The China-US meeting in Alaska last week was an unmitigated disaster. It did not bridge any differences. On the contrary, it may have widened them. If the purpose of diplomacy is to keep the lines of dialogue and communications open through the understanding the protocols, traditions, and culture of the other side, this discussion provided little evidence of even a desire for success. The art of negotiation in the international arena provides a substantial lexicon of nuanced language to advance rewarding discourse. In Alaska, this lesson was ignored. Style and substance were in tatters. Repairs now seem an impossibility anytime soon.
How did this come about? When President Joe Biden came into office, his natural proclivities were to take what his predecessor President Donald Trump had done, and do the opposite thing. But that strategy seemed fraught with political risks. That is because Trump had carried much of America with him in many of his actions, and the margin of the Democratic victory in the legislature, particularly in the Senate, is woefully thin. It is a fact of politics Biden cannot afford to dismiss. His toughness on China flows largely from this, though in all fairness, it is more than just pandering to the right. Presumably, his own convictions also plays a role. But as a result, he might run the risk of being thought of as “Trump Lite”. That would create an unenviable situation for him. The Trump base would see that as a justification of their own convictions,and hanker for more. Biden’s Democrat supporters in the lower middle class would lose out from the benefits of trade with China, just as affordable consumer-items, which they hoped would accompany the political change.
In any case, the Trump Team in Anchorage, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan received the tough brief from their boss, and carried it out to the T. Normally in such negotiations, the host uses the warmth of hospitality as a tool to obtain an advantage, but the Biden team seemed uninterested in this option. Instead, they began firing with hard munitions right at the start, and the Chinese, State Councillor Yang Jieche and Foreign Minister Wang Yi responded in kind, and then some. Both sides were playing to the domestic galleries. The US team was obviously seeking to use anti-Chinese sentiments as the glue to bind either side of the political aisle at home. The Chinese team had a gallery of one, President Xi Jinping, who did not deem it necessary to rein in his negotiators. The early reports of the conference must have led him to conclude that China must be shown as having come a long way since its negotiator in the Boxer Protocol of 1901, the ageing and by then weak,Li Hongzhang was made to secure peace through unequal treaties from eight western nations in lieu of huge indemnities. Indeed, a section of the Chinese media referenced that episode in its praise of the Yang-Wang duo, eulogizing their bold retorts to their American interlocutors.
Earlier on, because of the same reasons, there was not much comfort to be drawn from the two-hour phone-talk between Biden and the Chinese President Xi Jinping. In the past both had spent ample time together as Vice presidents of their respective countries. As a gesture, Biden scheduled the call to greet Xi for the Lunar New Year of the Ox, and it was well received. But Biden’s position was a repeat of what was made known publicly. It was focused on what the American’s perceive as China’s unfair trade practices, crackdown in Hong Kong, human rights abuses in Xinjiang, and assertive action in the maritime region including towards Taiwan. Xi, in response also repeated the usual Chinese mantra: that most of the issues were internal affairs of China, and were related to Chinese sovereignty and territorial integrity. Speaking to the media, Biden said he had told Xi that he would “work with China when it benefits the American people”. It was unclear as to why he had thought that would be a compelling reason for China to engage. Clearly it was not.
The truth was that China has concluded that America and the West were actually on the decline. It views its own rise as in consonance with Marxist -Leninist determinism which still frames China’s policy. The play of structural forces would impede the cooperation of a rising China with a declining America, except in clearly secular subjects as climate change which would bring win-win rewards for both. America, on the other hand, sees an adversarial relationship as a tool to deter the rise of China to a peer status, but agrees on the possibilities of cooperation on the common topic of Climate change. The problem is the relationship has soured so much that the political will to muster the wherewithal to engage even on climate change appears to be eroding. Interestingly one common historical paradigm, frequently, used by both sides is the syndrome in the Greek classics known as the “Thucydides trap”. The Greek philosopher by that name had warned that in those ancient times, when Athens grew strong, there was great fear in Sparta, and war became inevitable. But the current US apprehension is more that the Chinese may fancy themselves as being Rome to America’s Greece, the succeeding preponderant imperial power.
Biden’s relationship with President Vladimir Putin of Russia got off to a good start with a far more friendly the extension of the START treaty, despite Putin’s known preference for Trump over him. But then confronted with evidence suggesting possible Russian hacking the polls in support of Trump, Biden referred to Putin as a ‘” killer’’, who needed to be “punished”. Putin was not amused. He returned the compliment, recalled his Ambassador to Washington and dispatched his Foreign Minister, the sharp and cerebral Sergey Lavrov to China to strengthen bilateral ties. This Lavrov did by calling China a “true strategic partner and like-minded friend”, seeking to promote together “a constructive and unifying agenda”. An alliance between China and Russia seemed on the cards. To compound Biden’s woes, the North Korean leader Kim Jong- un, who obviously missed Trump in the White House, got his sister to urge Biden to keep his “stink” on his side of the Atlantic. Thereafter he warmed to Xi who called China-North Korean relations “common treasure”. The Biden Administration had sent messages to Kim for resumption of dialogue. Kim’s response seemed to be test-firing of two short-range missiles last weekend. Biden observed that ‘’nothing has changed””. That is very true. It is also true that any likely change may be for the worse. All this may have put paid to Biden’s attempts to reach out to North Korea through China’s help. China is now the only conduit to Kim. But for Biden to expect China’s assistance at this time seems a very unreal proposition.
The Biden Administration has had some success in getting the allies marshalled vis-à-vis China. It has energized the Quad, an informal group of security partners comprising the US, India, Japan and Australia. It has managed to get the European Union and Canada to agree with it on slapping sanctions on China on the issue of Human rights violation of the Uighur Muslims. China has reacted sharply to each of these developments. Beijing has responded with its own sanctions against the European Union. It seems to be in the process of forging an alliance with Russia and deepening ties with North Korea. It has created huge economic stakes for many countries in Asia and Africa through its Belt and Road Initiative. China has sought to couch its rivalry with its adversaries in terms of emerging Asia versus the past imperial powers of the West. In this rapidly dividing world, we can see the gathering of dark clouds of potential conflict. We have seen how in the past alliance-building of adversaries led nations to sleep- walk into the disastrous first Great War. It is true that history does not always repeat itself. Just as it also true that logic shows that similar causes tend to produce similar effects.
Dr Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury is the Honorary Fellow at the Institute of South Asia Studies, NUS. He is a former Foreign Advisor (Foreign Minister) of Bangladesh and President & Distinguished Fellow of Cosmos Foundation. The views addressed in the article are his own. He can be reached at: isasiac @nus.edu.sg