US President Joe Biden. Source: Politico
Joe Biden is on his first foreign policy tour in Europe. Why, then, a piece about China? For the simple reason that the American President’s visit to the Old Continent, including his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, is fatally linked to the primary challenge of both the US and the West: China (it’s worth pointing out that the first foreign trips of Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and Defence Secretary Loyd Austin were in… Asia).
This is the best framework in which the intricacies of this visit can be understood, as well as the only one which can account for global developments. The Washington-Beijing axis will (re)shape the world, including US-EU/NATO and US-Russia relations, with obvious strategic consequences, including on our own region.
‘The Empire of Evil’ Returns? From Wagner to… Mitică Dragomir
Let’s take it one at a time. In the early days of the new White House Administration, it was believed and hoped, especially in our region, that the so-called ‘America is back’ rhetoric would urgently and tumultuously reflect back on the relationship with the Russian Federation. Exactly because Joe Biden is not Donald Trump, it was hoped that Biden wouldn’t be Trump on the Russian dossier either.
The signs initially looked good. Abrupt messages, a vengeful and sanctions-prone mood against Russia. Moscow feels the mood-shift, is confused and growlingly responds, showing its teeth like a mastiff whose comfort-zone is threatened. The main stake in the region was, and still is, for all parties involved, Ukraine and the Biden’s administration attitude towards it. Kyiv also takes advantage of the situation and further raises the stakes, Moscow reacts, the Black Sea gets crowded and there is even talk of war. To no avail. The situation calms down quickly, American warships no longer come, Russia withdraws and Kyiv understands, once more, that no one will go to war in the region for it – except Russia!
The Wagnerian epic of the battle between the ‘Empire of Evil’ (the Putin version) and the ‘Empire of Good’ (the Biden version), ends suddenly and reaches hilarious heights. The two presidents compliment each other live on television with terms not heard at this level even at the height of the Cold War. Biden calls Vladimir Putin a ‘murderer’ and the latter responds the following day by calling Biden ‘senile’ (in more words, to be fair). But this is irrelevant, because the two argue like Romanian football managers Gigi Becali and Mitică Dragomir: ‘we didn’t argue. He called me an oligophrenic, I called him a damp rag, but we didn’t insult each other’. It seems that neither did the two presidents and, after a telephone call from the American President, the two decide to meet, but only after some nose-turning from Moscow, to save face for domestic audiences. Secretary of State Blinken – an admirable ‘counselor of peace’ forced to work, not always convincingly, during times of war – and Foreign Minister Lavrov work out the details in Reykjavik and the two heads of state start preparing for the June 16th meeting in Switzerland: the cherry on top of the 46th President of the United States’ European tour.
What’s next? Obviously, it will be nothing like the famous Reagan-Gorbachev summit in Reykjavik, 35 years ago, that ‘glimpsed over the horizon’ and changed the course of history or, for that matter, like the Bush-Putin summit 20 years ago, when the American President peered the ‘Russian soul’ through Putin’s eyes… It will however be, with all its related tensions and déja-vu, a summit that, at least for one stage of the process, set the red lines of a military confrontation beyond which neither Moscow nor Washington will venture – in the meanwhile, ‘disputes’ can go on as always. What these will be and who will pay the price remains to be seen.
What should one understand from all this? A single and painful thing for many. The Biden Administration opened the Russian dossier first not because it is the most complex one, but because… it is the easiest to solve. Easier than the Iranian one, easier than withdrawing the troops from Afghanistan (and how eager China is to take the US’s place in this region), and easier than the North Korean problem. Let alone easier than China.
The stakes of the European tour or why Russia isn’t China
Photo: May 20th 2021. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov meets US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken in Reykjavik. Source: The Sunday Morning Herald
This is the key in which the European dossier should be understood. Less as a strategic dossier, and more as a tactical one. And here’s why.
On the 6th of June, Joe Biden published a doctrinaire article under the ‘Opinions’ column of The Washington Post as a preamble to his European tour, which contains all the themes the American President will discuss in Europe. The article is titled ‘My trip to Europe is about America rallying the worlds’ democracies’. It is like a pre-written speech, a basis for all the replies or addresses that Joe Biden will give.
What’s it all about? Here are the main lines, which form a sort of ‘Biden Doctrine’, 100 days from the Inauguration:
- Trump’s legacy is clear from the get-go: any foreign policy endeavor must begin with assertions about US domestic policy. After Donald Trump, the Biden Administration can no longer afford to neglect domestic developments, which tend to become the measure of effectiveness of any foreign policy endeavor (this has been dubbed as a ‘foreign policy for the middle class’). The presidential article follows this recipe precisely and talks about the unprecedented success of the Biden Administration: the management of the pandemic, the creation of new jobs, the rise of the median wage etc.
- Joe Biden’s world is not divided between ‘patriots’ and ‘globalists’ as Donald Trump’s world was, but between ‘democracies’ (the EU, NATO, G7 etc.) and autocracies (China and Russia). America is going to Europe not just to say this, but to rally the world’s democracies behind it. As the article says, regardless of whether we speak of Covid-19, the climate crisis, or the ‘harmful activities of the governments of China and Russia’, the United States ‘must lead the world from a position of strength’. Just so it is clear for everyone.
- Russia is not China. Despite the obstinacy with which it is repeated, as a belated relief, especially in the East, the expression ‘China and Russia’ (as if the two always come together), is actually quite removed from reality. For Washington and the Biden Administration, Russia IS NOT China. And the President’s article is clear in this regard, even despite the fact that – only once! – he cites them together. China is mentioned more often and more strategic: Russia is a problem that must be solved through talks at the highest level, whereas China is a great challenge. Russia can bother America and its allies, China can defeat them, in a first stage, in terms of technology and development level. And this must not be allowed to happen.
- The battle of the future is with China, and it is not merely an ideological battle. This isn’t just about moral issues, but it involves technology as well. Democracies must prevail in this area. Biden says so explicitly, they must be capable of offering an alternative to China’s ‘physical, digital and health infrastructure’. This is why America needs Western allies (the EU, G7 etc.) to deliver concrete results in these changing times. The question is if that is indeed possible.
The US President provides us with the answer, at the end of his piece in The Washington Post:
‘I believe the answer is yes. And this week in Europe, we have the chance to prove it’.
Now let’s see what might prove to be an obstacle.
Alaska 2021 – the moment when, for China, America’s moral supremacy officially collapsed
Photo: the American-Chinese summit in Alaska (US), March 18th, 2021
The most relevant diplomatic moment that took place after the Biden Administration settled in the White House was, by far, the American-Chinese summit in Alaska, on the 18th of March 2021 (photo above; full meeting here).
The summit was a full-blown shock. So strong, that publications such as Foreign Affairs or Foreign Policy wrote nothing about it. Not a word, as if the event didn’t even take place. And yet, it happened, regardless of how surreal the whole scenario unfolded. Initially, the negotiations were to proceed with the usual 10-minute formal meeting with the press which, to everyone’s surprise, went on for more than an hour.
Here is a summary of the events. The most important representatives for foreign policy of the two countries were sat face-to-face: on the American side, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan; on the Chinese side, Director of the Central Foreign Affairs Committee Office Yang Jiechi and Foreign Minister Wang Yi. As I was saying, everyone was expecting a formal meet-and-greet under the spotlight. The first to speak, according to protocol, was Anthony Blinken. Beyond the usual pleasantries, the Secretary began relatively abrupt, as if he was speaking for domestic audiences and Fox News, expressing his concerns regarding ‘China’s actions’ in Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Taiwan, on the cyberattacks on America and the economic blackmail or coercion by China on America’s allies in the region: ‘each of these actions threatens the rules-based order that maintains global stability’. Jake Sullivan continued with the same rhetoric, albeit on a more moderate tone.
The first 5 minutes of the American side were over. The next to speak was the head of the Chinese delegation, Yang Jiechi, who spoke continuously for 16 minutes, making the translator’s task very difficult (after the Chinese official ended his remarks, Blinken joked that ‘we’re going to give the translator a raise’). Beyond the exemplary fashion in which the Chinese translator fulfilled her task, it must be noted that Chinese-speakers who understood the remarks admitted that the original sounded even more aggressive than the English translation, which was tough-sounding on its own! In essence, China’s most important diplomat laid out all the accusations against America that the Chinese probably had in mind for quite some time, but which were for the first time publicly expressed at a meeting of this level.
It is worth mentioning them here, so that we understand what follows. Any commentary would be useless, as these accusations should not be regarded as ‘truths’ or ‘facts’, but as an expression of the fact that Beijing no longer recognizes, not even de facto, the moral superiority of the West generally, and of America in particular:
- America’s political lecturing is useless. There are no perfect and universally-valuable political systems. The United States has ‘US-style democracy, and China has Chinese-style democracy’. It is not only up to ‘the American people, but also the people of the world, to evaluate the how the United States has done in advancing its own type of democracy in the world’.
- As for the charges concerning Chinese aggression, Beijing sent the signal that not it, but America is guilty of forceful interventions and aggression: ‘we do not believe in invading through the use of force or in toppling other regimes through various means or in massacring people from other countries, because all of those would only cause turmoil and instability in this world. At the end of the day, all of this would not serve the United States well’.
- America must stop its export of democracy to other countries: ‘We believe it is important for the United States to change its own image and to stop advancing its own democracy in the rest of the world. Many people within the United States actually have little confidence in the democracy of the US and they have various views regarding the US government. In China, according to opinion polls, the leaders of China have the wide support of the Chinese people.’
- Any aggression against China will have the opposite effect: ‘no attempt to smear China’s social system would get anywhere. Facts have shown that such practices would only lead the Chinese people to rally closer to the Communist Party of China and to work steadily towards the goals that we have set for ourselves’.
- America is behaving aggressively, inciting tensions and putting pressure on other states: ‘As for certain regional problems, I think the problem is that the United States has exercised long-arm jurisdiction and overstretched their national security through the use of force or financial hegemony, and this has created obstacles for normal trade activities. In addition to this, the US has also been persuading some countries to launch attacks on China’.
- As for Xinjiang, Tibet and Taiwan, ‘they are inalienable parts of China’s territory. China is firmly opposed to US interference in China’s internal affairs. We have expressed our staunch opposition to such interference and we will take firm actions in response’.
- China accepts no lessons from America because, ‘as recent events have showed’, America has ‘human rights issues’ at home: ‘As for human rights, we hope that the United States will do better in the future. China has made steady progress on human rights and the fact is that there are many problems in the United States with human rights, which is admitted by the US itself as well (…). The challenges facing the United States in human rights are deep-seated. They did not just emerge only over the past 4 years, such as Black Lives Matter…’
- China is not an aggressor. ‘The overwhelming majority of American businesses in China have said that China’s business environment is good and nobody has forced them to stay in China. They see a profit coming from their presence in China and they see immense opportunities in China. That’s why they are here in China’.
- As for cyberattacks, ‘whether it is the ability to launch cyberattacks or the technology that could be deployed, the United States is the champion in this regard. You cannot blame this problem on somebody else’
- America does not represent the world: ‘The United States itself does not represent international public opinion and neither does the Western world. Whether judged by population scale or the trend of the world the Western world does not represent the global public opinion. Therefore (…) the US does not represent the world, it only represents the government of the United States. I don’t think the overwhelming majority of countries in the world would recognize that the universal values advocated by the United States could represent international public opinion, and those countries would not recognize that the rules made by a small number of people could serve as the basis for the international order.’
The Chinese Foreign Minister spoke with on the same irritated tone, albeit briefer:
- The American officials’ opening statements ‘is not supposed to be the way one should welcome his guests, and we wonder if this is a decision made by the United States to try to gain some advantage in dealing with China, but certainly this is miscalculated and only reflects the vulnerability and weakness inside the United States’.
- China urges the American side ‘to fully abandon the hegemonic practice of willfully interfering in China’s internal affairs. This has been a long-standing issue which needs to be addressed, it is time for it to change. In particular, on the 17th of March, the United States escalated its so-called sanctions regarding Hong Kong, and the Chinese people are outraged by this gross interference in China’s internal affairs, and the Chinese side is firmly opposed to it’.
China is speaking as it has never done before. There is an acute feeling that one is witnessing something unique, fascinating, and yet dangerous. During the speeches of the Chinese officials, tensions grow visibly. Notes are passed between Blinken and Sullivan. At the end of the Chinese speeches, the press was getting ready, according to protocol, to exit the room. The Secretary of State jumps in and explicitly tells them to stay a bit longer. It was obvious that the meeting couldn’t end like this. The US diplomats sensed it would have been a disaster for the American side and therefore they, in spite of initial protocol, returned to the microphone. Another round followed.
Without equaling neither the intensity nor the harshness of the Chinese message – as I was saying, Blinken is not a ‘war’ or ‘confrontational’ diplomat – the American side nonetheless hit back as well: ‘I recall well when President Biden was vice president and we were visiting China. This was in the wake of the financial crisis. There was much discussion then, including with then-Vice President Xi Jinping. And Vice President Biden at the time said it’s never a good bet to bet against America, and it’s true today.’
The Chinese take to the microphones as well, and the Director of the Central Foreign Affairs Committee Office, Yang Jiechi, returns to what he has previously stated: ‘the United States does not have the qualification to say that it wants to speak to China from a position of strength. The US side was not even qualified to say such things even 20 years or 30 years back, because this is not the way to deal with the Chinese people. If the United States wants to deal properly with the Chinese side, then let’s follow the necessary protocols and do things the right way.’
One hour later than scheduled, the meeting is over…
The international press seems shell-shocked and ignores this important moment, which will undoubtedly be considered a turning point in a few years. However, in China, the celebrations are enormous. Television programs discuss the ‘historic moment’ in Alaska and commend the strength of their diplomats and the Chinese ‘rematch’ for days. Yang Jiaechi’s photo is shared by millions of Chinese people on social media…
The sleeping colossus of which Napoleon spoke more than two centuries ago is finally awake.
America plays its destiny in Taiwan, not Europe
Source: Foreign Affairs
The unprecedented rise of China and the ever more present realization, including in Washington, that the future of the world order will be drawn around the America-China relationship raises the stakes enormously. The United States is continuing its dialogue with Beijing and keeps on building its project and strategy on China, keeping in mind that it cannot afford to lose any battles with China that may be decisive for its status in the world. The most difficult of them all? The battle for Taiwan.
We are now entering a fiery logic.
Recent attempts, like the recent testing balloon from Foreign Affairs, to minimize an American defeat in the South China Sea or even a loss/‘calculated’ concession of Taiwan are ridiculous in the light of recent evolutions. The more important China’s stake in the world becomes, and the more obvious the signals from the American Administration become – and they are getting more obvious! – the more likely it is that any potential American defeat in the region will be decisive. Not as much in ‘physical’ terms, as in moral terms, at the level of public perception. In other words, a Chinese victory in Taiwan, without America being able to stop it or to react with the same intensity, would push the United States from the top of the great powers, just as America dethroned Great Britain from the world top of the world stage a century ago…
This is the source of the terrible stakes and Washington’s immense worry in managing the Chinese dossier, which is made even more difficult by Beijing’s unprecedented rise in military strength (the Chinese navy has launched 90 ships and submarines in the last 5 years in the Western Pacific, 4 or 5 times more than America has) and by the unpredictability of Chinese thought – will Xi Jingpin accept ending his reign without the Taiwanese diamond? By comparison, we can see the infinitely lower relevance of other dossiers, which become ‘disposable’ under this logic (the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Ukraine etc.).
Simply put, if America ‘loses’ Taiwan, it loses its supremacy. On the other hand, if it keeps ‘losing’ Crimea or the Donbass, there are no real consequences to its status.
This is where the difference lies.
America’s relations with the EU, NATO and Russia under the spell of China
I have given the Chinese dossier ampler space because the key of the events that we are witnessing today – and will continue to witness in future – is here.
Joe Biden’s America has defined its competitor/adversary and this is where all its foreign policy actions are converging towards. In essence, nothing has changed between the Trump and the Biden Administrations from this standpoint. Even the return to the ‘Chinese virus’ and the initiation of a new investigation by American information services to verify, once again, the source of the killer virus, or Facebook’s ‘permission’ to talk about the pandemic virus as a ‘man-made creation’ (a pathetic episode of Western freedom of expression!) represent the most eloquent evidence that Washington is preparing every available weapon in its future confrontation with China – including the idea, already presented by Donald Trump, that China is responsible for the deaths of 3.5 million people as a result of the production and manipulation of the virus…
The relationship with the EU in this visit must be read under this same paradigm, including the concessions made to Europe (more specifically, Germany): allowing the completion of the North Stream 2 project. It is incomparably better to have Germany and Europe on your side in an immense competition like the one with China than to alienate them because of stakes that have become, by comparison, minor. In addition to this, Europeans can benefit from a series of economic concessions in the upcoming (and difficult) negotiations on tariffs and taxes – but any concession of this kind will be paid by a strategic alignment to the major American project. Joe Biden – as he explicitly stated in the already mentioned June 6th article – did not come to Europe to site beside the Europeans: he came to Europe to sit at the head of the table. There will be no concessions here. After all, the American diplomat who said it loud and clear – ‘Fuck the EU’ – is today the third most important person at the State Department…
Europe will frown, protest, react. But despite some European discontent, the battle with China isn’t just about economics, it is about America’s status as hegemon on the world stage, and this is no laughing matter. Brussels will understand this, even if it doesn’t like it.
As for the continent’s ‘strategic autonomy’, we will hear about this less and less, or we will hear about it in a different way. President Macron will have difficulties in speaking on the same tone, especially when it comes to China, with a ‘multilateralist’ like Biden, and not a ‘unilateralist’ like Trump in the White House.
There is, however, an opening at the NATO level, where the European dimension will gain more traction (a ‘European NATO’) and, perhaps, more consistency (depending on the financial availability of member countries), in order to alleviate America’s surplus military and financial costs in case the real pivot towards China/Asia actually takes place. It’s worth noting that the so-called ‘strategic concept’ of NATO is over 10 years old, when China wasn’t even on the radar of threats to the West… As a result, the alliance won’t be spared trouble nor challenges.
Russia might be the place where Europe’s ‘strategic autonomy’ could actually manifest itself. Even so, US consent to any European endeavor will still be needed, because the Washington-Moscow relation, even though it will not reset itself, will rhyme with such a reset. That explains the recent lifting of pressure from the Ukraine dossier – which will be financed and armed, but not enough to act as a ‘deterrent’ to the Russian Federation – or even the occultation (at least for now) of the Russian Federation’s internal developments (shutting down Alexei Navalny’s organizations under the pretense of extremism) or of those from Belarus. Special notice to the Republic of Moldova as it gets ready for parliamentary elections on the 11th of July!
Nixon is dead. Back to… Nixon?!
What should Romania do in this complex picture of the changing world order? It shouldn’t pity America, because there’s no need to do that, there never was (see here). In this moment of grave tensions between the US and China (a country which cannot and must not become the USSR or the Russian Federation in Romanian mentality!), when what started with the first visit of an American President in China, in 1972, feels like ancient history, Bucharest needs not a change of partners nor hierarchies, but rather, a change of style. A new style is needed in Romanian policy, because hysteria and monomania, especially in international relations, can never be long-term winning strategies. And in the current nuance-filled picture, calm and visionary intelligence is needed, in order to assist the strategic partner when and where the need arises.
Bucharest need not go too far back in History for such lessons. Starting with April 1967, the moment of the first (unofficial) visit of the future American President Richard Nixon would be more than helpful…
Dan Dungaciu is a member of the LARICS Council of Experts.