In the recent words of U.S. President Joe Biden, the world stands “at an inflection point in history.” At stake is the future of the world order, with China’s coercive expansionism arguably posing the single biggest international challenge.
Biden claimed in his address to the nation on Aug. 31 that the country’s precipitous exit from Afghanistan — which facilitated the Taliban’s takeover of that country — would allow the United States to focus on its “serious competition with China.” In fact, a U.S. intelligence report in April named China the No. 1 national threat facing America.
Despite the fundamental continuity in the China policy that Biden inherited from his predecessor, Donald Trump, signs are growing that the president’s Afghan blunder has weakened his hand against Beijing, while opening greater strategic space for America’s main rival.
Take the case involving the 2018 Canadian arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou on a U.S. warrant, a detention that led to China’s thuggish tit-for-tat action of arbitrarily seizing two Canadians and jailing them. Biden, as if to underscore his weakened position, appears to have yielded to China’s so-called “hostage-taking tactics” by dropping the U.S. extradition case that Meng stand trial on bank and wire fraud charges.
In a deal that Biden personally finalized with Chinese President Xi Jinping, the U.S. allowed Meng’s return to China in exchange for Beijing’s release of Canadians Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig after they spent 1,019 days in Chinese prisons on trumped-up charges. Paradoxically, Meng departed for home from Canada on the day Biden hosted the first face-to-face leaders’ meeting of the “Quad,” a Japan-India-Australia-U.S. grouping impelled by China’s muscular foreign policy and aggressive behavior.
Under a deferred prosecution agreement with the U.S., Meng admitted facts she had previously denied, but her admission was watered down by the unusual rider that the facts stated were “to the best of her information and belief.” The White House, by effectively terminating a legal case through a political deal with a hostage-holding government, has set a terrible precedent in international relations.
The Wall Street Journal editorially called it a “humiliating U.S. surrender to China’s hostage diplomacy.”
The hostages-for-Meng swap is just the latest example of Biden’s effort to ease tensions with China. By rewarding Xi’s use of such tactics, the deal will encourage greater defiance of international rules and norms by China.
Earlier, Biden appeared to bow to another Chinese demand — that the U.S. stop tracing the origins of the COVID-19 virus, even though the world has a right to know if China caused the worst disaster of our time that has already killed more than 4.5 million people worldwide. Biden announced on Aug. 27 — 12 days after Kabul’s fall — that the intelligence inquiry he initiated had ended, despite the fact that it failed to uncover the genesis of the pandemic.
Xi’s regime, involved in perhaps one of the greatest cover-ups ever seen, doesn’t appear to want the truth to come out. After all, if China’s alleged negligence or complicity spawned the world’s worst public-health catastrophe in more than a century, it would constitute a crime against humanity. Biden should have ordered the U.S. intelligence community to keep searching for the true origins of the virus until a definitive conclusion could be reached. By not extending the inquiry’s 90-day deadline, Biden in effect gave the Chinese what they wanted.
On July 26, the Chinese Foreign Ministry had made public its demands to the U.S., including halting investigations into the origins of the COVID-19 virus; dropping the extradition case against Meng; revoking visa restrictions on Chinese Communist Party members and their families; stopping actions against the Confucius Institutes; rescinding the requirement that Chinese media organizations in the U.S. register as foreign agents; halting “unfair treatment” of Chinese citizens including students; and ceasing “interference in China’s internal affairs” through statements on Taiwan, Xinjiang, Hong Kong and the South China Sea.
Since the Afghan debacle in August, it appears Biden has gone to extraordinary lengths to alleviate tensions with China.
During a 90-minute phone conversation with Xi on Sept. 9, Biden sought to explain U.S. actions toward China “in a way that (is) not misinterpreted as … somehow trying to sort of undermine Beijing in particular ways,” according to the readout from a senior U.S. official. During the call, Xi, however, spurned Biden’s face-to-face summit offer, demanding that the U.S. first soften its China policy and tamp down its rhetoric.
As if heeding Xi’s demand, Biden, in his Sept. 21 address at the United Nations, never uttered the word “China,” even as he called out Iran and North Korea. The address stood in stark contrast with President Trump’s 2020 U.N. speech, which demanded that the world “hold China accountable” for unleashing the “China virus.” Biden’s speech defensively stated, “We’re not seeking — say it again, we are not seeking — a new cold war or a world divided into rigid blocs.”
Such fecklessness on the part of Biden appears out of step with reality, given that an ambitious and expansionist China is actively working to supplant the U.S. as the world’s preeminent power while waging a cold war against it. Since Biden assumed the presidency, the U.S. has initiated most of the moves for high-level talks with China, including the latest phone call, which the White House said was part of America’s “ongoing effort to responsibly manage the competition” with China.
The conciliatory moves, however, are spurring Republican criticism about the supposed conflict of interest over the Biden family’s business ties with China, which involve the president’s son and brother.
More significantly, Beijing is continuing to play hardball with Washington, despite Biden’s effort to tamp down tensions. And while Biden has yet to clearly define his China policy, Xi appears to be working toward a gradual decoupling from the U.S. and international financial markets through his “dual circulation” strategy of retooling the Chinese economy to make it more self-sustaining and by tightening regulatory control over big technology companies.
Brahma Chellaney, a longtime contributor to The Japan Times, is a geostrategist and the author of nine books, including the award-winning “Water: Asia’s New Battleground” (Georgetown University Press).
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