularly international relations’, he says. ‘You’ve got to know the other man’s or woman’s soul, and who they are, and make sure they know you.’

When I read that [4], I couldn’t help thinking of Trump’s summits with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un and ‘bromance’ with Russia’s Vladimir Putin—and of former prime minister Kevin Rudd’s belief that his personal charisma would move the world at the Copenhagen climate change conference. These are all recent applications of the ‘great man’ theory of leadership and the power of chemistry. And they were all failures.

Indeed, the fundamental fact of strategic and technological competition between China and the US makes any personal chemistry of far less value. Xi Jinping simply won’t concede on issues because he’s shared 25 meals and travelled 17,000 miles [5] with Biden. But he’d be delighted if Biden did.

So, Biden’s most attractive feature in working with partners and allies is probably among his most worrying features when it comes to running US–China relations.

Putting this together with the rest of Wang’s vision for US–China relations is where the trouble really starts, though.

On Hong Kong, the US needs to butt out and let China implement its national security regime there, Wang says. There’s no mention of Beijing breaking the international commitments it gave in the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration, and no acknowledgement that democracies like the US, the UK and Australia might have real interests in not seeing freedom of expression suppressed in Hong Kong.

On the South China Sea, apparently the problem again is the US’s ‘provocative actions’. Washington needs to let Beijing work with the smaller claimant states to ‘make the South China Sea a sea of peace, friendship and cooperation’—backed by bigger military installations [6] and more troops on the artificial islands Beijing has seized, along with unilateral declarations of administrative control.

Wang glides over whether it’s Chinese policy to build ‘national champions’ in technology through all means—including technology theft and distorted home markets. So a reset relationship would involve Biden ending restrictions on Chinese technology companies; releasing Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou, who is charged with [7] evading US sanctions; and presumably reopening China’s consulate [8] in Houston so it can get on with business.

Towards the end of the interview, Wang seems to get to what’s really on his mind—both what Beijing wants and what it fears.

Wang tells us, ‘China’s US policy is always consistent and stable.’ This is a deeply unsettling truth presented as a reassuring positive. Beijing’s policy towards the US is indeed unchanging—and is determined by the vision Xi has set out [9] for a China-centred global economy in which China has strategic, technological and economic dominance. All this is best enabled by the kind of US–China relationship that Xi had with Obama, and which he wants to return under a future Biden administration.

Then we are told the US and China must ‘steer clear of red lines and avoid confrontation’. This statement closely follows Wang’s red-line drawing on Hong Kong, the South China Sea and Huawei—an irony that seems to have passed him by. Perhaps it’s a more subtle idea, though: it has indeed been Beijing’s preferred mode of causing discomfort and disquiet but not doing quite enough to provoke outright confrontation. So this might be another case of yearning for times past, when Obama avoided confrontation while China built military bases in the South China Sea.

Next Wang stresses the need to ‘keep the channels open for candid dialogue’, saying, ‘China’s door to dialogue remains open … in the spirit of equality and open-mindedness’. This evokes Xi’s offer to Obama of a ‘new model [10]of great power relations’. The last time Beijing proposed this model, Washington was smart enough to know that simple bilateral engagement meant the US unliterally disempowering itself instead of working with its unique set of multilateral partners and alliances as a primary means of managing Beijing. Wang seems to hope that this old wine in a new bottle will find a market with the Biden team.

Wang ends with a lovely flourish on world harmony, cooperation on the pandemic, and the US and China working together with the United Nations ‘for world peace and stability’. But not before he mentions what comes over as an area of real anxiety. The US must ‘reject decoupling and uphold cooperation’.

Apparently, this is because decoupling will ‘endanger the security of international industrial chains’. Perhaps it’s a sign that out of the many Trumpian directions, economic decoupling, notably in high technology, is what Beijing’s leaders find the most unsettling and disruptive for their vision of Chinese power. That’s worth thinking about for the post-pandemic rebuild of the global economy and the role of trusted [11] economic partnerships between the US and others, whoever wins in November.

The net effect of the Wang agenda for US–China relations would be Beijing pocketing all its strategic gains in recent years and gaining US acquiescence for its policy directions and actions. In return, a new US administration would apologise for the tensions and trouble its predecessor caused. Maybe then new dialogue on climate change and other shared challenges can begin, who knows.

Whatever the outcome in November, Wang has confirmed that Washington faces a bluntly determined Beijing with a clear agenda. He presents a narrative that sounds almost appealing, until you look inside the wrapper and compare notes with others who have been gifted similar opportunities to re-engage on Beijing’s terms. And Wang’s message may even be more conciliatory than Xi himself is willing to be.

May Beijing be disappointed in November, with whoever wins understanding that managing Beijing involves more than tone and personal relationships. Beijing’s policy towards the US and its allies is, as Wang has said, ‘always consistent and stable’. No amount of Covid-safe meal-sharing and soulful gazes between Biden and Xi can change that.

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URL to article: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/beijing-makes-biden-an-offer-he-must-refuse/

URLs in this post:

[1] interview with state media outlet Xinhua: https://www.fmprc.gov.cn/mfa_eng/wjb_663304/wjbz_663308/2461_663310/t1804328.shtml

[2] 2018: https://theconversation.com/australia-and-china-push-the-reset-button-on-an-important-relationship-106428

[3] lead-up: https://www.afr.com/politics/federal/why-china-wants-shorten-to-win-20190509-p51lqn

[4] read that: https://www.kpcw.org/post/bidens-foreign-policy-all-about-relationships-thats-harder-amid-pandemic#stream/0

[5] 25 meals and travelled 17,000 miles: https://www.rev.com/blog/transcripts/joe-biden-reno-nevada-town-hall-campaign-transcript-february-17-2020

[6] military installations: https://amti.csis.org/

[7] charged with: https://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/chinese-telecommunications-conglomerate-huawei-and-huawei-cfo-wanzhou-meng-charged-financial

[8] consulate: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/22/world/asia/us-china-houston-consulate.html

[9] vision Xi has set out: http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/download/Xi_Jinping

[10] new model : https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-china-34290960

[11] trusted: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/deficit-blows-out-in-chinas-trust-account-with-the-world/

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