Whistling Past the Graveyard

The Biden Administration is getting played by Xi Jinping and flirting with national disaster in its geopolitical handling of China.

Earlier this week, President Joe Biden met with China’s dictator Xi Jinping for nearly 3 hours in Bali, Indonesia at the G20 Summit of nations. The meeting has been described by analysts as a boon for future cooperation between the nations and their leaders on major transnational issues and a positive step away from tension and towards engagement. According to the Biden administration, the discussion cemented the idea on both sides of the Pacific that conflict is not coming and that a new Cold War is indeed not in the cards. The Biden administration is touting this as a genuine diplomatic success and a move towards stability in East Asia, and has praised President Biden’s warm personal relationship with Xi. From reading major news reports of this meeting, you’d think that the US and China are on a glide path towards better relations in the short and long term, under the joint leadership of Xi and Biden – a big step towards mutual security after the chaos of the Trump administration.

Unfortunately for us, that framing is inaccurate in the extreme. This meeting makes us no safer, gives us no positive assurances from China, and betrays the Biden administration’s terribly naïve instincts on foreign affairs.

Before diving into some analysis of the meeting, you should read the Biden administration’s readout of the event, which lays out what the leaders (supposedly; we’ll get back to that later) talked about and the feelings of both parties from the American perspective. I say the American perspective, as these meetings often are interpreted differently by each side of the equation, particularly when translation is involved.

Besides the content of the discussion, which constitutes the bulk of my concern, the length of the meeting itself is worrying. I have less confidence in a long meeting between Biden and Xi than I do a short one; Xi is a canny geopolitical player and Biden has struggled to get through a paragraph written on a teleprompter. A long meeting plays far more into China’s hands than into our own, as our leader is 80 years old and is on a trip halfway across the world, while theirs is younger, fresher, and only a few hours’ flight from his homeland. And this is not a partisan issue – Donald Trump had the exact same problem, albeit for a different reason. In his case, long meetings gave him a greater chance to say something incredibly stupid or counterproductive, as well as to agree to the demands of his interlocutor, even if they ran against American interests.

Another issue that is more about the form than the substance revolves around what has been described as the warm relationship between Xi and Biden, as the two have known each other for over a decade and have met in person before. Biden and Xi seemed pleased to see one another, according to reporting from major outlets, and ‘experts’ on the region have characterized the two as having “a solid personal relationship” that provides “reassurance in hearing directly from the other leader.” President Biden apparently congratulated Xi on his recent success at the Party Congress, where he retained his iron grip on power and sidelined his potential opponents with ruthless efficiency – hardly something for a democratic leader to congratulate an autocratic ruler for. I don’t know about you, but I am old enough to remember the vitriol rightly directed at President Biden’s immediate predecessor for his close personal relationships with anti-American dictators like Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong-Un; why is the same sort of relationship being ignored – or even lionized – by the media now? It is either good to have personal rapport with evil autocrats, or it isn’t. I know which side I am on, but many in the media and punditry world need to make a choice.

Besides these side issues, what of the actual substance of the meeting itself? Surely that was a net positive, right? Sorry to have to disappoint, but the substance of the dialogue looks even worse than the form. This is eminently visible from reading the Biden administration’s readout of the meeting.

The biggest takeaway from the Biden-Xi summit in Bali was the determination that China and the US need to work together on major international issues like “climate change, global macroeconomic stability including debt relief, health security, and global food security – because that is what the international community expects.” The most important aspects of a good diplomat (or a good negotiator of any kind) are tactfulness with one’s words and a good BS detector to understand when your interlocutor is blowing smoke up your rear. As anyone who has followed Joe Biden’s nearly 50-year political career knows, he has never been one for tact. And if the Biden administration truly believes – as they are saying they do – that China is at all serious about working with the US on these major transnational problems, their BS detector is irreparably broken.

On the climate front, billed as a significant positive result of this meeting, China is playing us and has been for years now. First of all, China was the one who stopped these meaningless negotiations after Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan; us pushing so hard to restart these talks reeks of desperation and domestic political concerns. China wants us to fully embrace the most radical climate change proposals because they would be the net beneficiary of those plans. China, as a major rising economy and goods producer, has the most to gain from the West kneecapping itself economically – which the radical climate agenda would absolutely do. It would rapidly surpass the US as the big dog on the economic block and would have little in its way to retain that preeminent status. China – well, to be more accurate, Uighur slaves – also produces much of the world’s ‘green energy’ technology, from solar panels to the rare earth metals needed to craft high-tech batteries. Negotiations are usually multi-sided, but these are purely unilateral; China has done nothing and will continue to do nothing to prevent climate change. China has routinely ignored its non-binding pledges in the climate realm and has been commissioning new coal-fired power plants every year, only ramping up its emissions. For China’s leaders, engagement on climate change means making no concessions while forcing the West to decarbonize and ruin our productive economies. Why wouldn’t they be happy with these talks? On the other hand, why would we be?

Another area of cooperation that the Biden administration discussed with China was in the domain of health security. I know the president has been forgetful at times, but I’m sure he remembers the massive global pandemic we all lived through for the past 2 years (if not, I know you, dear reader, do). Given the Chinese government’s direct role in allowing the pandemic to spread unfettered across the globe – and its potential initial leak from a Chinese biolab – why would anyone trust a single word the Chinese government says on the topic of public health? They lied from the start of the pandemic, drastically curtailing the ability for the international community to deal with this virus and contain it; they have covered up the pandemic’s origins and spread by impeding investigations and deleting key data; they have manipulated international organizations to hide their role in the devastation of the past 2 years. More than any other nation or institution, the Chinese Communist Party is the cause of the Covid-19 pandemic. We cannot let them get away with that, much less cooperate with them on future public health matters! For an administration that has been bold about calling out their domestic political rivals for lies and ‘misinformation’, they sure swallow it up when it’s served on bone china by Xi Jinping.

President Biden also sought to work with China on global macroeconomic issues, including – hilariously – debt relief. Why do I say hilariously? Well, that’s because China is perhaps the biggest debt-trapper on the planet and is the world’s largest creditor nation. China has constantly given predatory loans to developing countries as part of its Belt and Road infrastructure investment program, ones which often come with clauses allowing Chinese control of the projects built if debt is not repaid. This practice and its malign results were made clear earlier this year in Sri Lanka, where the government violently collapsed in part due to scandalous Chinese loan conditions that would have seen control of major ports and airports transferred to the CCP. These agreements have been entered into by desperate nations around the world, and the dominos are only starting to fall; a global recession, as many analysts predict for 2023, would bring more of these corrupt arrangements to light. China, partly due to the Belt and Road loans, is the largest creditor nation on Earth; why would they want to reduce international indebtedness? They are the ones collecting on that debt, after all. The fact that the Biden administration stressed this as a potential area of collaboration shows their extreme naiveté.

If this is the approach that the Biden administration thinks is serious, and if they see true areas of agreement on the issues laid out above, they are far out of touch with reality. It is eminently clear from the publicly-available facts that Chinese leadership is completely disingenuous (at best) in these very areas, yet the American government somehow sees them as acting in good faith. Given their reaction to this meeting, it is no wonder why the administration wanted to return to negotiations with the Islamic theocrats in Tehran. Based on these foreign policy intuitions, the Biden team wouldn’t know good faith if they fell into a pile of crucifixes.

The meeting was not all sunshine and rainbows, at least according to the Biden administration’s account. They claim that the president brought up human rights issues, Taiwan, and China’s aggressive economic practices in the discussion, holding Xi to account for his regime’s policies. That would be nice, but I am reluctant to believe that such rhetoric either was delivered effectively or was received with anything other than mocking scorn. Part of this is a gut feeling based on the other outcomes of the meeting and the general disparity in ability between Biden and Xi, but much more of it is based on actual Chinese policy and their reactions after the meeting.

A purportedly-significant outcome of the meeting was the apparent agreement between Xi and Biden on the status of Taiwan, the biggest issue in the China-US relationship. The president said after his time with Xi that he does not see an invasion of Taiwan as “imminent” and that neither party wished for the status quo on Taiwan to be altered. First of all, it’s a hell of a low bar to merely believe something as serious as an invasion of another nation is not imminent; does that mean it is happening soon, but not imminently? That it will happen in 30 years? That it will never happen? None of these questions have been answered – partly because President Biden refused to take questions from the press. Also, if an invasion is not imminent, but still likely in the next few years, as our military officials have stated, what are we doing to prepare? Why is this not a daily topic of discussion in the executive branch and the Congress? We have seen the mess made by Russia’s revanchist invasion of Ukraine; a similar crisis over Taiwan would be significantly worse. Basic lack of imminence does not and should not ease any fears. Besides that odd remark, the fact that both parties could agree on the “status quo” is meaningless; the US and China have vastly divergent visions of what that status quo entails. The US sees it as keeping Taiwan a separate polity from Communist China, while still acknowledging their national ties. China sees it as guaranteeing future integration of Taiwan into China. The idea of the status quo held by the Chinese government does not preclude an invasion of Taiwan meant to bring it back into China; after all, there is only One China.

One of the key headlines coming out of Indonesia was that the US and China agreed that the bilateral relationship was not “careening toward confrontation,” and that it was purely good-natured competition, not adversarial in nature. President Biden specifically stated that he wished to “manage this competition responsibly,” and that he “absolutely believe[d] there need not be a new Cold War.” That would certainly be news to China, as they have treated Sino-American relations as though we have been engaged in a Cold War for years. China’s economic malpractice, militarism, imperial designs on the territory of American friends, pandemic cover-up, constant political and industrial espionage, and targeted cyberattacks on American businesses should have made that message very obvious by now. According to the Chinese readout, Xi claimed that “China has never sought to alter the current international order, does not meddle in American domestic politics and has no intention of challenging and replacing the United States.” This is a blatant lie.

China has meddled in American politics for decades now, going back to the 1990s, and this has only ramped up as their influence in the US has increased. TikTok, as a massive social network owned by effective functionaries of the CCP, is a far larger source of danger to American politics than were the laughable Russian Facebook ads which supposedly influenced the 2016 election. Those ads were perhaps seen by several thousand people; TikTok is the biggest source of news for the latest generation of American voters. As the old ditty goes, “one of these things is not like the other.” China indeed does seek to change the international order to one which is more favorable to them and destroys or displaces the world-system which has done more to build American prosperity than anything in our history. China has sought to undermine or control international organizations and shape them to their will, neutering human rights groups and taking advantage of international trade institutions. The CCP abuses international law by ignoring its dictates when it cuts against their interests, while simultaneously holding fast to the letter of the rules when they wish to criticize rivals. China has tried to build alternate institutions to replace those created by the West in the aftermath of the Second World War, they have sought to prop up their currency as an alternative way to price commodities like oil, and have harassed or cudgeled other less powerful nations to accept malign Chinese influence in their affairs. China has explicitly stated (at the very same G20 summit, no less) that, in concert with Russia, it wants to “build a multipolar world.” This is not some innocuous notion; we are seeing its results on the battlefields of Ukraine as we speak. A multipolar world would be one where Great Powers could invade their sovereign neighbors with impunity, blackmail others, and only gain from the experience. No American statesman should accept that sort of world.

The American readout of the summit also stated that President Biden raised the issue of Ukraine and that China and the US “reiterated their agreement that a nuclear war should never be fought and can never be won and underscored their opposition to the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine.” This would be a serious coup for the Biden administration, given that China has been preternaturally silent on the issue of Ukraine, despite continuing to purchase Russian oil and commodities. Unfortunately, it is entirely false. The very next day after the Biden-Xi tête-à-tête, China’s influential Foreign Minister Wang Yi praised Russia for its “opposition to nuclear war” at the G20 summit. Given the fact that Russia has been the only party in Ukraine to rattle the nuclear saber, this statement is a clear repudiation of the supposed agreement claimed in the American readout. If Russia’s actions in Ukraine constitute “opposition to nuclear war,” then you might as well consider Douglas MacArthur an anti-nuclear crusader. Russia and China (and Iran) have only become more aligned over the past decade in their push to alter the world order to suit their authoritarian, repressive, imperialist aims. That the Biden administration sees China as a potential ally in punishing Putin for his war on Ukraine is absurd.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi with his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov.

That particular example is telling as to the Biden team’s fundamental naiveté on foreign policy issues. Joe Biden said after his meeting with Xi that “I think we understand one another, which is the most important thing that can be done.” Regrettably for American national interests, it doesn’t seem like the president or his administration understands what is going on with China at all. And that is exactly what the Chinese Communist Party wants.

Despite the harsh tone of my analysis, this meeting may not have itself been an utter disaster (although I would say that it’s pretty darn bad). The bigger issue is that it portends a dangerous future where we are unprepared for the reality of greater conflict with China. We are not building out our military – especially our navy – to face the Chinese threat, leaving us at a severe shortfall in ship numbers, stuck with older vessels, and left without the ability to project enough regional force to overcome those disadvantages. We have not worked hard enough to move or incentivize the moving of supply chains outside of China to diversify away from a single supplier for critical goods and resources; similarly, we have failed to properly secure domestic or allied sources of key commodities we will need in the case of a long-term enmity. We are not taking steps to isolate China internationally, prevent its coercive economic and diplomatic penetration abroad, or create a stable regional bulwark of friends and allies to protect these shared vital interests. We have not directly made convincing arguments against China’s retrograde ideas of the world order; instead, we are trying to cooperate with them on issues they have no intention of resolving. We are focusing on diplomacy and engagement with a partner who is lying to our faces and has no long-term interest in maintaining the stability of the world order we lead. We don’t have a choice as to whether this will be confrontation or competition, whether this will be a new Cold War or not; China has made those choices for us. It is now up to us as to whether we will recognize this reality and, if we do, what we will do about it.

2 thoughts on “Whistling Past the Graveyard

  1. Nice (though sad) read. Thanks. It reminded me that there is a big difference between a politician and a statesman (I guess I should say person, but in this context, I am correct). So many of the former, so few of the latter.

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