In the public war of words, both the US and China have little room for manoeuvre — both need to exhibit power and control.
By Gautam Chikermane
There are three takeaways from the US-China meeting at Anchorage, Alaska, the first after US President Joseph Robinette Biden Jr, or Joe Biden, has taken charge. All three are underlined by a baring-the-teeth aggression of two powerful adversaries, both of whom want to influence the upcoming multipolar new world order. All three are steps towards rebalancing the power equation — China seeks more, the US wants to yield less; China wants to consolidate, the US wants to reconquer lost ground. And all three will influence international relations for all countries, with the EU, the ASEAN and India having to recalibrate their intersections on issues that range from trade and investments to democratic values and human rights.
First, the gloves are off for both the incumbent and the aspiring superpower. Although it is the ‘Wolf Warrior’ diplomacy of China that has been behaving aggressively the world over, the first blood at the Anchorage dialogue was drawn by the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who raised the issues of a rules-based international order: “The alternative to a rules-based order is a world in which might makes right and winners take all, and that would be a far more violent and unstable world for all of us.” He further laid the contours of the US-China relationship as being “competitive where it should be, collaborative where it can be, adversarial where it must be. Our discussions here in Alaska, I suspect, will run the gamut.”
Empowered by the roguish actions of the General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party and the President of China, Xi Jinping, across the world, Chinese Director of the Office of the Central Commission for Foreign Affairs, Yang Jiechi, came to Anchorage as a bully; but in Blinken he met a bigger bully. Yang returned the favour with compound interest. In a defence-turned-offence that we have heard from China as well as Russia, he called the US out. “We do not believe in invading through the use of force, or to topple other regimes through various means, or to massacre the people of other countries, because all of those would only cause turmoil and instability in this world,” he said. “And at the end of the day, all of those would not serve the United States well.” As far as the rules-based order goes, he debunked it as “so-called.”
Second, neither the US nor China is shying away from crossing mutual red lines. Blinken raised the US concerns on actions by China in Xinjiang, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. He also talked about “economic coercion towards our allies” — hinting at China’s misbehaviour in Europe — as well as cyber attacks on the US. Knowing that Yang would talk about non-interference, Blinken pre-empted him by saying neither of these are “internal matters.”
Yang came well prepared. To Blinken’s allegations on Xinjiang, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, Yang remined him that the US has been persuading some countries to launch attacks on China. “We hope that the United States will do better on human rights,” Yang said, turning aggressive on an issue the US gloats about. “And the challenges facing the United States in human rights are deep-seated. They did not just emerge over the past four years, such as Black Lives Matter.”
And third, the eyeball-to-eyeball rhetoric aside, both the US and China sought to mend the broken bridges between them. Behind the loud bravado lie mutual interests. Twice Yang repeated Xi’s “win-win” rhetoric, an expression that effectively means that China wins twice over. “Cooperation benefits both sides,” he said. On his part, Blinken too lowered the tone: [the meeting at Anchorage is] “the opportunity for us to explain where we’re coming from, to hear where you are coming from, and to indicate, at bottom, what our principles, our priorities, and our long-term strategies are.”
Do remember, the fangs bared in this meeting are a narrative-setting exercise. Both, the US and China, know that despite being adversaries, despite approaching international relations from two ends of the ideological spectrum, and despite wanting to shape the new world order as their respective mirror images, they need to work together. Here, because of being a democracy, howsoever flawed, the US is the weaker negotiator, with huge constituencies voicing their opinions freely and loudly, the civil society and the media now backed by individuals using digital platforms to influence and even attack the Biden administration.
On its part, the Anchorage dialogue threw up an amusing attempt by China to build a new narrative, a phrase that may grow into and be misrepresented by the Left-leaning media as Chinese democracy. “Our values are the same as the common values of humanity,” Yang said. “Those are: Peace, development, fairness, justice, freedom, and democracy. And the United States has its style — United States-style democracy — and China has the Chinese-style democracy.” This statement on China’s ‘democracy’ is as credible as China’s ‘iron brother’ Pakistan sending a peace-seeking missile to India.
Both Xi, who is driving the Chinese side, and Yang, his instrument of choice for these negotiations, are unconsciously mistaking and consciously perverting the idea of opinion polls with democracy. The former is meaningless without the latter. The latter is founded on elections, independent institutions and freedoms. So, the world can have a little laugh when Yang says, “In China, according to opinion polls, the leaders of China have the wide support of the Chinese people.”
Likewise, China seeking to abandon the Cold War mentality and the zero-sum game approach is sound rhetoric, even as China’s actions all around it are to the contrary. For instance, China yearns for respect from the US when Yang said, “China’s per capita GDP is only one-fifth of that of the United States, but we have managed to end absolute poverty for all people in China.” But it is unwilling to give that respect to India with similar ratios.
The rules-based order the US talks about, it generally follows through. Its democracy, Blinken defended, is a constant quest for a more perfect union: “And that quest, by definition, acknowledges our imperfections, acknowledges that we’re not perfect, we make mistakes, we have reversals, we take steps back. But what we’ve done throughout our history is to confront those challenges openly, publicly, transparently, not trying to ignore them, not trying to pretend they don’t exist, not trying to sweep them under a rug.” The Tiananmen Square Massacre of 1989 may have been erased from Chinese memory and swept under that rug; but the rest of the world will continue to lift it.
In the public war of words, both the US and China have little room for manoeuvre — both need to exhibit power and control. But this is showmanship, the first of a three-act play, the only part that’s public. The second act was behind closed doors. That’s the location of real negotiations. The climax will take its time coming and it will be the beginning of a geopolitical reset under which both the US and China will give and take. This is, for now, a work in progress.