After Biden,Xi agree to fix ties, aides shouldn’t get in the way

April 04, 2023 06:00
Image: Reuters

If imitation is the highest form of flattery, the United States should feel very flattered indeed as China has been learning from Washington for decades, including how to act (or not act) like the world’s pre-eminent power, or using its influence to get its way, behavior that China condemns as hegemonism but which it practices itself all the same.

Beijing has been emulating Washington for decades. During Jiang Zemin’s presidency, for example, China desired to have a presidential plane just like Air Force One. The plane was ordered, paid for and delivered but has never been used for its original purpose apparently because of the numerous bugs found on the aircraft.

China denounces the United States for “long-arm jurisdiction” by imposing sanctions on foreign entities and individuals. But then, after the Nobel Peace Prize was given to a Chinese dissident, Norway discovered that China had lost its appetite for its salmon. Similarly, Australia found its exports to China cut severely after the airing of political differences. China made no attempt to get United Nations approval for such unofficial sanctions.

On the official side, the Chinese Foreign Ministry announced on July 23, 2021 that, “In response to the erroneous practice of the U.S. side, China has decided to take reciprocal countermeasures, and impose sanctions on U.S. individuals and entities according to the Anti-Foreign Sanctions Law.” Six American individuals and one entity were sanctioned in the first batch.

On the human rights side, China decided long ago to put out an annual report on human rights in the United States because Washington puts one out on China. To its credit, each year the Chinese side has its report ready but its release is withheld until after the American side publishes its report on China.

After the Biden administration put emphasis on democracy in opposition to autocracy, China in December 2021 released a special paper: “China: Democracy That Works,” and expounded on “the whole-process people’s democracy proposed by President Xi Jinping.” Of course, it was depicted as superior to the American form of democracy.

Despite China’s constant attempts to imitate the United States – or to excel – relations between the two countries are worse than they have ever been.
The current political atmosphere in Washington is one in which the two main political parties compete to see who can be tougher on China.

Last November, when Biden and Xi met face-to-face for the first time on the sidelines of the G-20 summit meeting in Bali, both agreed to take action to halt the deterioration in bilateral relations.

Biden and Xi agreed that key officials on each side would work together to “address specific issues in U.S.-China bilateral relations.” They agreed that U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken “will visit China to follow up on their discussions.”

Blinken was scheduled to visit Beijing in February to meet with his Chinese counterparts to deal with the large number of bilateral issues threatening the relationship. However, the visit was canceled because of “balloongate,” when a Chinese “spy” balloon flew into U.S. airspace.

On Feb. 3, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning called the balloon “a civilian airship used for research, mainly meteorological, purposes,” and explained that it had been affected by “the Westerlies and, with limited self-steering capability” it had deviated from its course. She said China regretted the unintended incident, citing force majeure.

The U.S. insisted that it wasn’t a weather balloon and, on Feb. 4, an air force F-22 fighter jet shot it down.

Blinken, who was scheduled to leave for Beijing that evening, canceled his flight. He said the balloon incident “created the conditions that undermine the purpose of the trip.”

So the trip to help resolve U.S.-China problems was canceled because of the emergence of another problem. And now, it seems, there has to be at least a phone call between the two presidents to set things right before their key officials can meet.

The U.S.-China relationship is the world’s most important bilateral relationship. Fixing this broken relationship, to the extent that it can be fixed, should be the key issue for those designated by the two presidents to tackle the problem. These key officials cannot wait until things are calm. Taiwan president Tsai Ing-wen’s U.S. visit is creating a new crisis and there are sure to be more to follow. Blinken and others need to add these to the list of issues they are working on, rather than waiting for things to calm down before starting work.

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Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.