The Biden-Xi Meeting: A fable of the Scorpion and the Frog

Photograph Source: Office of the President of the United States – Public Domain

China is trying to prevent the US from harming itself and others

The Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson’s reporting on the APEC meeting between Presdient Xi and President Biden can be neatly neatly summarized as China, playing the role of the adult, trying to summon a petulant US child back to its senses to avoid harming itself and others.  China’s message in brief is, “come back to win-win or we are all damned”.

President Xi Jinping noted that there are two options for China and the U.S. in the era of global transformations unseen in a century: One is to enhance solidarity and cooperation and join hands to meet global challenges and promote global security and prosperity; and the other is to cling to the zero-sum mentality, provoke rivalry and confrontation, and drive the world toward turmoil and division. The two choices point to two different directions that will decide the future of humanity and Planet Earth.

The Buddha and the Beast: Dharma for dummies

But more than just an injunction or exhortation, China spelled out a concrete, positive path for the US to step away from its dangerous, escalatory, conflictual ways.  This formulation is both wide-reaching, comprehensive, thoughtful, and clearly spelled out.

China has put a lot of effort into offering the US a good faith message on how to avoid conflict and inflicting suffering on the world.  It’s a road map on how to achieve peace and prosperity, and it offers clear, actionable suggestions on how to work together for solidarity & cooperation, instead of rivalry and confrontation.

Buddhist influence is very strong in Chinese culture, and the historical Buddha was a skilled communicator, putting things in a way that people of the time could readily understand.  The Chinese message to the US has strong Buddhist assumptions and overtones related to intersubjective awareness and mutuality: the closest Western framing would be the valuation of Habermas over Hobbes. But in order to fully unpack the Chinese message, it’s useful to go over some of the core Buddhist philosophy that permeates it.

In traditional Buddhist doctrine, the historical Buddha formulated an 8-step path to release all beings from suffering. These are Right View, Right Intention, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Awareness, and Right Focus.

The Chinese have offered an analogous, 5 step process, with easy-to-follow steps, resonant of this 8-fold path at the meeting. To summarize:

Right Perception (=Right View): China is not out to get you or dominate you.  Jointly develop clear understanding.
Right Communication (=Right Speech):  Jointly manage disagreements skillfully to create harmony.
Right Cooperation (=Right Action):  Jointly develop mutual cooperation
Right Responsibility/Right Example (=Right Livelihood): : Jointly shoulder responsibility and develop public goods for the benefit of the whole world
Right Relationship (=Right Effort): Jointly develop people-to-people exchanges to support the above

Notice that these are not lectures on what the US is to do by itself.  It is all about “jointly developing” the above capacities together.

All of these are positive steps, positive injunctions built on a consciousness and foundation of intersubjectivity and mutuality. They are both modest and reasonable. They focus on peace, win-win, mutual respect, cooperation, mutual development and enrichment.

These are also counterpoints to the 5 No’s (No regime change, No cold war [No bloc-forming], No hot war, No economic war [No obstruction of development], No taiwan secession/provocation) elucidated on the sidelines of the Bali Summit when President Biden met with President Xi in November of last year.  The US intoned and gave lip service to these agreements in Bali (now referred to as the “Bali Consensus”), but it has respected these agreements more in their breach than in their observation.  In fact, it has crossed red lines on 4 of the 5 injunctions.

Here, China is taking the high road and seeking to accentuate the positive in order to implement Bali, rather than calling out the US for its failures and perfidy. Each step can be seen as an antidote to the US’s negative formulation:

1. Avoid regime change against China: Positively seek Right perception and understanding
2. Avoid cold war against China (no bloc forming): Positively seek Right relationship and Right cooperation
3. Avoid hot war against China: Positively engage in right communication.
4. Avoid economic war against China: Positively work for right livelihood

Warning Lights: If you accelerate when you see Yellow, can you stop on Red?

However, there is the warning on the last No: No provocation over Taiwan island.  This is the red light, the reddest of China’s red lines, where Right intention is critical.
Taiwan island is China’s core interest, and an inalienable part of China. China’s message is:  “Do not ukrainize Taiwan.  Do not weaponize our own territory against us. Do not sever our limb from us and use it to attack us. Respect the one China Principle”.

This recalls the Jataka story of the Buddha and the criminal serial murderer Angulimala, who liked to kill his victims by severing limbs, necks, fingers.

The story goes something like this:

Angulimala is a serial killer who has killed 999 people.  He cuts off their body parts, fingers and uses them to make a garland around his neck.
He runs after the Buddha, soon to be his 1000th victim, to catch him, kill him, and dismember him.
The Buddha keeps walking slowly and calmly, but for some reason, Angulimala, running frantically, is unable to catch up with him.
As fast as he runs, he is unable to catch up. Finally, out of breath and in extreme frustration, he shouts,  “Stop!”   
“Stop! Stop!!”

The Buddha keeps walking on, but says calmly to Angulimala:
“I have stopped. Now you stop”. 

The 5 steps above are invitations for the US to stop.  Can it stop?

How does the US respond to Chinese entreaties?  The Beast  tells us:

In Buddhism, there are three defilements, or poisons of the mind.  They are greed, delusion, and hatred.  It doesn’t take long for these to return to an undisciplined mind.

Here we see coming, the subtle Beast of Greed (Envy, Jealousy):

As President Xi’s car–the Hongqi limousine–comes round to pick him up, President Biden says, spontaneously:  “Beautiful vehicle you have there”.  A car aficionado himself, the president roots around the interior of the car, and then tells Xi:  “Reminds me of our own”. And then a change of beat:  “Did you know ours is called “the beast?”   

Recalling that the US has a deliberate strategy to undermine China’s EV car industry, and that “Hongqi” means “red flag”, for those attuned to the symbolism, the Hongqi is a “red flag” to Biden’s “beast”.   And so it goes.

The Beast of Ignorance and Delusion:

Having bid President Xi farewell, President Biden answers a question from a reporter.  Is President Xi a dictator?   Biden responds blithely and without thought, “Yes, he’s a dictator. He’s a guy who runs a communist country”.  Needless to say, this did not go over well.

And then, according to the US readout, more ignorance and delusion:

 “The US and China are in competition…the United States would always stand up for its interests, its values, and its allies and partners”
“our one China policy has not changed and has been consistent across decades and administrations.”

“President Biden underscored the universality of human rights and the responsibility of all nations to respect their international human rights commitments. He raised concerns regarding PRC human rights abuses, including in Xinjiang, Tibet, and Hong Kong.”

“The United States will continue to take necessary actions to prevent advanced U.S. technologies from being used to undermine our own national security”

Outside of the US-Washington neocon bubble, these are seen as ignorant statements of a deluded hegemon, that simply do not wash any more for the world.

A key current source of this ignorance, delusion, violence is CSIS and the military-think-tank-congressional witch hunt circuit on China (see here, for example).

Another great source of ignorance and delusion is CNAS, the Victoria Nuland-associated neocon think tank.   Founded by Michelle Flournoy and Kurt Campbell, the architect of China containment across and over three administrations, CNAS has provided 17 of the top officials for the White House, almost all of them obsessive-compulsive China hawks.  In fact, CNAS has been obsessively mapping out the war strategy, tactics, and doctrine for war against China.  Having created the war doctrine responsible for the tragedy and debacle in Afghanistan (“CoIn” or counterinsurgency), they take the concept of failing upwards to an extreme.  Not content with Ukraine, Palestine, they are itching to open a third front with China: most recently, in a White paper, the war wonks of CNAS argue that the US must prepare for protracted war with China over Taiwan.

A moment’s clarity might lead them to realize that China wrote the book–literally–on protracted war.
As the Chinese book says: “Can China win quickly? The answer is, No, she cannot… the war must be a protracted one. 
But the Beast follows its own instincts.  Delusion has its own logic.

The Beast of Hatred and Violence:

“President Biden reaffirmed that the United States, alongside allies and partners, will continue to support Ukraine’s defense against Russian aggression”

 “The President] reiterated U.S. support for Israel’s right to defend itself against terrorism 
(See here for examples of Israel’s “self defense“, against hospitals)

“President Biden underscored the United States’ support for a free and open Indo-Pacific that is connected, prosperous, secure, and resilient.  The President reaffirmed the United States’ ironclad commitment to defending our Indo-Pacific allies.  The President emphasized the United States’ enduring commitment to freedom of navigation and overflight, adherence to international law, maintaining peace and stability in the South China Sea and East China Sea, and the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”

Simultaneously, as President Biden breaks bread and niceties with President Xi, nuclear bombing runs are being rehearsed against China and its allies, as the US seeks to escalate its nuclear posture, endangering the entire planet.

The Moral: The scorpion and the frog:

Stepping away from the Buddhist fabulary, there is another story that is applicable here for China-US relations:

A scorpion came to a frog because it was trapped by a river.  It needed the frog’s help crossing the river, so it could get to a certain island.  
The scorpion asked the frog to carry it across the river. 

In the story, as the frog was carrying the scorpion across the river, the Scorpion stung the frog, drowning both of them.  “It’s my nature”, the scorpion explained.

The river, if you will, is the river of blood  and corpses in Palestine,  Ukraine, and around the world, that the scorpion has created with its unbridled venom.

We also know the island, the players, the stakes.

Will the frog carry the scorpion across the river?

We know the ending.  Or do we?