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Blinken and Sullivan stand up to China — will Biden back them up?

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“Testy,” “divisive,” “frigid,” “an exchange of insults” were some of the media descriptions of last week’s meeting in Anchorage between Secretary of State Antony Blinken, national security adviser Jake Sullivan, and their Chinese counterparts. Council of Foreign Relations President Richard Haass said, rather than the “deft handling” needed in U.S.-China relations, this encounter was “mishandled, a terrible start [with] way too much public signaling.” 

Yet, contrary to the conventional wisdom, the acrimonious encounter with Foreign Minister Wang Yi and State Councilor Yang Jiechi was a great success for U.S. diplomacy and bodes well for long-term bilateral relations. The supposedly good news that traditionally came out of earlier U.S.-China meetings invariably advanced China’s interests at the expense of America’s.  Decades of Beijing’s “win-win” outcomes are what brought U.S.-China relations to their present parlous state.  

The Trump administration was in the process of halting that dynamic and Beijing had convinced itself that Joe Biden, who as vice president had cultivated a personal relationship with Chinese leader Xi Jinping, would return to the congenial mode of the Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations.

That is why, after initially flaunting the images of Wang/Yang tirades against the Americans, the Chinese government tried to characterize the meeting as ending with the usual net plus for Chinese diplomacy. The Trump administration was portrayed as the troublesome outlier.

Xinhua, China’s official news agency, reported afterward, “The delegation pointed out that in the past few years, the previous U.S.administration went against the trend of the times and carried out highly erroneous anti-China policies, which seriously damaged both China’s interests and China-U.S. relations.” 

Wang and Yang seemed to be trying to turn what, for Beijing’s objectives, was a lemon of a meeting into public relations lemonade. Their statement announced, “The two sides agreed to follow the spirit of the Xi-Biden telephone conversation on Feb. 11 to maintain dialogue and communication, conduct mutually beneficial cooperation, avoid misunderstanding and misjudgment, forestall conflict and confrontation, and promote sound and steady development of China-U.S. relations.”

That the Chinese side would behave boorishly should have come as no surprise. Wang and Yang had conveyed their bullying intentions in the weeks leading up to the meeting. They were expressing Beijing’s anger that the Biden team thus far has refused to repudiate the Trump administration’s historic defiance against China’s hostile anti-Western policies.

What China’s diplomatic team apparently did not expect was that the Americans would carry the resistance into face-to-face talks, where the tough rhetoric traditionally has come only from China’s side of the table. The Blinken-Sullivan public refusal to back down clearly caught the hardline negotiators off guard — and discomfited those in the foreign policy establishment, such as Haass, who believe that diplomatic politesse serves U.S. national interests better than straight talk.

The American officials seem to have learned costly lessons from the Obama administration that soothing Chinese rhetoric at high-level meetings does not assure concrete positive action.  China’s flagrant violation of the U.S.-negotiated agreement for it to withdraw from Philippines territory in Scarborough Shoal, and Xi’s flouting of his direct promise to former President Obama not to militarize China’s illegal artificial islands in the South China Sea, were vivid examples of Chinese Communist Party untrustworthiness — and American credulity. Both commitments were hailed as U.S. diplomatic successes at the time.

Beijing’s resort to deception and disinformation was shown even in the arrangements for the meeting in Alaska. Having pleaded for high-level talks in the months since President Biden’s election, Wang and Yang felt it necessary to assert that they had been “invited” by the U.S. side, only to be treated rudely. On matters great and petty, they regularly display their disregard for rules and undertakings. The agreed-upon two minutes for each speaker’s opening remarks was trashed by Wang’s 16-minute, finger-waving tongue-lashing. 

This time, Blinken did not blink. He asked the cameras to remain and proceeded to deliver a factual, values-laden rebuttal — part of the “signaling” that Haass and others found gratuitous.  Yet, words matter — as the Chinese side well knows — and Blinken ensured that the world understands that this administration, like its immediate predecessor, will stand up for Western interests against Beijing’s aggressive behavior. Countries in the Indo-Pacific and elsewhere need to know they are not alone.

The test of Biden administration steadfastness will be in the follow-through and the president’s own willingness to back up his diplomats. Trump too often undercut the progress former Vice President Mike Pence, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and others on the national security team were making in establishing a new values-based policy toward China. 

The first indication from Biden was positive. Asked the next day for his reaction to the meeting, he said he was “very proud” of his secretary of state. It is important that he adhere to that approach and not allow his prior personal relationship with Xi — “I know him well and he knows me well” — soften the clear-eyed policy articulated by Blinken and Sullivan.

In that regard, it will be interesting to learn the content and dynamic of the two-hour Biden-Xi conversation and why its “spirit of cooperation” was so touted by Wang and Yang before and after the Anchorage meeting as the guideline for U.S. policy going forward. For example, did Biden apologize or dismiss as campaign rhetoric his description of Xi as “a thug”?  Or, did he warn him to expect more of the same unless Beijing moderates its internal and external policies, anticipating the tough Blinken-Sullivan approach?

In his confirmation hearing and repeatedly since then, Blinken has laid out the long-term strategy toward China. He said U.S. policy will be “competitive when it should be, collaborative when it can be and adversarial when it must be.” His and Sullivan’s most recent direct dealing with representatives of the communist regime in Beijing surely must have steeled them to the realization that the default policy will be confrontation.

Even in the limited areas of presumed Sino-U.S. cooperation — climate change, North Korea, nonproliferation, the pandemic — collaboration has ranged from illusory to nonexistent. On the contrary, Beijing has leveraged those existential dangers to bolster its own existential threat to the West. 

In the first sign of post-Anchorage U.S. seriousness, the Biden administration just joined with European allies and security partners to impose sanctions on Chinese officials for “serious human rights abuses” against Uyghur Muslims. The action demonstrates both its commitment to human rights and its reliance on multilateralism to achieve U.S. policy goals.

If this is the new Biden approach to foreign policy and national security, let the beat go on. 

Joseph Bosco served as China country director for the secretary of Defense from 2005 to 2006 and as Asia-Pacific director of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief from 2009 to 2010. He is a nonresident fellow at the Institute for Corean-American Studies and a member of the advisory board of the Global Taiwan Institute. Follow him on Twitter @BoscoJosephA.

Tags Antony Blinken biden administration China aggression Jake Sullivan Joe Biden Mike Pence Mike Pompeo US-China relations Wang Yi Yang Jiechi

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