What a difference a few months can make in the rocky relations between the US and China. At the meeting in March in Anchorage, Alaska, Secretary of State Antony Blinken gave a blistering lecture in front of the Western media to the Chinese delegation that Beijing needs to behave in a way consistent with the rules of international order.
China’s most senior diplomat at this summit was Yang Jiechi. He basically responded by telling Blinken to mind his manners and, not incidentally, asked what he was talking about.
Since that meeting, Blinken has gone around the world recruiting allies to oppose China on the basis that it does not follow the rules of international order.
Some Western countries grudgingly yielded to the pressure and signed on with Blinken, but they were befuddled by what he means by “international order.” After all, it has been China that works within the confines of the United Nations while the US has often acted unilaterally.
Apparently, for China to expand its economy and threaten to overtake the US is in violation of “international order.”
For China to install fifth-generation (5G) telecommunication technology around the world while the US has to import 4G technology is not acceptable behavior in accordance with “international order.”
For China to take more than 800 million of its citizens out of poverty and “brainwash” more than 90% of the Chinese people into approving and accepting one-party rule is not consistent with “international order.” Instead, keeping its poor people poor, as the US does, is consistent.
China’s Belt and Road Initiative helping countries in Latin America and Africa finance and build their infrastructure is clearly outside the strictures of “international order.”
The Taliban are inviting China to Afghanistan to help build its infrastructure and revitalize the economy. China has expressed interest in bringing Afghanistan into its BRI and, incidentally, thumb its nose at the “international order.”
Installing missile batteries onshore in China and offshore in the South China Sea to threaten US naval flotillas exercising their freedom of navigation off the coast of China is clearly outside the “international order.”
America’s Western allies may well be confused by all this, and wondering: “What is international order?” The answer is obvious: International order is whatever Uncle Sam wants it to be.
Ever since the end of World War II, the unwritten rule has been for Uncle Sam to say to the world: “Don’t do what I do but do what I tell you.”
Australia has been one of the most faithful followers of America’s version of international order. No sooner than Scott Morrison was elected prime minister in August 2018, he became Donald Trump’s lead attack dog against China.
Morrison attacks China on unfair trade practices, on human-rights abuse, and on South China Sea tensions, and he even initiated the charge to reopen the investigation on the origin of the virus that causes Covid-19.
China had been Australia’s leading trading partner, accounting for more than one-third of Australia’s exports. Not surprisingly, a displeased China has stopped buying from Down Under.
Morrison promptly cried foul. Apparently, China is supposed to absorb the nasty rhetoric, act like nothing has changed and keep doing business as usual.
At the recent Group of Seven summit, Morrison went around seeking reassurance from the allies for their support for confronting China. The US gave him an “attaboy” but is happy to sell coal, wheat and lobsters to China in place of Australia. France did likewise and is happy to supply China’s red-wine market.
Unlike Morrison, the premier of Western Australia has questioned the current situation with China. Mark McGowan asked last October, “How is it in our interests to be reckless with trading relationships that fund and drive our prosperity and our nation forward?”
Can we talk?
US President Joe Biden may also be having second thoughts. He has quietly let it be known that he would be interested in a summit meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Blinken has been trying to get Foreign Minister Wang Yi to return his phone calls to discuss such a summit and for permission by lower-ranking officials to visit Beijing to plan for it.
If the White House expected Beijing to shout hooray and act grateful for the prospects of making nice, it must be disappointed.
The official response from Beijing has been that there is no rush to meet, especially if the Americans are only interested in more opportunities to harangue. If Washington is interested in renewing friendship, then sure we can talk, says Beijing.
This week, the South China Morning Post reported that Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman will meet with her counterpart, Vice-Foreign Minister Xie Feng, in Tianjin. They are supposed to explore a possible meeting between Blinken and Wang Yi, presumably behind closed doors without the presence of media.
Sherman has been quoted as saying that the bilateral relationship is about mutual respect. She seems to presage a less confrontational meeting than the one led by her boss in Anchorage.
If and when the two parties were to reach rapprochement, it would leave Australia embarrassingly lonesome. If one of the smartest former American presidents were to visit Australia again, he surely would remind Morrison, “It’s the economy, stupid.”
George Koo recently retired from a global advisory services firm where he advised clients on their China strategies and business operations. Educated at MIT, Stevens Institute and Santa Clara University, he is the founder and former managing director of International Strategic Alliances. He is currently a board member of Freschfield’s, a novel green building platform.