It had been four long months since the meeting in Alaska between Chinese and American officials, their first interaction since President Joe Biden assumed office in January this year. That was when the Chinese Foreign policy top mandarins Yang Jiechi (Director, Central Foreign Affairs Commission) and Wang Yi (State Councillor and Foreign Minister) bitterly locked horns with the American top diplomats, Antony Blinken (Secretary of State) and Jake Sullivan (National Security Advisor) in Anchorage in intensely chilly circumstances. Bilateral relations remained pretty much frozen since. Both sides might have come around to the belief that a resumption of some level of contact was overdue. Not so much to bring about a thaw; rather, simply to test the water.
The possibility of a meeting between the two Presidents Xi Jinping and Joe Biden began to surface when it became known both would be in Rome to attend a Group of 20 Summit. But that would require preparations. The Biden Administration, believing it had taken enough of a tough stance against China to placate the right side of America's political divide, chose to make the first move. It asked for Chinese acceptance of a visit to Beijing at a level, neither too high nor too low, which they believed was the case with the position of Wendy Sherman, Deputy Secretary of State. The Chinese deeply unhappy with not just the content of talks at Anchorage but also with the quality of hospitality accorded the visitors, were now ready to pay back in kind.
The tool used was something that has historically been done in situations warranting subtle messaging, a skill at which the Chinese are past masters. That is the use of the rules of protocol as a peace-time weapon. After some show of hesitation, Beijing agreed to the visit but presented a lower ranking Chinese official as the appropriate counterpart, denying access to either Wang Yi or Yang Jiechi, which the Americans insisted upon. Eventually the access was provided, though formally, and optically, the main meeting was going to be with a lower-ranking Vice Foreign Minister, Xie Feng. What was going to take place with Wang Yi was a "call". In traditional diplomatic protocol a visiting dignitary can always "call on" higher ranking hosts, but not negotiate, which is normally done with appropriate counterparts. So, the Chinese were not offering any extra privilege, but were nonetheless raising Cain over it just to make a point. By resorting to this method China was wanting to put the US in its place, at the same time derive the necessary benefits from the visit which was an unavoidable preparatory step to the long-awaited Summit of the leaders. In that, at least for now, both sides appear to see merit.
There was to be a further tit for tat. Since the Chinese high officials were not received last April at the US capital, Washington DC, as they would have liked, Deputy Secretary Adams had to remain content with her programme taking place in Tianjin, located 100km south-east of Beijing. What was publicly stated was that Beijing had very strict rules related to Covid prevention that would impede the visit. Both sides seemed to accept the fact that a nuanced, but necessary under the circumstances, diplomatic minuet was being danced out, and both must have heaved a sigh of relief when this parrying ended, and the meetings could finally take place. The official photo of the call on Foreign Minister Wang Yi showed he and Wendy Sherman seated a fair distance apart, speaking to each other via microphones, amplifying not just the sound but also the political distance!
Prior to the meeting, Wang Yi stated in a tone that was a tad ominous: "If the US has not learnt how to deal with other countries on an equal footing, then we have the responsibility to work with the international community to teach the US a lesson". By now, everyone was expecting the discussions to be tough, which they were. The Chinese set out three red lines for the US: One, China's political system must not be challenged; two, China's development must not be interrupted; and, three, China's sovereignty issues such as matters in Hong Kong, Tibet, Xinjiang and Taiwan must not be interfered with. Demonstrating considerable political acumen, Sherman avoided direct confrontation, making the point that the US goal was to set up "guardrails" to prevent competition from turning into conflicts. A state Department readout of the talks, which seemed to assume a slightly conciliatory tone, said that she had affirmed the importance of cooperation in areas of global interest including climate change, drug trafficking and weapons proliferation.
No one really expected the trip to make any substantive progress in terms of Sino-US bilateral relations, as was the case. The best outcome of the visit was that it took place at all! It simply marked a resumption of bilateral contacts, and nothing more. Also, it has managed to keep alive a glimmer of hope that the Xi-Biden summit could still happen as both sides seemed not to be unfavourably disposed towards the idea. The obtaining situation does not warrant any optimism for improved ties. Biden faces domestic pressures not to appear to be "soft" on China if he wants the Congress to approve his proposed legislations, which he does. Xi may not have similar constraints, but he does have an international gallery to play to, to which he is bent on demonstrating that China can outperform the US.
Just as the world is learning to live with the Covid pandemic, so must it learn to live with the burgeoning Sino-US rivalry. The rising Chinese dragon is no longer demure but is increasingly, and unabashedly demanding. At the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party Xi declared that his people "will never allow foreign forces to bully, coerce, and enslave us". If there are to be headwinds, China is preparing to rise like a kite against it. Dominant Western powers, particularly the US are unlikely to be obliging, as the increased pace of American diplomacy in East Asia shows. Nonetheless, it is all but certain that a paradigm shift in powerplay across the globe is already in progress, and it is bound to make for an unstable world.
Dr Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury is the Honorary Fellow at the Institute of South Asia Studies, NUS. He is a former Foreign Advisor (Foreign Minister) of Bangladesh and President and Distinguished Fellow of Cosmos Foundation. The views addressed in the article are his own. He can be reached at: isasiac @nus.edu.sg
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