Diplomacy Once Again

President Trump didn’t do diplomacy very well. He didn’t do diplomacy at all. He believed in threats, and in “personal relations” following those threats. He told North Korea to stop that nuclear stuff right now, or he’d blow North Korea off the face of the earth – and he said that on his first visit to the United Nations. The world’s diplomats were aghast. But then he said that he and that Kim fellow had fallen in love. Kim would give up his nukes, and then Trump said he deserved the Nobel Peace Prize for stopping what was to be certain war with North Korea. There would be no war. He had brought peace to that whole region – but Kim had just been humoring Trump all along. Kim wasn’t going to do anything differently, ever. His people blew off all subsequent meetings. Nothing changed. North Korea gave up nothing. The Trump administration decided never to mention North Korea again. And they didn’t.

China was a different matter. NPR covered Trump’s only state visit there in November 2017:

As the sun went down Wednesday on the vermilion walls and yellow tile roofs of Beijing’s Forbidden City, the first families of the U.S. and China took in a Peking opera performance in the palace where China’s emperors lived for nearly six centuries.

It was the start of what China’s ambassador to the U.S. calls a “state visit plus” – a highly choreographed blend of stagecraft and statecraft, designed to highlight the evolving chemistry between Presidents Trump and Xi Jinping.

But not really. They were feeding Trump’s ego. They knew they could manipulate an insecure narcissist with as much absurdly lavish praise as possible. Trump would eat that up. And then they had him:

“China is receiving Trump almost the way the King of Saudi Arabia did,” observes Shi Yinhong, an international relations expert at People’s University in Beijing. China is “giving Trump lots of face, vanities and protocol.”

Lavishing the “imperial treatment” on Trump and giving him the chance to bond with a fellow self-styled political strongman is just one way in which China is dealing with the U.S. president’s potential disruptions to one of the world’s most consequential bilateral relationships.

That works:

That relationship did not get off to a smooth start. Trump threatened to upgrade relations with Taiwan, upending decades of the so-called “One China” policy. He also threatened to punish China for manipulating the value of its currency. But so far, none of that has happened.

Cui Liru of the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, a government think tank in Beijing, says that China handled these challenges the right way – by doing nothing at all.

“China had to realize that Trump needed to learn about China,” he says, “and during this learning process, we had to stay cool and patient.”

Cui says China judged that Trump was not really interested in changing the status quo among China, the U.S. and Taiwan. He merely wanted to use Taiwan as a bargaining chip to get better terms of trade with China.

On the currency manipulation issue, Cui says, it was just a matter of apprising Trump of the widely accepted fact that China was propping up the value of its currency, not depressing it.

In short, they did nothing either, but Trump got to return home and brag that China’s leader and the Chinese people, just like the Saudis thought that he was absolutely wonderful and amazing. The world loves him!

They did lay it on thick. They knew their man. But then things changed. Trump knew his base. The Chinese were dumping cheap stuff here and putting Americans out of work. He put massive tariffs on everything they sent here and told them that they had to buy more American stuff – or else So they slowly shut down their economy to one sort of American goods or another. American companies couldn’t sell in China anymore. They’d lost that giant market. That was devastating here, so Trump slapped on even more tariffs there, to crush them into submission.

They didn’t submit. That was a stalemate. Diplomacy might have worked better, but Trump had decided a trade war would work better than any sort of diplomacy. Make them feel real pain. Diplomacy was for sissies. But soon enough none of this mattered. Covid came out of China. Trump joked about that – the Kung Flu – and seemed to have decided the Chinese created this deadly virus to ruin him. This had to be personal. They were out to get him. All the millions who had died and would die were just collateral damage. China was America’s enemy. China was his enemy. They really were out to get him.

That left a mess for Joe Biden. This wasn’t personal to him. He had chaired the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for years. This was a diplomatic problem. His predecessor had made this wholly personal. It was time to go back to the basics. Two nations have to work out how to operate in a complex world. None of that is personal.

So it was back to basics. The New York Times’ David Sanger and Steven Lee Myers, their Beijing bureau chief, cover this return to diplomacy:

The virtual meeting between President Biden and China’s leader, Xi Jinping, produced no breakthroughs in a relationship that has spiraled dangerously downward. That was not the intent.

Instead, the two leaders sought to keep the many disputes between the two countries from escalating into a broader conflict. If they can translate their words into a kind of détente, it would count as a diplomatic success.

This was a super-secure version of something like a Zoom meeting and all business, no ego, no agreements, but that wasn’t the point. Each side laid out its positions on this and that, so there’d be no misunderstandings. The two lists were the accomplishment:

“It seems clear to me we need to establish some common-sense guardrails,” Mr. Biden told Mr. Xi in opening remarks, speaking over what amounted to the equivalent of a Zoom call from the Roosevelt Room at the White House and the East Hall in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing.

Mr. Xi, for his part, called Mr. Biden “my old friend” and used a nautical metaphor, comparing the two countries to ships that must together navigate the ocean’s wind and waves without colliding.

That “my old friend” thing sent the Fox News world into an apoplectic fit. Biden must be a secret Chinese communist! But that was just a pleasant figure of speech. All the world leaders know Joe. He’s been around forever. Xi might have been saying he was pleased to be working with a professional on this stuff, not an insecure and angry and erratic and uninformed total amateur. Xi might have just been relieved. Maybe some actual issues might be resolved.

Or maybe not:

Bubbling under the surface was acrimony that could prove difficult to resolve.

At the end of three and a half hours of talks, the two did not even cobble together the sort of joint statement that has typically punctuated summits between the United States and China over the decades. Mr. Xi’s last meeting with an American president, Donald J. Trump in 2019, also ended with no joint statement, marking the deterioration in ties.

Nor did the meeting end with any agreement to have groups of officials from both sides hold further talks on strategic nuclear issues and conflicts in cyberspace – the way Mr. Biden did in his summit last June with another quarrelsome geopolitical rival, President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia.

But maybe that’s okay:

“We were not expecting a breakthrough,” a senior administration official told reporters shortly after the talks with Mr. Xi ended. “There were none.”

Instead, the two sides issued their own statements, each emphasizing the points of longstanding contention. They amounted to catalogs of mutual grievances that offered little room for compromise.

But that’s a place to start:

Mr. Biden raised concerns about human rights abuses in Xinjiang, Tibet and Hong Kong, and about China’s “unfair trade and economic policies” harming American workers, the White House statement said. Mr. Xi, according to China’s own readout, said that American support for Taiwan was “playing with fire,” and explicitly warned that the world risked slipping back into the superpower confrontations of a half-century ago.

“Engaging in ideological demarcation, camp division, group confrontation, will inevitably bring disaster to the world,” Mr. Xi said, a clear reference to a pillar of the new administration’s strategy for challenging China by teaming up with like-minded nations that fear China or oppose its authoritarian model.

Our new joint pact with Australia and Japan is kind of like what NATO had been and still is in Europe – Cold War nonsense. Xi wants none of that. There is an alternative:

With that reference, Mr. Xi plunged directly into the debate now underway in Washington about whether the two powers are descending into something akin to the Cold War, or whether the deep economic, trade and technological links between China and the U.S. make any comparison to the old United States-Soviet Union relationship impossible.

The tone of the meeting was a reminder that China, perhaps inevitably, remains what Mr. Biden and his top advisers have cast as the greatest geopolitical challenge to the United States in its history. They have rejected the Cold War comparisons as overly simplistic, and as Mr. Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, put it, “We have the choice not to do that.”

And no one is going to wipe out China:

“China is going to be a factor in the international system for the foreseeable future – it’s not going anywhere,” Mr. Sullivan said last week during a speech to the Lowy Institute in Australia. “And the United States is not going anywhere, and we’re not going anywhere in the Indo-Pacific either. And so we’re going to have to learn how to deal with that reality.”

But that won’t be easy:

Mr. Biden has repeatedly suggested that it should be possible for the United States to engage in vigorous competition with China and to confront it over certain issues, without risking clashes – whether in the disputed waters off China’s coast or in the murky shadows of cyberspace.

He also wanted to hold the meeting after he had begun to shore up American competitiveness at home. Just hours before meeting Mr. Xi, he signed the bipartisan infrastructure bill, which his aides cited as an example of refocusing on international competitiveness. He also recently signed other legislation that bans some key Chinese technology players, like the telecommunications giant Huawei, from operating inside the United States.

Oops:

What is perceived as a move to strengthen the economy in one capital can seem aggressive in the other.

Fixing that will require careful talks about who is trying to do what, and why. But talk is better than war:

“Both leaders are dissatisfied with the state of the relationship and the behavior of the other country,” said Danny Russel, a former assistant secretary of state who participated in talks with Mr. Xi during the Obama administration. “Both are also mindful of the risk of an incident between our militaries that could quickly spin out of control.”

This won’t be easy:

The trade war that Mr. Trump started remains unresolved, with China still more than $180 billion short of a pledge to purchase $380 billion in American products before a deadline of Dec. 31. Problems have also emerged or gotten worse, including a Pentagon assessment that China is rapidly expanding its strategic nuclear arsenal, and may be abandoning its decades-long strategy of maintaining a “minimum deterrent.”

Administration officials declined to discuss what was said about the nuclear buildup, beyond a vague statement that Mr. Biden “underscored the importance of managing strategic risks.”

There’s work to do, at all levels:

Other topics that analysts thought would come up did not, according to the senior administration official. They included disputes over granting visas for diplomats, journalists and others, as well as a possible invitation to attend the Winter Olympics in Beijing in February.

Many also expected an effort to create a forum for discussing disputes, like those established by Presidents Bush and Obama. The two sides did agree to talks among lower-level officials. That, and the leaders’ tone in their published statements, raised hopes that tensions could ease at least a bit.

Some of that is already being worked out. Diplomacy works best in the background:

Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken and his counterpart, Wang Yi, met on the sidelines of the Group of 20 gathering and spoke by phone again last weekend. Mr. Biden’s envoy on climate change, John Kerry, and Mr. Xi’s, Xie Zhenhua, reached a surprise agreement on the issue at the talks this month in Glasgow.

Mr. Xi, according to the Chinese description of the talks, suggested that cooperation on issues like climate change was conditional on stability across the spectrum of the relationship – a stance at odds with Mr. Biden’s view.

“China and the United States are entering a period of détente, but we don’t know how long it will be and to what extent,” said Cheng Xiaohe, an associate professor of international studies at Renmin University in Beijing. “We have a lot of uncertainties now.”

But they did reach a bit of an agreement on climate change, and there is history to consider:

Even as the two leaders met virtually, another meeting was taking place in Beijing, commemorating the American pilots known as the Flying Tigers who aided China during its war against Japan in 1941 and 1942.

“The story of the Flying Tigers undergirds the profound friendship forged by the lives and blood of the Chinese and American people,” Qin Gang, China’s ambassador to the United States, said during the event. Acknowledging the tensions in the relationship, he added that the two countries “should inherit the friendly friendship tempered by war.”

Now that Trump’s ego is no longer at play here, that might work. Only that odd wording is the problem now.

Well, perhaps not. Nothing is that simple. The Washington Post’s David Ignatius sees this:

A welcome moment in Monday night’s “virtual summit” came when President Biden told Chinese President Xi Jinping that he feared the risk of unintended conflict as China rapidly expands its nuclear arsenal – and the Chinese leader responded by supporting future discussions of this sensitive issue.

While the two leaders didn’t endorse a specific follow-up plan to discuss strategic stability, the conversation could signal a new phase in what has become an increasingly antagonistic relationship. And it could reduce the risk of an accidental stumble into a military crisis over Taiwan or other issues.

Biden had stressed this issue of crisis prevention in the run-up to Monday’s conversation. In remarks in Glasgow, Scotland early this month, he quoted his father’s admonition that “the only conflict worse than the one that’s intended is one that’s unintended.”

Donald Trump would never say such a thing. His ego would not allow that there might be unintended consequences to anything he ever does. It’s all intended. But he’s gone now. It was time to get back to the actual issues:

Biden explained U.S. concerns about China’s rapid buildup of nuclear weapons. China’s nuclear arsenal is still far smaller than that of the United States or Russia, but it’s catching up fast and a recent Pentagon report predicted the country could have 1,000 nuclear warheads by 2030.

Xi said in response to Biden’s expression of concern that he would support further discussions about strategic stability and empower his subordinates to take the next steps. His nominee could be Gen. Xu Qiliang, the senior vice chairman of the Central Military Commission, the senior U.S. official said.

This is progress:

The agenda for future discussions might include recent destabilizing trends in cybersecurity and nuclear weapons, and the need for reliable protocols for crisis communications, according to the senior official. A formal arms-control dialogue, like the long-standing one between Russia and the United States, isn’t a realistic goal, U.S. officials say. That’s because Beijing wouldn’t accept limits on its nuclear arsenal unless it was closer to parity with Washington and Moscow.

So be it. This can be worked out. Just be careful:

Xi may just be playing Biden, his aides concede. And the focus on strategic stability issues may serve to distract Washington from dealing with China’s severe human rights abuses. Xi’s opening may simply be a way of drawing the Biden team into a round of dead-end discussions, as has often happened with Beijing in the past.

Still, Xi’s positive response encouraged Biden’s aides, who recalled that when the two men met at Sunnylands, Calif., in 2013, while Biden was vice president, the Chinese leader had raised the possibility of new measures for crisis prevention between the two countries. Little came of that opening.

But now something is possible. Just remove that odd angry man with the fragile ego:

Since President Richard Nixon’s opening to China in 1972, U.S. policy has been shaped by an unstated conviction that engagement with western capitalism would inevitably change China. As the oft-quoted dictum put it: Free markets will make free Chinese men and women.

That idealism has now all but vanished. As a senior administration official put it before the summit, the Biden administration isn’t seeking to change China; instead, it simply wants to protect the interests of the United States and its allies.

The task is to protect the interests of the United States and its allies, not anyone’s ego:

Biden’s version of foreign policy realism has a predictably homespun, sentimental side – with the invocation of his father’s warning about unintended conflicts. But Monday night’s discussion touched the bedrock of what matters most in the U.S.-China relationship, and it was at least a beginning of something that could reduce the risk of a global catastrophe.

Any president’s job is to reduce that risk. Had we for forgotten?

We had. But we fixed that. For the moment.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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