China steps up diplomatic bravado, testing how far Biden will push back

China steps up diplomatic bravado, testing how far Biden will push back


Senior U.S. government officials are studying China’s heightened diplomatic bravado and growing military assertiveness with all the intensity of elite athletes pouring out on the gaming films of their most ingenious rival.

From the CIA to the White House, and the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, these officials report a much greater willingness from China to go on the offensive in the first 100 days of the Biden administration. The Chinese are more willing to push back real and imagined clashes between the United States and its allies, even as they escalate warnings and military activity around Taiwan.

Beijing’s new message has been consistent: The Biden administration, in trying to undermine China’s rise to power, is promoting a false and dangerous narrative of competition between democratic and autocratic systems. So countries around the world must decide whether to follow the divisive but declining United States or embrace a rising, unifying, non-judgmental China.

Between the lines, Chinese President Xi Jinping says human rights abuses and democratic failures are internal issues that cannot be debated. Beyond that, Chinese officials are prepared to publicly attack America’s record on racism and democracy, as Beijing’s top diplomat Yang Jiechi did in an unprecedented 16 minutes. diatribe to open the first high-level US-China talks of the Biden administration on March 18 in Anchorage, Alaska.

“Recently there has been this tendency to compare China and the United States to ‘democracy versus authoritarianism’, seeking to … pin labels on countries,” mentionned Wang Yi, China’s Foreign Minister, relying on Alaska’s message last week to the Council on Foreign Relations. “But democracy is not Coca-Cola which, along with the syrup produced by the United States, tastes the same in the world.”

According to Wang, “Using democracy and human rights to conduct values-based diplomacy, interfere in the internal affairs of other countries or stir up confrontation will only lead to unrest or even disaster. “.

His use of the term “disaster” caught the attention of his listeners, and he made it clear what he meant by it.

“The Taiwan issue is the most important and sensitive issue in Sino-US relations,” he said, arguing that it should also be in the interest of the United States to oppose Taiwan independence and separatist instincts. “Playing the ‘Taiwan card’ is a dangerous act, like playing with fire.”

Such rhetorical and potentially strategic shifts don’t happen by accident in (yes) authoritarian China. It is therefore both urgent and necessary to understand their meaning and respond to them appropriately. It won’t be easy, given the contradictory mix of pride and insecurity in China’s latest measures and measures.

On the one hand, President Xi Jinping projects growing national confidence that this is China’s historic moment. Xi hopes to build on what he sees as game-changing momentum in the Chinese Community Party’s centenary year, emerging from the pandemic and having declared the end of absolute poverty in the country.

At the same time, Xi is responding to the new challenges of the Biden administration, which itself is rapidly escaping Covid-19 thanks to an impressive vaccine distribution and injecting $ 4 trillion and counting the development of stimuli and infrastructure in the economy. US growth could equal or exceed that of China this year at a remarkable pace 6.5%.

Where the leaders of the two countries seem to agree is that “we are at an inflection point in history”, as President Biden Told a joint session of Congress this week. “We are in a competition with China and other countries to win the 21st century.”

President Xi worded it differently earlier this year, Speaking to a Communist Party school semester: “The world is undergoing profound changes unheard of for a century, but the time and the situation are in our favor. This is where our determination and our confidence come from.”

In Biden, however, Xi sees a more methodical and consistent leader than his predecessor was, more willing to work within institutions and alongside allies.

On March 12, Biden hosted the first leaders-level summit of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or Quad, bringing together leaders of Japan, Australia and India. Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga then served on April 16 as the first foreign leader in visit the White House since Biden took office, and the two leaders issued the first joint statement supporting Taiwan since 1969.

Chinese leaders were also caught off guard on March 22 when the United States, European Union, Britain and Canada imposed sanctions on Chinese officials for human rights violations against the Uyghur minority. of Xinjiang. Beijing’s response was immediate, and seemingly counterproductive, slapping broader punitive measures against EU citizens. The price of his harsh message is that the European Parliament put ice the recently announced China-EU investment agreement.

There appear to be three immediate targets for China’s current approach: domestic audience, US partners and allies, and the developing world.

The priority of any authoritarian leader is political survival. President Xi appears to have strengthened his position within the Chinese Community Party and weakened potential rivals, thanks to nationalist rallies around Hong Kong and Taiwan and by portraying the United States as a power determined to reverse the rise of China.

The second goal of Chinese bravado is a preemptive effort to reach American allies and partners before the Biden administration has had enough time to galvanize a greater common cause. Where necessary, he wants to demonstrate that there will be a high price for those who embrace Washington at Beijing’s expense.

An American official quotes a Chinese saying to explain this strategy: “Kill a chicken to scare the monkey”. President Xi’s third target is the developing world, where Chinese advances have been greatest. The aim here is to present China as a more reliable and coherent partner for their development, with its own inspiring track record of modernization and its commitment to stay away from the internal affairs of other countries (and, indeed, to provide to other authoritarian authorities the tools of surveillance to remain in power).

At the same time, of course, China is also testing the Biden administration. The goal is not to win Washington, where consensus on the Chinese challenge continues to grow. Rather, it is a test of the Biden administration’s willingness to act on a number of issues – ranging from technological controls to human rights – but especially concerning Taiwan.

Beijing is betting, based on previous experience, that President Biden’s bark will be worse than his bite. If you’re convinced, count on even more Chinese bravado and assertiveness over the next four years.

Frederick Kempe is a bestselling author, award-winning journalist and CEO of the Atlantic Council, one of America’s most influential global affairs think tanks. He worked at the Wall Street Journal for over 25 years as a foreign correspondent, deputy editor and senior editor of the newspaper’s European edition. His last book – “Berlin 1961: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and the World’s Most Dangerous Place” – was a New York Times bestseller and has been published in over a dozen languages. Follow him on Twitter @FredKempe and subscribe here to Inflection Points, his look every Saturday on top stories and trends from the past week.

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