Sat. May 18th, 2024

Prof. ST Hsieh

Director, US-China Energy Industry Forum


[email protected]

May 18, 2023

The following article is a thoughtful analysis of the challenges faced by President Biden on behalf of the US dealing with President Xi on behalf of China.

But a major reason why “Xi is Ghosting Biden” is that the US under President Biden is facing significant domestic challenges. Biden is challenged by his political opponents every step of the way. It is not entirely Biden’s fault but unfortunately the US is not doing well. The unprecedent debt-ceiling crisis has caused Biden to abruptly cancel his prominent trip to PNG and Australia. Biden has announced that he will run for re-election, with the final vote only about 17 months away, yet public opinion favors former President Trump over Biden. So, the issue raised by the author: “Xi cannot avoid Biden forever, and sooner or later the two leaders will speak again,” forever means 17 months at a max. Further, as President Biden is running for re-election as an underdog at home, how much sway will President Biden have in the global stage? If President Biden adopts the “Rose Garden” campaign strategy, then he will not leave the White House and no more foreign trips.

The author summarized well the weakness of Biden administration in dealing with China:

  1. the Biden administration does not have a China policy! Biden has not delivered a single speech outlining his vision for U.S.-Chinese relations.
  2. He “has outsourced this messaging to various officials—the secretaries of state, commerce, and the treasury, among others—who have approached it from their own parochial perches.”
  3. This “mixed messaging on Taiwan has convinced Beijing that Washington is attempting to unilaterally change the status quo. Accordingly, China has begun deploying its forces ever closer to Taiwan’s shores.”

But the fatal flaw of the US China policy is that the US “misdiagnoses Xi’s geopolitical aims.” True, Xi is the supreme leader of China and China Communist Party, but he is also responsible to his people. He also has to master the operation of Chinese government machine and keep one step ahead of every staff under him.

The recommendation that the US should adopt a strategy of “reciprocity” implies that the US is being challenged by China. But the reality is that US is challenging China, at least by words.

Why Xi Is Ghosting Biden

Beijing’s refusal to talk to Washington is part of a war of attrition against U.S. influence.

By Craig Singleton, a senior China fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. MAY 17, 2023, 5:13 AM

Chinese leader Xi Jinping is ghosting U.S. President Joe Biden. Indeed, it has been six months since the two leaders last spoke—in the interim, Beijing has blamed busy schedules and even balloons for the extended lapse in leader-to-leader engagement. All the while, Xi found time to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow and host high-level diplomatic delegations from France, Germany, and Brazil. Having exhausted every possible excuse, China recently acknowledged that it might not want to talk at all. “Communication [with the United States] should not be carried out for the sake of communication,” Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Wang Wenbin said in March.

In other words: Don’t call us, and we may not even call you.

Washington and Beijing’s communication breakdown should surprise no one. Today’s falling out has been two years in coming—and is merely a symptom, rather than the cause, of the downward spiral in U.S.-Chinese relations. Indeed, relations will likely worsen as long as White House policies remain predicated on bumper-sticker foreign-policy slogans such as “competing to coexist” with China when Xi is clearly competing to win. If Washington is to have any hope of reversing the communication breakdown, it’s time to consider replacing wishful rhetoric about coexistence and “guardrails” with the only language Beijing truly understands: reciprocity.

Regrettably, the Biden administration does not have a China policy—it has several that often conflict with one another. At times tough but typically conciliatory, the administration’s flawed competition framing confuses means with ends, dodging altogether the difficult task of defining the United States’ desired end state vis-à-vis China. Tellingly, Biden has not delivered a single speech outlining his vision for U.S.-Chinese relations. Instead, he has outsourced this messaging to various officials—the secretaries of state, commerce, and the treasury, among others—who have approached it from their own parochial perches. The result has been a fractured policymaking process that produces contradictory pronouncements that, more often than not, contribute to a sense of confusion rather than clarity.

Case in point: Secretary of State Antony Blinken has sought a “fair” and “level playing field” in U.S.-Chinese technology competition, whereas National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan has advocated using export controls to maintain “as large of a lead as possible” over Beijing. These two goals imply two very different relationships: the former open competition, the latter technology containment. For her part, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen has suggested national security concerns should trump economic considerations in the U.S.-Chinese relationship. But she also claims that such limitations are not intended to provide the United States with a “competitive economic advantage,” even though her peers, such as Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, have clearly suggested otherwise.

Of course, the Biden administration’s competitive contortions are not limited to semiconductors and supply chains. Increasingly, they have been employed in response to crises related to security and sovereignty, most notably involving Taiwan. For instance, following Biden’s repeated gaffes about the U.S. commitment (or not) to defend the self-governed island, as well as in response to other cross-strait crises, the White House has reiterated that Washington “seeks competition, not conflict” with Beijing—comforting diplomatic boilerplate that means everything and nothing at all. This and other mixed messaging on Taiwan has convinced Beijing that Washington is attempting to unilaterally change the status quo. Accordingly, China has begun deploying its forces ever closer to Taiwan’s shores, in effect shrinking the buffer zone and corresponding margin of error that existed previously in the Taiwan Strait.

No challenge better illustrates the administration’s confounding approach to China than its contrived response to this year’s spy balloon saga. These contradictions transcend a general lack of message discipline, with Blinken condemning China for “violating our [U.S.] sovereignty” even as Biden downplayed the incident as not a “major breach.” They include reports that the State Department deliberately blocked attempts by other U.S. agencies to hold Beijing accountable by levying human rights-related sanctions or export controls against Chinese targets. Such measures were reportedly shelved in order to avoid adversely affecting the bilateral relationship, even though it was China that flouted international law and has refused to issue even the hint of an apology.

Even worse, in the months since the spying episode, the Biden administration has repeatedly proposed sending high-level delegations to Beijing, perhaps hoping that mutual professions of each side’s peaceful intentions can resolve the fundamental differences between the two nations. These overtures, which Xi has rejected, were extended without first securing any meaningful changes in Beijing’s behavior, let alone a commitment to stop intruding into U.S. skies. Having concluded he can do no wrong, Xi has unsurprisingly weaponized the Biden administration’s pleas for contact. Chinese officials, such as Foreign Minister Qin Gang, have themselves resorted to geopolitical gaslighting, insinuating that Washington overreacted to Beijing’s bold incursions and that “conflict” is inevitable unless the United States—not China—changes course.

The fatal flaw in Biden’s incoherent China strategy, however, is not that he seeks to stave off a superpower crisis at any cost or that the strategy is based on hollow slogans. Rather, the problem is that Washington misdiagnoses Xi’s geopolitical aims. More specifically, Biden assumes long-term coexistence is compatible with Xi’s vision for a new, Chinese-centric world order and that U.S. policies of extreme caution are what stands in the way of calamity. Neither assertion is accurate. All told, the administration’s fixation on guardrails has led to today’s perverse great-power dynamic, in which Chinese passivity now actively constrains U.S. decision-making. In treating China like an immutable juggernaut, the Biden administration has adopted a negotiating posture that, counterintuitively, accommodates and normalizes China’s behavior. Such an approach contrasts sharply with a strategy of reciprocity, in which Washington would demonstrate firmness while also signaling a willingness to cooperate if and when China behaves cooperatively.

Meanwhile, Xi’s calculus appears clear: Engaging with Washington for the sake of engagement only risks extending the remaining half-life of the liberal world order. The Biden administration’s claims aside, today’s ideological struggle between two totally incompatible social, economic, and political systems cannot end in stalemate or coexistence. Nor will the struggle necessarily be protracted. Xi appears to be increasingly confident that the battle for geopolitical dominance could be decided in the coming years, not decades. Rather than settle for competitive coexistence and risk a redux of the same traps that befell a contained Soviet Union, Xi is taking steps to ensure China comes out on top and soon. Xi’s first-mover mentality was laid bare when he recently remarked to Putin that “there are [geopolitical] changes—the likes of which we haven’t seen for 100 years—and we are the ones driving changes together.” Indeed, Xi’s new world disorder, one modeled on Marxism as much as Leninism, can only be validated through continuous expansion—which explains Xi’s fervent push to pull as many countries as possible into China’s orbit.

With that in mind, Xi has begun actively promoting an alternative international architecture that eschews universal values and, alarmingly, excludes the United States. His emerging construct—embodied by China’s Global Civilization, Global Development, and Global Security initiatives—pivots from the Western-dominated system of global rules to one that is defined by national governments. Rather than countries “imposing their own values or models on others,” Xi’s system emphasizes respect for each country’s own national values and cultural traditions—as embodied by their governments. This hands-off paradigm, which Beijing beta-tested for two decades at the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, enjoys broad appeal from fellow autocrats, across the global south, and among some U.S. partners, such as India and Turkey. The net effect would be to replace the United Nations treaty system with a patchwork of ideological alignments that reflects China’s values and interests. It should be abundantly clear that these efforts constitute a diplomatic war of attrition on Washington’s influence.

Similarly, Xi has accelerated plans to purposefully decouple from the United States—a strategy he first laid bare in 2012 when he warned that the United States had hijacked China’s economy. In the name of zili gengsheng (or “self-reliance”), Xi recently granted unprecedented investigative powers to China’s national security agencies to target foreign businesses and seize their intellectual property, leading to a raft of early-morning raids against Western firms. Xi also severed overseas access to various databases involving corporate registration information, patents, academic journals, and even official statistical yearbooks. These measures construct a wall around the Chinese economy and build on others that have created a risky, inhospitable environment for Western businesses operating in China. In essence, Xi is closing his country off from U.S. influence, regardless of the risks to China’s economy.

What comes now is Beijing’s bare-minimum balancing act. Xi will permit only limited bilateral dialogue in niche areas of vital significance to Beijing while rejecting meaningful engagement on most anything of import to Washington. Xi’s gamble presupposes the Biden administration, so wedded to a policy of détente and seemingly desperate for contact, will accept China’s terms without imposing any costs of its own. In many respects, Xi’s hedge already appears to be paying dividends. U.S. officials, including U.S. Ambassador to China Nicholas Burns, have begun pleading for Beijing to “meet us [the United States] halfway”—something Xi has no intention of doing unless Washington signals plans to cut off contact on matters vital to China’s near-term development, such as continued access to U.S. capital markets.

Truth be told, Xi cannot avoid Biden forever, and sooner or later the two leaders will speak again. But as long as these open-ended engagements are wedded to a policy of coexistence rather than reciprocity, the more likely they could lead to the very rupture the Biden administration is desperately seeking to avoid. To maximize its leverage, Washington must talk less, not more, with Beijing. That means withholding dialogue on the issues China most cares about in order to have a fighting chance at forcing Xi back to the negotiating table to discuss everything else.

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