Biden bids to break U.S.-China deadlockSeptember 16, 2021
President Joe Biden faces daunting challenges in building upon his Sept. 9 phone call to Chinese President Xi Jinping to reset bilateral ties made toxic by disagreements across the U.S.-China relationship.
Biden’s next steps are bedeviled by domestic constraints on both sides and stark disagreements on the two countries’ "core concerns" ranging from Taiwan, intensifying military activity in the Indo-Pacific, and human rights and rule of law in Xinjiang and Hong Kong.
Biden can’t afford to maintain the deepening antipathy between the U.S. and China that has effectively frozen substantive bilateral engagement. That antagonism has reduced U.S.-China talks in the first nine months of Biden’s presidency to rancorous posturing and bureaucratic limbo.
“We're not on speaking terms, and if you're not on speaking terms, there's not very much you can accomplish,” said Chas Freeman, whose half-century of diplomatic experience in China included a stint as President Richard Nixon’s lead interpreter and as deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing. “The Trump administration initiated a highly disrespectful and deliberately insulting relationship with the Chinese which the Biden administration is continuing because anything else would be domestically challenging politically.”
The official readouts of the Biden-Xi call conveyed surprisingly parallel concern. The White House referenced the need “to ensure competition does not veer into conflict,” while the Chinese Foreign Ministry described the two leaders’ resolve to prevent “letting competition veer into conflict.”
It’s unquestionable that the bilateral relationship is deeply troubled. Recent high-level bilateral meetings in Anchorage and the Chinese port city of Tianjin have curdled into vitriolic standoffs.
Trade talks have fallen fallow since a courtesy call in May between U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai and her counterpart, Vice Premier Liu He.
Diplomatic antipathy has likewise soured U.S.-China joint efforts to address climate change. U.S. Special Envoy for Climate John Kerry returned home empty-handed from meetings in China earlier this month after Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi made clear that climate cooperation “cannot be divorced from the overall situation of China-U.S. relations.” Mutual distrust has also hobbled military-to-military contacts, with the first Pentagon and China’s People’s Liberation Army direct contact since Biden took office occurring only last month.
U.S.-China ties are currently “as bad as [they’ve] been since Tiananmen or the immediate post-Tiananmen period,” said Susan L. Shirk, chair of the 21st Century China Center at the UC San Diego School of Global Policy and Strategy, referencing the June 4, 1989 massacre of Beijing citizens by Chinese troops. Shirk faults the Chinese government for failing to take the initiative to “mend fences” with the incoming Biden administration.
U.S. domestic politics have also undermined the willingness of both the Trump and Biden administrations to productively engage with China. U.S. politicians have effectively weaponized suspicions about the origin of the coronavirus, alleged Chinese links to cybercrime and spy operations targeting U.S. technology. The sole bipartisan theme in the current Congress is legislation, from infrastructure to technology spending, that implicitly or explicitly addresses a perceived China threat.
Those moves have negatively impacted U.S. public opinion about China. The results of a Gallup Poll released in March revealed that the percentage of Americans who perceive China as “the greatest enemy of the U.S.” had more than doubled in a one-year period to 45 percent.
Biden’s capacity to develop a China engagement strategy that doesn’t hit the third rails of U.S. political and public animosity to China is extremely limited. And Xi’s uncompromising “Three Bottom Lines,” bolstered by a “List of U.S. Wrongdoings that Must Stop” and a “List of Key Individual Cases that China Has Concerns With” as preconditions for improving the relationship gives Biden little negotiating space.
“As long as this test of wills continues to define the relationship and both sides believe they can effectively ignore the other's negotiating position there is little hope for a substantive reset in the relationship for the foreseeable future,” said Ethan Paul, research associate at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.
Biden’s key advantage in overcoming those challenges is his decadelong history of face-to-face engagement with Xi. That personal connection could prove decisive if the two men get a chance to meet face-to-face, possibly on the sidelines of next month’s G-20 meeting in Rome.
But the Chinese leadership’s concerns about Covid-19 may derail that meeting. “I'm really concerned that the Chinese side will not let Xi Jinping leave China because of Covid and also his worries about getting through the 20th Party Congress [at end-2022],” said Shirk. There are already whispers in Beijing that Xi will attend the G-20 meeting virtually rather than in person, though that hasn’t been confirmed.
Biden administration moves since last Thursday’s call may complicate his efforts to convince Xi of his sincerity in minimizing friction points.
The Financial Times reported Friday that the U.S. government and Taiwan’s Foreign Minister Joseph Wu were holding “special channel” talks in Annapolis, Maryland, focused on changing the name of Taiwan’s representative office in Washington, D.C. from the "Taipei Economic and Cultural office" to the "Taiwan Economic and Cultural Office."
The Chinese government interprets the use of the word “Taiwan” for the democratically governed island’s overseas representation as an implicit rebuke of Beijing’s sovereignty claims.
“That's going to draw retaliation, not cooperation,” Freeman said. That view was echoed in a blog post published Monday by David Sacks, a research fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. “China will likely interpret the renaming of Taiwan’s office in the United States as yet another data point that proves it is a question of when, not if, the United States recognizes Taiwan as an independent country.”
Then, on Friday, media reports indicated that USTR may launch a probe of suspected Chinese trade subsidies.
On Monday, the White House announced that it would convene an in-person meeting on Sept. 24 of the informal geopolitical grouping called The Quad, which includes the U.S., India, Australia and Japan.
And Wednesday’s announcement of a defense and technology-sharing agreement between the U.S., U.K. and Australia (a thinly veiled hedge against China’s aggressive behavior in the Indo-Pacific) seems bound to unnerve Beijing.
Intentional or not, those moves may likely only complicate Biden’s efforts to pursue an improvement in U.S.-China relations. “There is no doubt that the timing and nature of these initiatives will make it exceedingly difficult to build off of the momentum created by the Biden-Xi call and may make Xi reluctant to engage in dialogue going forward if he felt blindsided,” Paul said.
— A tech update from Protocol | China. Protocol | China, backed by Robert Allbritton, publisher of Protocol and POLITICO, tracks the intersection of technology and policy in the world's largest country. Sign up for the newsletter and learn more about Protocol’s research here. This week’s coverage includes an examination of how Tencent has come to dominate charitable giving in China, with unpredictable results, and why Chinese big tech companies are taking the seemingly unusual step of setting up unions for their own employees.
— MILLEY DEFIED TRUMP WITH PLA OUTREACH. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley twice contacted Chinese People’s Liberation Army Chief Gen. Li Zuocheng to assure him that the U.S. military under President Donald Trump was not planning a surprise attack against China, a forthcoming book by Washington Post journalists Bob Woodward and Robert Costa reveals. The book, “Peril,” describes Milley contacting Li days prior to Trump’s Nov. 3, 2020, electoral defeat and again following the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection to assure Li that the U.S. was not planning war against China. Milley reportedly went so far as to assure Li that he would provide advance warning of any imminent “kinetic operations” against China. Trump has responded to these allegations by accusing Milley of “treason.”
But my POLITICO colleagues spoke with multiple sources familiar with the situation, including then-Defense Secretary Christopher Miller, who called the claims of Milley’s “secret” phone call “grossly exaggerated.” Read more here.
— SEC SEEKS CHINESE CORPORATE ACCOUNTABILITY. Securities and Exchange Commission Chair Gary Gensler warned on Monday that 270 “China-related companies” risk SEC-imposed trading suspensions by 2024 unless they comply with U.S. accounting transparency regulations. In a Wall Street Journal op-ed, Gensler said those companies are currently in breach of provisions of the Holding Foreign Companies Accountable Act that requires listed firms to prove that they are “not owned or controlled by a foreign government.” Gensler didn’t name the companies at risk of suspension but said the HFCAA gives companies three years from its January implementation to allow the SEC’s oversight board to verify whether audits of listed firms “are up to U.S. standards.”
— HERE COMES THE QUAD. Nothing says “pivot from Afghanistan” quite like an in-person meeting on Sept. 24 of the leaders of “The Quad,” an informal geopolitical grouping which includes the U.S., India, Australia, and Japan. White House press secretary Jen Psaki announced on Monday that Prime Minister Scott Morrison of Australia, Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India, and outgoing Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga of Japan would meet with Biden.
Psaki said the meeting “demonstrates the Biden-Harris Administration’s priority of engaging in the Indo-Pacific, including through new multilateral configurations to meet the challenges of the 21st century.” That’s code for new multilateral initiatives designed to counter China’s growing diplomatic and military heft in the Indo-Pacific. The timing of that meeting, just weeks following the calamitous U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, will likely focus minds in Beijing about a more robust U.S. military presence in the Indo-Pacific.
— BIDEN PLANS U.K., AUSTRALIA TECH SHARE. Biden announced a new working group with Britain and Australia to share advanced technologies in a thinly veiled bulwark against China, POLITICO’s Alex Ward and Paul McLeary reported Wednesday.
The trio, which will be known by the acronym AUKUS, will include cooperation on nuclear submarines (though Morrison made clear that this doesn’t mean nuclear-armed). It will also make it easier for the three countries to share information and know-how in key technological areas like artificial intelligence, cyber, underwater systems and long-range strike capabilities.
— BIDEN MULLS NEW CHINA TRADE PROBE. The White House is considering launching a new probe under Section 301 of the 1974 Trade Act of suspected Chinese government subsidies, Bloomberg, The Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times reported Friday. Consideration of that possible investigation was one of several China-related issues USTR chief Tai and Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo discussed at the White House on Friday, including enforcement of the so-called Phase One trade deal Trump signed with Beijing and ongoing administration review of China trade policies. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian responded Monday to those reports by warning that “the relevant trade policies adopted by the Trump administration only ended up hurting its own interests.”
— SENATOR SCRUTINIZES SUSPECTED CHINA COVID ORIGINS. Sen. Roger Marshall (R-Kan.) unveiled an initiative on Thursday to probe the origin of the coronavirus that causes Covid-19 and possible related Chinese government cover-ups. Marshall has an eight-point plan to achieve those objectives, including the imposition of “sanctions and immigration restraints on China” and a release of all classified U.S. intelligence about the coronavirus dating back to September 2019. Marshall’s proposals, if adopted, will go head-to-head with an imaginative Chinese government initiative to link the origin of the coronavirus to the U.S. military lab at Fort Detrick in Maryland.
— FEDERAL JUDGE TRASHES “CHINA INITIATIVE” CASE. A federal judge in Tennessee dealt a death blow on Thursday to a controversial prosecution of a Canadian academic under the Department of Justice’s “China Initiative” program. U.S. District Judge Thomas Varlan acquitted Anming Hu on charges of concealing his China ties while applying for U.S. government grants related to work on a NASA project. Varlan declared that “no rational jury could conclude that defendant acted with a scheme to defraud NASA.” The China Initiative is a Trump-era DOJ program designed to expose Chinese state-backed efforts to steal intellectual property. Critics including Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) have criticized the DOJ effort, claiming it’s racial profiling. The day before Hu’s acquittal, 177 Stanford University academics issued a public letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland demanding termination of the China Initiative for reasons including “disproportionately targeting researchers of Chinese origin.”
— UNLEASHING CHINA’S INFECTIOUS DISEASE DETECTIVES. The Chinese government is stonewalling a proposed World Health Organization probe into the origins of the coronavirus that causes Covid-19. But global infectious disease expert Michael Callahan offers a bold proposal to bring China to the table — built on America’s little-known but successful 25-year record of overseas biosecurity campaigns. He argues that, despite the impasse, there are still some carrots that could appeal to China’s ground-level medical experts. Read the full story here in POLITICO Magazine.
— CHINA LAUNCHES 'CIVILIZED INTERNET' CAMPAIGN. The world’s most heavily state-surveilled and censored Internet can always benefit from more policing. That’s the message of Chinese regulators who announced on Tuesday a new campaign to establish a “civilized cyber culture.” Bolstered by a government directive last month to severely restrict the amount of time children spend playing online video games, regulators promised to extend the reach of the Chinese online nanny state to “educate the majority of netizens to consciously resist bad practices and promote civilized customs.”
Online platforms are also on the hook, with pending guidance on how “to enhance national security awareness.” Perhaps reading the tea leaves — or a sternly worded preemptive memo from regulators — a total of 14 of China’s top online content providers, including Weibo and Tencent, on Sept. 13 signed a joint proclamation committing their firms to “self-discipline” in online content management.
— BEIJING DERIDES UYGHUR TRIBUNAL AS 'FARCE.' Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian on Thursday unloaded both barrels on a convening of international researchers and legal experts in the United Kingdom to discuss human rights abuses against Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang. The “Uyghur Tribunal,” a volunteer effort of jurists, diplomats and medical personnel, seeks to publicize serious human rights violations in Xinjiang that the U.S. government has deemed genocide. That was all red meat for Zhao, who smeared tribunal participants as “terrorists” and “habitual liars” and described the tribunal itself as a “kangaroo court” perpetuated by “anti-China clowns.”
— TASK FORCE’S GRIM ASSESSMENT OF BILATERAL TIES. “The U.S.-China policy playbook urgently needs rewriting.” That was the key message of a report published Tuesday by the Task Force on U.S.-China Policy, a group of China experts convened by the Asia Society’s Center on U.S.-China Relations and the UC San Diego School of Global Policy and Strategy. The new report, "China’s New Direction: Challenges and Opportunities for U.S. Policy," unpacks how President Xi’s expression of “a vision that is increasingly antagonistic to U.S. interests,” complicates traditional calculations of U.S. government China policy. The report provides detailed analysis of stresses in the bilateral relationship in areas including politics, diplomacy and technology. The overall message: “Stabilize the relationship so the two countries don’t blow themselves up,” said Shirk, the chair of the 21st Century China Center at UC San Diego.
— WEIBO GOES RADUCANU WILD. Weibo loves a winner with Chinese roots. The Anglo-Romanian-Canadian tennis sensation Emma Raducanu, whose mother hails from the northeastern Chinese city of Shenyang, delivers on both counts. Weibo went Raducanu wild after the 18-year-old defeated Leylah Fernandez to win the U.S. Open on Saturday. Weibo users gleefully overlooked Raducanu’s dual nationality and by Tuesday the hashtag “18-year-old Chinese teenager wins the U.S. Open” had garnered more than 200 million shares. Weibo user comments were uniformly positive, praising her for her apparent fluency in Mandarin and her value as a positive role model for young women. “Her success can inspire more women to participate” in sports, one Weibo user noted approvingly.
— SOHO BOSSES SCRUTINIZED AT U.S. OPEN. The co-founders of Chinese real estate development company Soho China were spotted in the crowd at the U.S. Open on Saturday by the Chinese internet. The reactions were not charitable. Soho China chair Pan Shiyi and his wife, Zhang Xin, were in the stands taking in some tennis the day after U.S. private equity firm Blackstone backed out of a $3 billion deal to purchase the company due to regulatory approval obstacles.
Channeling the spirit of President Xi’s ongoing crackdown on China’s more profitable firms and the billionaires who built them, some Weibo users speculated that the couple were fugitives from Chinese authorities. One poster urged Chinese authorities to confiscate the couple’s China-based assets. “The biggest, good news of the weekend, Pan Shiyi failed to escape!” the user exulted. “The next step is to ask the National Taxation Bureau to start liquidating Pan Shiyi and take SOHO China's real estate into the treasury [because] only in this way can the wealthy who transfer their assets abroad be afraid!”
— SHANG-CHI STAR’S ONLINE SMACKDOWN. Simu Liu, the Canadian-Chinese star of Marvel’s new hit movie, "Shang-Chi," has spent recent days fending off attacks from the most relentless of predators: Chinese netizens with a sense of wounded national pride. It all started when a Weibo user posted screenshots from a television interview Liu had done in 2017.
Each screenshot had English language text of Liu’s purported comments, which together read "When I was young my parents would tell me stories of growing up in communism in China, where you have people dying of starvation, they lived in the third world.” That post sparked a flood of comments on Weibo attacking Liu for demeaning the Chinese motherland. Those comments in turn fueled speculation that Liu’s perceived unpatriotic indiscretion would prompt Chinese regulators to forbid distribution of Shang-Chi, a death blow to box office receipts in the pandemic era.
Liu might consider following the example of Chinese-Canadian actor Nicholas Tse, who last week responded to online chatter about his nationality by announcing that he would renounce his Canadian citizenship and seek “to share Chinese culture with the whole world.”
Thanks to: Ben Pauker, Luiza Ch. Savage, Matt Kaminski and editor John Yearwood.
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