Twelve years ago in autumn, the Year of the Ox according to the traditional Chinese horoscope and a year after the massive 2008 financial crisis, then US President Barack Obama went to Beijing to propose a mega deal to China. It was a pact about the environment that could include technology transfer from the US to China. The pact didn’t gain traction in China and was finally scuttled at the climate conference in Copenhagen that December.
Last week, again in the Year of the Ox, US Special Envoy for Climate John Kerry went to Tianjin to broach the environmental issue with the Chinese. Kerry, secretary of state for Obama from 2013 to 2017, didn’t fare much better this time. Kerry was reportedly arguing that the two countries should cooperate on climate, which is common for the whole world despite differences.
No substantive replies apparently came from Beijing. Quite the opposite, strident sounds were voiced in the official dispatches. Besides, there was the strange framework of the meeting: Kerry flew to Tianjin for a video conference with his Chinese counterparts, who remained secluded in Beijing for fear of the Covid infection. Couldn’t Kerry then avoid the trip?
The Year of the Ox seems to be no good for US-China diplomacy.
As tensions rise between the US and China, there is a growing concern about the lack of dialogue between the two leaders, who have not met and possibly will not meet any time soon.
China analyst Liu Yawei acutely argued: “It is certainly premature for many in China to celebrate the American loss in Afghanistan and to believe that an era of Chinese supremacy is around the corner. It is more important for Chinese leaders to be clear-eyed about enduring American strength and refrain from comparing the US failure in Afghanistan to its efforts to get China to change its domestic and international behavior. They are not the same. For Beijing to believe this traumatic episode for the US is going to knock Washington into a more accommodating attitude toward Beijing is naïve and wishful thinking.
On the contrary, Beijing should take this rare opportunity to demonstrate its sincerity by shouldering more international responsibility and by joining the US in its effort to see a peaceful, people-oriented, and inclusive government emerge in Kabul. It is not in China’s interest to see the country under the Taliban become a safe haven for terrorism. Building a community of shared value for mankind has to be action-oriented, and no action is better than Washington and Beijing joining hands in restoring peace and enabling development in war-torn Afghanistan.”
The impression is that under the shadow of possible global recriminations for Covid and the preparations for the Party Congress next year, Chinese president Xi Jinping wants or needs a summit with American president Joe Biden only if it’s a success, i.e., the US agrees to Wang Yi’s three premises: “1. The US cannot challenge or attempt to subvert China’s political system; 2. the US must not obstruct China’s economic development; and 3. the US should stop infringing upon China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
China’s top diplomat and Politburo member Yang Jiechi on September 2 reportedly said to Kerry: “As the confrontation between China and the United States serves no one’s interests, Yang said the two countries should have mutual respect, coexist peacefully, handle differences properly, and work for win-win results. ‘This will serve the fundamental interests of people on both sides and people of all countries in the world,’ Yang said.
He expressed the hope that the United States can take into consideration the common interests of the two sides and the long-term interests itself, take concrete steps to rectify wrongdoings, view China and bilateral relations in an objective and rational manner, and respect China’s political system and development path.” (italics mine)
It seems very unlikely that the US will agree to “rectify its mistakes,” so perhaps a summit is unlikely anytime soon.
There could be more bad weather around China in the future.
Additionally, insisting on these three premises/demands would undercut any significant dialogue, and de facto, it means moving formally toward a political stalemate (historically solved only through conflict).
Right or wrong, America’s or other countries’ qualms about China all concern one or more of these three demands. If China objects to the qualms, it should offer an alternative reading or compromises and seek common understanding through convincing dialogue.
If this doesn’t happen and Beijing demands accepting the premises first, what will the dialogue really be about? Just accepting China’s undisputed global position?
Even if China is right about the American decline, that demand would be a humiliation for America and other countries supporting America, in part or all. Can America and other countries take that humiliation now and thus usher in a different global order with China as the center? Is China totally sure it will “win” this confrontation? Shouldn’t it at least hedge its bets?
The impression is that Beijing was wrong-footed in Anchorage and is now trying to make up for the fiasco to the domestic audience. But it may not have entirely thought through the vast consequences of its present reply and position.
This position paints China in a tricky corner. Beijing should start to think along different lines, perhaps. The climate—the weather—doesn’t help, and most likely, China won’t get much help from global cooperation either.
But this is not the whole story, as the US apparently hasn’t thought many things through.
Last week Chris Caldwell detailed the European frustration and confusion about America’s disorderly withdrawal from Afghanistan. However, he rightly pointed out that all the present vigorous talk about creating a common defense under the EU is likely moot.
The US made all the effort to shape a common European identity. America invented and groomed a united Europe after World War II to stop the cycles of wars in the continent and hem in the USSR’s rising threat. Europe, different from France, Germany, or Italy, is Washington’s brainchild; without the “constant gardening” of the US, Europe would have dissolved a long time ago.
Still, the Kabul fiasco is a stab at a crucial element of transatlantic relations and the general direction of NATO.
Soldiers are asked to potentially die for an idea, which can be the idea of a country, of a purpose, a family, et cetera. The idea therefore must be solid and convincing. NATO soldiers served against communism. After 9/11, the US told the Europeans it was time to use NATO against Muslim terrorism, and the thousands of dead Americans were evidence of the global threat.
Now the US wants to move against China… but why? What is the goal? There has been so far little or no explanation from the US. Yes, newspapers report daily how bad China is, but that was going on for years to some degree. Yes, now it could be much worse, but there must be more than that. There are plenty of bad countries in the world; you can’t fix them all. In fact, in some, like Afghanistan, the US is giving up.
Then why should Europe gear up against China, really? The reasons provided so far are weak, and naturally, the European armies called out of Afghanistan and now deployed or about to be deployed in the South China Sea against China could go berserk.
If the US wants to move out of Afghanistan and concentrate on China, then it must do some serious “ideological work” (in Marxist terminology) in Europe. Otherwise, the Europeans will go mad with unfathomable consequences for everything and everybody.
Looking at this from China, Beijing may believe that the US is definitely waning and it is unreliable and thus why should they seriously talk without putting down some firm guidelines.
Then things go in a loop and may well spin out of control.