Secretary of State Antony Blinken said he knew, going into the first face-to-face meetings with China’s top two foreign affairs officials on March 17, that “we are fundamentally at odds.” Bad omen. The opening session was evidently just below a shouting match, lacking both mutual respect and a commitment to seek the positives. “This really is a one-off meeting,” one US official said. “This is not the resumption of a particular dialogue mechanism or the beginning of a dialogue process.” Really? Why not? I should think a dialogue process is needed right now, before US-China tensions get completely out of hand.
Blinken and his partner, Jake Sullivan, the national security adviser, seemed to think they had home field advantage. But they were sitting opposite two seasoned diplomats, Yang Jiechi, a communist party politburo member and former foreign minister, and the current foreign minister, Wang Yi. These guys have been around the block, so to speak, and were not about to be lectured to or put on the defensive, least of all when the Biden administration had just placed sanctions on Chinese officials in Hong Kong.
The most difficult issue seemed to be the US insistence that China respect a “rules-based order.” Blinken and Sullivan should have realized that idea is a non-starter. To them “rules-based” means that China must stop repression in Tibet, Hong Kong, and Xinjiang; must stop using pressure against Taiwan and the South China Sea islands; and must stop cyber attacks. Those activities, said Blinken, are “not merely [Chinese] internal matters.” But to the Chinese they are precisely internal matters, and while the Chinese leadership’s policies deserve criticism, don’t expect them to alter their thinking, much less change their behavior.
Do expect pushback. As Yang said—to great applause in China, by the way—“the US has no qualification to say you speak to China from a position of strength.” He went on to remind the Americans that they too have “internal problems,” adding that “it is important for the United States to change its own image, and to stop advancing its own democracy in the rest of the world.”
To the Chinese and many others, a “rules-based order” means rules made in the USA, mainly to benefit the USA. We’re in a new ball game, however. As Rachel Esplin Odell writes, there is now more than one world order:
As the United States seeks to adapt to a more multipolar global system and an increasingly powerful and important China, it should avoid the both inaccurate and harmful portrayal of China as a threat to the overall world order. A more fine-grained understanding and less Manichean rhetoric will help the United States make better strategy—avoiding Cold War-style competition, while identifying where to focus our efforts in both working with and against the Chinese government.
So when Blinken insisted that a “rules-based order” was good for everyone—“It helps countries resolve differences peacefully, coordinate multilateral efforts effectively and participate in global commerce”—and protects us from “a world in which might makes right and winners take all,” the Chinese were predictably upset. Yang Jiechi replied by challenging the US claims to global leadership, saying that “the US does not represent the world, it only represents the government of the United States.” Yang was kind enough not to recite the long list of ways that Washington has broken the rules on the basis of might making right, such as unilateral military interventions abroad, sanctions, attempts at regime change, and tariff wars.
Creating Room for Dialogue
When the issue of competing political systems came up, Yang said: “Many people within the United States actually have little confidence in the democracy of the United States. According to opinion polls, the leaders of China have the wide support of the Chinese people.” Blinken, instead of simply asserting that President Biden also has “wide support,” responded defensively:
We make mistakes. We have reversals, we take steps back. But what we’ve done throughout our history is to confront those challenges — openly, publicly, transparently — not trying to ignore them, not trying to pretend they don’t exist. Sometimes it’s painful. Sometimes it’s ugly. But each and every time we’ve come out stronger, better, more united, as a country.
The US representatives charged that their Chinese counterparts were “grandstanding,” when in truth both sides were playing to their home galleries. The Chinese needed to demonstrate that their country has arrived and would only accept being treated as equals. The official Xinhua news agency’s report on the meeting reflected those aims, while also calling for restoring “normal dialogue and exchange mechanisms.” Yet James Palmer of Foreign Policy magazine wrote: “Yang and Wang have to prove themselves in an official climate back home where anything other than aggressive yelling would be painted by their political rivals as treason or weakness.” Really? Blinken and Sullivan weren’t “grandstanding” for the right-wingers and some liberals in Congress who are China bashers and believe China policy should be rooted in cowboy toughness?
One may hope that future US-China meetings seek common ground rather than indulge in recriminations or play to the folks back home. Foreign Minister Wang seemed willing to forgive and forget when he spoke a few days after the Alaska meetings, saying that while the Chinese are “masters” of their own circumstances and will brook no interference, “a checklist of necessary cooperation [in China-US relations] is before us, including fighting the coronavirus, economic recovery, climate change, etc.”
In contrast, Blinken said any follow-on meetings would “really have to be based on the proposition that we’re seeing tangible progress and tangible outcomes on the issues of concern to us with China.” That is not a dialogue-promoting message. It tells the Chinese that “progress” depends on their giving ground—hardly the kind of diplomacy required for what Blinken has called “the biggest geopolitical test of the 21st century.” But read his boss’s lips: the test is actually more about economics and politics—meeting “stiff competition” from China and proving democracy works better than autocracy.
If the US pursues Biden’s course with China, which means bringing foreign policy home, it will not only help ease tensions with Beijing. It will also stop feeding the ranks of China’s hawks, as one prominent Chinese commentator, Jia Qingguo of Beijing University, recently implied. US policy, which he characterized as “containment,” “is pushing us into a bifurcated world. In China, more people are thinking we need to form our own closer security relationships with certain countries, and there are others who worry about this road we may have to take.” Jia warned: “China believes it’s a stakeholder of the existing international order, but if you take away its stake, you’ll see a much different face,” he said. “To help Americans while they keep bashing you? I don’t think China would do that.”
President Biden has just invited China and Russia to join climate talks in Washington. Let’s see if the stakeholder ingredient in China’s foreign policy holds up.