US’ China policy at inflection point

China-France-Germany climate summit, Beijing, April 16, 2021  

Considering the US media build-up as President Biden’s climate envoy John Kerry set out for China, the 4-day visit turned out to be an uneventful affair. Perhaps, the chances of President Xi Jinping participating in the signature event in Washington — the Leaders Summit on Climate on April 22/23 hosted by US President Joe Biden — may have somewhat improved. 

The joint statement following the talks in Shanghai between Kerry and Xie Zhenhua, his nominal counterpart, says the two countries “look forward” to the event. Kerry’s only interaction with Chinese leadership was via a videoconference with Xie’s boss in Beijing, Vice Premier Han Zheng, Standing Committee member of the Politburo of CCP. 

Ironically, Han happens to be in charge of Hong Kong affairs, an issue that roils the Biden Administration. Even as Kerry landed in Shanghai, Secretary of State Antony Blinken issued yet another vitriolic statement condemning “Beijing’s assault” on “freedoms and autonomy” in Hong Kong. 

Beijing has uncovered the footprints of Five Eyes in Hong Kong, which puts US intelligence in a quandary. (Australia, UK and Canada are also on China’s crosshairs.) On Thursday, the Chinese intelligence flagged “colour revolution” as China’s biggest national security threat. In fact, Han was on record last month that Beijing’s electoral reforms for Hong Kong are no longer about whether the political system there was democratic or not, but about preventing subversion. 

Han reportedly described the overhaul in Hong Kong as “a war against subversion”, saying that Beijing had no choice but to “act decisively” to protect national security and China’s sovereignty. Suffice to say, Blinken spoiled Kerry’s party with his intemperate statement that drew attention to the seamy side of life.

Be that it may, some broader conclusions need to be drawn in the context of Kerry’s visit. Three things emerged. First, although Kerry himself is highly regarded in Beijing — activist against Vietnam War, diplomat and statesman committed to friendship with China — the escalating US-China rivalry did cast a shadow on his visit. Beijing knows Kerry is a  roving diplomat with cabinet rank and a sitting member of Biden’s National Security Council. Yet, the visit turned out to be sub-optimal.

The point is, Kerry’s visit also coincided with a shift in the Chinese attitudes following the Anchorage meeting last month. A more resolute Chinese fist is pushing back at the US, while red lines are being marked on the ground. Amazingly, the large-scale PLA exercises last week near Taiwan have been openly called “a rehearsal of a reunification-by-force operation” and a “clear warning” to the US against further provocative moves. (here and here).

Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning sails through the Miyako Strait near Okinawa, Japan, on their way to the Pacific, April 4, 2021.

Second, Biden’s usurpation of transatlantic leadership on climate change may have ruffled French feathers. Indeed, Paris Agreement has been the apogee of France’s international diplomacy in recent times, which President Trump contemptuously desecrated — and Biden now is cheekily stealing from the repertoire of Elysee Palace. 

As the Chinese spokesperson Hu Chunying tweeted Friday with biting sarcasm, “It is the US that announced exit from the Paris Agreement in 2017, stopped implementing its NDCs, and impeded global efforts to achieve goals of the Agreement. Its return is by no means a glorious comeback but rather a truant getting back to class.” 

The French diplomats know that climate change is the grand theme of international diplomacy through the 21st century and that Washington is besotted with it. At any rate, the tantalising idea of a trilateral summit on climate involving just France, Germany and China appeared from nowhere and the three countries simply warmed up to it. Indeed, the summit took place on Friday — 6 days before Biden’s star-studded event. The symbolism is stunning. 

Third, all this, however, goes far beyond symbolism and calls attention to certain faultiness in international politics today devolving upon the rise of China as superpower. Simply put, Kerry’s visit turned out to be one of those precipitate moments that aviators keenly look for, when highly sensitive radar installations across the western world and the Asia-Pacific got switched on abruptly to reveal their hidden locations that have been largely in the domain of conjecture so far. 

It began rather innocuously on April 7 when Xi had a call with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, ostensibly to smoothen the wrinkles that appeared lately in China-EU cooperation due to Brussels joining hands with the US, UK and Canada to impose token sanctions against 4 Chinese officials in Xinjiang — to which Beijing forthwith responded with its own sanctions on 10 officials and four entities in Europe who “severely harm China’s sovereignty and interests and maliciously spread lies and disinformation.” 

Simply put, both Xi and Merkel have since realised that the expanding EU-China relationship has become an eyesore for the Biden administration and a firewall needs to be put around the partnership to sequester it from evil eye. The Xinhua report on their conversation cited Merkel as stressing the importance of the EU “upholding independence in its foreign relations.” Merkel offered “to play a positive role” in strengthening the EU-China dialogue and cooperation, which “is not only in the interests of both sides, but also beneficial to the world.” 

Merkel has once again stepped in to ward off Washington’s predatory attempts to undermine EU-China relations. Exactly 9 days later, this German thrust conceivably fructified as the French-German-Chinese summit. Having said that, Xi, Merkel and French president Emmanuel Macron were also intensely conscious that they were realigning the partnership between Europe and China attuned to the post-pandemic era under new compulsions and reworked national priorities — and all this, of course, against the backdrop of the Biden administration’s containment strategy against China. 

The discussions at the trilateral summit on April 16 spilled over from climate change to the entire spectrum of world politics — China-Europe relationship “from a strategic height”; anti-pandemic cooperation; “vaccine nationalism”; debt relief for Africa; multilateralism and free trade; and, “major international and regional issues” and so on, apart from the “high-level opening-up and creation of a fair, just, and non-discriminatory business environment for foreign-invested enterprises, including French and German companies” in China. 

The Xinhua reported Merkel as saying that Europe is willing “to strengthen policy communication and alignment” with China, while taking note that China’s economy realised a recovery growth first, which is “good news for the world.” She stressed that Germany “values the opportunities” that Germany-China and Europe-China cooperation presents, and is “willing to deepen mutually beneficial economic and trade cooperation with China, strengthen communication on issues such as the digital economy and network security, and treat enterprises from all countries equally and avoid trade barriers.” Merkel also noted that the EU-China investment agreement will take effect at an early date. 

Suffice to say, the Franco-German-Chinese summit proclaimed loudly and unequivocally that Europe has an entirely different agenda toward China from what Biden and his team would be espousing. That is, plainly put, in external relations, Europe attaches primacy to its post-pandemic economic recovery where China’s cooperation is an imperative need.

In essence, the trilateral summit has exposed that the Biden administration’s Indo-Pacific concept aimed at containment of China is not gaining traction in the two major European capitals — Berlin and Paris. The fault lines underscore that the US’ containment strategy has reached a strategic inflection point.

When two close allies of Washington who are also the power houses within the European Union, start ploughing their own independent road to Beijing, it sends out a big message internationally that the US’ transatlantic leadership, which Biden administration vowed to secure as the anchor sheet of its China policy, is adrift in the middle of nowhere. Blinken’s shrill rhetoric is all that remains as policy after one hundred days of the Biden presidency.