US President Joe Biden’s first news conference last month offered reassuring and concerning insights regarding his administration’s approach to China.
Biden did not mention the contentious meeting in Alaska where US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan confronted China’s top two foreign policy officials.
The Americans implicitly affirmed the administration of former US president Donald Trump’s direct pushback against communist China’s repressive domestic governance and aggressive international behavior. Chinese Minister of Foreign Affairs Wang Yi (王毅) and Chinese Central Foreign Affairs Commission Director Yang Jiechi (楊潔篪) had explicitly demanded a return to the policies of former US presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.
Biden said after the meeting that he was “proud” of Blinken’s performance, and he used the news conference to recount how he had expressed the same concerns to Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平).
He said he warned Xi that, working closer than Trump had with allies and democratic partners (which the US Department of State said included Taiwan), “we are going to hold China accountable to follow the rules ... whether it relates to the South China Sea or the North China Sea, or ... Taiwan, or a whole range of other things.”
The president said he also gave Xi a strong human rights message:
“[A]s long as you and your country continues to so blatantly violate human rights, we’re going to continue, in an unrelenting way, to call to the attention of the world and ... make it clear what’s happening,” Biden said. “And he understood that. I made it clear that no American president — at least one did — but no American president ever back down from speaking out of what’s happening to the Uighurs, what’s happening in Hong Kong, what’s happening in-country.”
“That’s who we are. The moment a president walks away from that, as the last one did, is the moment we begin to lose our legitimacy around the world,” he said.
Biden contrasted Trump’s performance to his own several other times, even employing sarcasm — “God, how I miss him” — but his extensive comments on China overshot the mark in several respects.
First, he failed to distinguish between Trump’s reputed personal indifference to the plight of the Uighurs, Hong Kongers, Taiwanese and Tibetans, and the Trump administration’s actual human rights record on those issues.
Through the use of punitive sanctions, administrative actions, scathing official statements and speeches, and congressional legislation that Trump unhesitatingly signed, his administration instituted policies that went far beyond anything done by any previous administration to combat China’s malign behavior on security, trade and human rights.
That is why Beijing made clear its strong interest in the end of the Trump tenure and why Yang and Wang angrily accosted Blinken and Sullivan before and during their meeting.
Biden also misspoke by conflating Xi with the Chinese people when he said, “you and your country continues to so blatantly violate human rights.”
It would be convenient to dismiss the reference as a slip of the tongue, and that he meant “you and your communist government” — but something else Biden said at the news conference, and had stated earlier, suggests that he sees the China threat as broader than the communist government, more societal or cultural: “I pointed out to him: No leader can be sustained in his position or her position unless they represent the values of the country.”
By that reasoning, given Xi’s unquestionable “sustainment” in power, he must be reflecting the national values of Chinese society.
However, in a quasi-totalitarian system like the People’s Republic of China, unlike a democratic society, the leaders rule not by reflecting the values of the people, but by imposing the interests of the ruling party.
As Mao Zedong (毛澤東) said, political power is won not by the consent of the governed, but by “the barrel of a gun” — or, as Biden might put it, by the example of their power, not the power of their example.
Surely, Biden did not intend to defame the Chinese people by suggesting they applaud what Xi’s regime is doing to the Uighurs, Tibetans and Hong Kongers, and is threatening to do to Taiwan.
He sounds almost Trump-like in describing Xi as “very, very straightforward. Doesn’t have a democratic — with a small ‘D’ — bone in his body. But he’s a smart, smart guy.”
Both US presidents readily conceded Xi’s status as a world-class tyrant — during the campaign, Biden called him “a thug.” Yet, neither Biden nor Trump was able to resist an almost awe-struck response to the very ruthless qualities that make Xi so successful at oppressing his people and threatening the international order.
It is not unlike former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger’s fawning over mass murderer Mao and former Chinese premier Zhou Enlai (周恩來).
“[T]he thing that I admire about dealing with Xi is he understands — he makes no pretense about not understanding what I’m saying any more than I do him,” Biden said.
Is he suggesting a meeting of the minds? Biden has often touted his unparalleled personal relationship with Xi: “I’ve known Xi Jinping for a long time. Allegedly, by the time I left office as vice president, I had spent more time with [him] than any world leader had, because president Obama and the Chinese president Hu [Jintao, 胡錦濤] decided we should get to know one another since it was inappropriate for the president of the United States to spend time with the vice president of another country.”
It turns out that was a bit of a misstatement as well.
In September 2015, Obama said this in the Rose Garden: “I want to once again welcome President Xi back to the White House. We first hosted him here three years ago when he was vice president. So this is our sixth meeting.”
More important than the frequency of the Obama-Xi and Biden-Xi meetings and telephone conversations is what they accomplished for China’s relations with the US and the world. Biden said that during their most recent two-hour talk “we made several things clear to one another,” and listed his own admonitions to Xi.
Yet what did Xi make clear to Biden — the same “no compromise, no concession” ultimatums Wang and Yang gave Blinken and Sullivan? Or did Xi assuage Biden’s concerns as he did Obama’s when he promised not to seize the territory of the US’ security ally the Philippines or militarize the South China Sea?
Or, when he assured Trump there was nothing to fear from what his own government originally called the “Wuhan pneumonia” or “Wuhan virus” and no need to halt air travel from China?
Trump denied he had been “duped” by Xi. Obama displayed similar credulity.
Biden needs to follow the “clear-eyed” approach he, Blinken and Sullivan espouse. As Blinken’s predecessor Mike Pompeo put it, “Distrust and verify.”
Joseph Bosco, who served as China country director in the office of the US secretary of defense, is a fellow of the Institute for Taiwan-American Studies and a member of the Global Taiwan Institute’s advisory committee.
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