ALARMING CHANGES IN BIDEN’S CHINA POLICY
The US policy toward China has been undergoing a change. President Joe Biden, who declared soon after taking office that the US would negotiate with China “from a position of strength,” has not managed to uphold that declaration. This is a serious matter for Japan. The new administration of Prime Minister Fumio Kishida must astutely discern the evolving changes in US-China relations and expedite taking measures to strengthen Japan’s position in the region.
During the Senate confirmation hearing in January, secretary of state nominee Antony Blinken contended that he, like his outgoing predecessor Mike Pompeo, recognized China’s treatment of Muslim Uyghers as “genocide.” Blinken’s stringent posture toward China during the hearing led to his intense verbal battle in Alaska on March 18 with China’s top diplomat Yang Jie-chi.
One would take it for granted that Blinken’s tough posture is in complete accord with that of Biden. In point of fact, the President clearly took a bullish stand in his first telephone talk with Xi Jinping a month before Blinken met with Yang in Alaska, on February 10.
Biden and Xi talked for about two hours. Information released by Washington and Beijing following the phone call reveals that Xi, eager to see “improvement in bilateral relations,” took considerable time appealing for a need for closer cooperation between the two nations.
Xi especially emphasized the need to reestablish dialogue to foster mutual understanding, fully anticipating Biden would come out strongly against issues like China’s suppression of human rights. China has a propensity for stalling for time when cornered into a disadvantageous position. That obviously is why Xi called for a resumption of high-level dialogue. By increasing the opportunity for mutual understanding, Xi presumably intends to create a situation under which risks in China’s relations with the US can be more easily managed.
Meanwhile, Biden distanced himself from the “dialogue” and “cooperation” Xi proposed, declaring that maintaining his “free and open Indo-Pacific” strategy, to which Beijing strongly objects as a security framework to contain China, is his administration’s top priority. Biden underscored his fundamental concerns about Beijing’s crackdown on Hongkong and increasingly aggressive actions toward Taiwan.
The Chinese side sounded more anxious to cement the bilateral relations by emphasizing “cooperation” and “dialogue” as the key words used by the two leaders in their telephone talk. But the US side was more restrained, with Biden referring to the need for continued “engagement” with China.
Biden delivered an important address on April 14 against this backdrop, clarifying America’s new strategy designed to withdraw from Afghanistan by September and shift American armed forces from the Middle East to Asia in order to more effectively cope with the increasing threat of China. Biden called on its allies, including Japan, for expanded cooperation in this regard.
Two days later, on April 16, Biden invited Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga to his first face-to-face summit with a foreign head of state since taking office. Responding to Biden’s request, Suga pledged to bolster the Japanese Self-Defense Forces, beef up the US-Japan alliance, and strive for closer mutual cooperation to enhance deterrence against hostile forces. Suga further vowed during a joint news conference with Biden that he had no intention whatsoever to “concede in matters relating to sovereignty.” Suga’s remarks, made with China clearly in mind, led observers to conclude that the Japanese government had finally crossed the Rubicon.
Biden’s operation to withdraw from Afghanistan was executed far more naively than anyone could have anticipated. On July 2, all American forces in Afghanistan pulled out in the shade of the night, abandoning Bagram Air Base, the center of the war against the militants for nearly two decades. The Taliban got a boost from the hurried US withdrawal, spurring them on to quickly putting the whole of Afghanistan under their control.
At about that time, US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman was visiting Tianjin, China, to confer with Wang Yi, her Chinese counterpart and State Counselor. Assuming a posture that could only be termed high-handed throughout their talks, Wang presented her with two long lists of grievances, including a demand that Huawei deputy chairman Meng Wanzhou, detained in Canada since December 2018, be released.
The US withdrawal has clearly besmirched America’s reputation, its negative effects breeding Chinese contempt that has in turn cast a dark shadow over subsequent bilateral diplomatic negotiations. On September 1, US special presidential envoy for climate John Kerry also visited Tianjin for talks with his Chinese counterpart Xie Zhenhua, a veteran diplomat. Kerry is a dyed-in-the-wool environmentalist who believes the earth will perish unless mankind manages to cut greenhouse emissions. The Wall Street Journal in its September 2 edition quoted him as appealing to the Chinese that, despite a host of critical issues affecting US-China relations, “the world’s two largest CO2 emitters should genuinely cooperate with each other.”
Frankly, I think China cares little about CO2 deep down. Anyone possessed with a notion like Kerry that environmental issues should take precedence is an easy game for the Chinese. As expected, Xie coldly informed Kerry that collaboration on climate change couldn’t be isolated from the overall state of relations. Xie reportedly demanded that the US respond to “the two lists” previously delivered to Sherman.
Xie was referring to the “List of U.S. Wrongdoings that Must Stop,” and the “List of Key Individual Cases that China Has Concerns With.”
In the first list, China urged the US to unconditionally revoke the visa restrictions of Communist Party of China (CPC) members and their families, revoke sanctions on Chinese leaders, officials and government agencies, and remove visa restrictions on Chinese students. It also urged the US to stop suppressing Chinese enterprises, stop harassing Chinese students, stop suppressing the Confucius Institutes, and revoke the extradition request for Huawei’s Meng. The other list included a demand that the US withdraw restrictions on visa applications for Chinese students wanting to study in the US.
“A Major Victory for the Chinese People”
While the confidence in the US wavered in the international community, Biden had his second telephone conversation with Xi on September 9. The Chinese media reported that Beijing was “responding to America’s request,” insinuating that China did the US a favor.
During the 90-minute conversation Xi largely blamed the US for deteriorating ties but expressed optimism that the two powers could find ways to improve their relationship, according to the Wall Street Journal, which quoted a readout provided by the Chinese Embassy in Washington. The Journal said Biden was “not seeking a specific outcome on a range of issues,” but described him as under pressure from the US business community to “start renegotiations with China and cut (punitive) tariffs on imports.” Faced with a tough political situation at home, Biden is criticized for having unconditionally accepted the two lists.
As it turned out, Meng was released on September 24. While she consistently claimed that Huawei is a private corporation that has nothing to do with the Chinese government, she arrived at the Shenzhen Baoan Airport on September 25 dressed in red, the symbolic color of the Chinese Communist Party. Chinese TV stations broadcast her return live, with The People’s Daily describing it as “a major victory for the Chinese people.”
Only ten months since Biden took office, US-China relations are clearly changing.
Discussing the Biden administration’s new China trade strategy in an address on October 5, US Trade Representative Katherine Tai had this to say about decoupling the American and Chinese markets at CSIS (Center for Strategic and International Studies):
“I think the concern is whether the US and China need to stop trading with each other. I don’t think that’s a realistic outcome. But I think the issue, perhaps, is how you can recouple.”
On October 8, Tai spoke with Vice Premier Liu He by phone and agreed that US-China trade ties must be strengthened. The previous day, the administration announced that Biden would meet Xi by video link by the end of this year to further discuss the bilateral ties.
In light of the chronology of developments in both the US and China, the Biden administration clearly appears to be steadily backtracking from its self-declared “position of strength.” America is losing its determination to never condone China’s lawlessness or suppression of its minorities. Prime Minister Kishida and my dear fellow citizens, we will not be able to safeguard our peace and security unless all of us commit ourselves more earnestly to defending our nation.
(Translated from “Renaissance Japan” column no. 971 in the October 21, 2021 issue of The Weekly Shincho)