Last week’s meetings between US and Chinese officials in Anchorage, Alaska – highlighted by China’s top diplomat, Yang Jiechi opening the talks with a 20-minute lambasting of the Americans – was something of a Rorschach test.
Some observers describe a humiliating disaster from which President Biden’s team – and the United States – will not recover. Others see it as just a bump in a longer continuum of US-PRC relations and not so important in the long run. And some say it was just Yang performing for his domestic audience, so nothing to worry about.
Certain optimists even consider the event a net-win for the Americans – as it displayed Chinese communist boorishness to the entire world. And this, it is argued, will drive governments away from the PRC and toward the United States. The flip side, though, is that some people might admire the PRC for having the brass to berate the Americans on US soil – and get away with it.
Despite being rattled, the Americans continued the two days of scheduled talks with their Chinese counterparts. And in a small victory, considering pre-Trump US behavior, they did not appear to offer gratuitous concessions to get the bilateral relationship “back on track.”
Further on this positive note: After their Alaska blowtorching, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan got the European Union, Britain, and Canada to join the United States in announcing sanctions against Beijing for mistreatment of China’s Uighur population. Blinken and company deserve credit for this.
Taking the Rorschach test
Having watched the videos, viewed the pictures and read the transcripts, this writer will lie back on the couch and explain what he saw.
It was a clear embarrassment for the Americans. They came unprepared – or maybe only prepared for an Oxford Union debate with port and cigars and gentleman’s rules strictly enforced.
It is baffling that the Americans allowed press coverage and thus a global audience for the opening statements. Blinken and Sullivan should have expected Yang to go on the offensive – and he did.
And the side that gets in the first shot usually wins.
Team Biden’s members were supposed to be pros at diplomacy – as opposed to Trump’s amateurs. Or at least that’s what they told us for four years.
Even worse, Team Biden’s response to Yang’s (and by definition Chairman Xi Jinping’s) insults of American democracy, human rights and national character was unimpressive. And that’s being kind.
Admittedly, not everyone is in his or her element taking on the representatives of a fierce totalitarian regime. But that challenge comes with the job. So what stands out?
Blinken: “We acknowledge our imperfections.”
Sullivan: “Secret sauce.”
Not exactly Churchill.
Indeed, Yang would not have tried this with former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo across the table. Nor would he have been given the opportunity.
Even worse, in Alaska the Chinese side practically oozed moral superiority. That has nothing to do with morality of course – especially given the Chinese Communist Party’s track record. Rather it refers to a sense of psychological dominance over the other party.
One fears the Chinese smelled weakness before they even arrived. And got a stronger whiff of it soon afterward.
“Compare this against the meeting in Hawaii with Pompeo leading our side” in 2020, one observer said.
At the Cook Hotel in Anchorage, that observer said, offering a harsh but not necessarily incorrect critique: “the Chinese side in general, and ‘Tiger’ Yang in particular, looked across the table … and thought, ‘These were our servants [and some of them] were on the payroll. And we should show them any respect?’”
This is dangerous. When you’re not afraid of the other side, you behave a certain way. So expect the PRC to push the Americans and their partners on every front – military, economic, financial, psychological. The lot.
It’s no coincidence that nearly 200 Chinese maritime militia vessels showed up in Philippine waters not long ago and remain parked there.
Beijing is using them to test the Biden administration once again. If the response is a well-worded expression of “concern” – even “serious concern,” without actions to match – the Chinese will know they’ve got not just the upper hand but a green light. And not just against the Philippines. Taiwan is the real target, though they won’t likely stop with Taiwan either.
If no action is taken in aid of the Philippines, the United States’ erstwhile Philippine allies will know they are on their own and others in the region will think the same. Don’t think they didn’t notice what happened in Alaska.
While an early challenge from Beijing was expected, and the Biden administration stumbled badly in Alaska, the US still has cards to play. And it might also benefit from the PRC’s tendency to overreach when it thinks it has an advantage.
Recall Beijing’s charm offensive of the 2000s when its ambassadors and other officials were making a concerted effort to smile, say soothing words, and insist the PRC was all about a peaceful rise, didn’t want overseas military bases and only wanted to be a moderately prosperous country.
If Beijing had kept it up a little longer, the rest of Asia, the United States and most of the rest of the world would have convinced themselves it was true, since nobody wants to get ready (and spend money) for a fight. And by the time they discovered otherwise, it would have been too late.
But the PRC, like a glutton at the buffet table, couldn’t resist trying to gobble up all in sight, and so showed its grasping hand too soon. Ironically, Yang’s enraged comments in Singapore in 2010 to the effect that China is a big country and all the others in Asia are little countries (so should not resist China), tipped people off that the PRC wasn’t so lovable.
So if Biden’s people pick themselves up from their sub-par performance in Alaska, they may benefit from the Chinese communists having once again overreached and scared the hell out of everyone. But recovering lost credibility is hard, both with opponents and friends.
Not just for the sake of the US, but for all who don’t want to be on Beijing’s menu, one hopes the Biden administration succeeds, and that they are the foreign policy adults after all. Just like they told us.
Take the test yourself …
Watch the clip, focusing on Blinken and Sullivan’s responses to Yang Jiechi. Then ask yourself: If I was the representative of a powerful, angry, aggressive, ruthless dictatorship that was looking to dominate the United States and I had just insulted the Americans at length, what would I be thinking?
You might feel a little sorry looking across at battered Blinken, Sullivan and Asia Tsar Kurt Campbell. But only for a fleeting second.
And then you might think: “Let’s see you stop us now.”