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Analyzing the Sino-US Meeting in Tianjin & Trajectory of the Bilateral Relation

◎ Xi and the CCP likely believed that they could get away with an aggressive showing in Tianjin because they sensed U.S. unwillingness to confront China.

Senior officials from the People’s Republic of China and the United States held meetings in Tianjin City on July 25 and July 26. 

PRC vice foreign minister Xie Feng made the following points to U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman in their meeting:

  • Xie argued that the U.S. portrays the PRC as an “imagined enemy” so as to “somehow shift domestic public discontent over political, economic and social issues and blame China for its own structural problems.” He also criticized “some U.S. academics” for “comparing China to Japan in the Second World War and the Soviet Union in the Cold War.” Also, “it seems that a whole-of-government and whole-of-society campaign is being waged to bring China down.”
  • Xie noted that the PRC views America’s “competitive, collaborative and adversarial rhetoric as a thinly veiled attempt to contain and suppress China.” The “real emphasis is on the adversarial aspect, the collaborative aspect is just an expediency, and the competitive aspect is a narrative trap.” 
  • Xie asserted that the PRC “never coerced any country” and that “hegemony or territorial expansion is simply not in the Chinese DNA.” However, it is America, “not anybody else, who is the inventor, and patent and intellectual property owner of coercive diplomacy. It is the United States who has engaged in broad unilateral sanctions, long-arm jurisdiction and interference in other countries’ internal affairs.” 
  • Xie argued that “the U.S. notion of ‘engaging other countries from a position of strength’ is just another version of the big bullying the small and ‘might is right.’ This is pure coercive diplomacy.” He added that such rhetoric “didn’t work in Anchorage, and will never succeed in Tianjin.” 
  • Xie argued that America’s reference to the “rules-based international order” is “an effort by the United States and a few other Western countries to frame their own rules as international rules and impose them on other countries … and to introduce ‘the law of the jungle’ where might is right and the big bully the small.”
  • Xie said that the PRC “never gambled on the U.S. to lose, and never conceived of a ‘grand strategy’ to weaken and replace the United States.” He added that such notions are “pure conspiracy theory” and the U.S. “ought not to be overly suspicious.” 
  • Xie claimed that the PRC hopes to build “a new type of international relations featuring mutual respect, equity, justice and win-win cooperation, and a community with a shared future for mankind,” and that the U.S. needs to “change course and work with China” to serve the interests of both sides and the world.  
  • Xie claimed that “the United States engaged in genocide against Native Americans,” is responsible for 620,000 COVID-19 deaths, and carries out military action that “have brought undue catastrophe to the world.” Therefore, the U.S. should “address its own human rights issues first” and is “in no position to lecture China on democracy and human rights.” Xie then rattled off standard propaganda crediting the Chinese Communist Party with the PRC’s accomplishments. 
  • Xie said that the PRC “firmly opposed the politicization of the origins of the novel coronavirus by the U.S., as well as the presumption of guilt and smearing.” 
  • Xie said that the “one-China principle” is the cornerstone of Sino-U.S. relations. 
  • Xie said that U.S. claims of genocide and forced labor in Xinjiang is “completely slanderous.” 
  • Xie said that the PRC “firmly opposes” U.S. sanctions with regard to Hong Kong. 
  • Xie criticized the U.S. and other countries for condemning the PRC over “malicious cyber activity,” dismissing the charge as being “completely out of nothing” and a “fabrication.” America is the “real ‘hacker empire’ and ‘surveillance empire,’” he claimed. 

Xie Feng also handed Wendy Sherman two lists of steps that the PRC wants the U.S. to take to improve the bilateral relationship. The first list contained corrective items like lifting sanctions imposed on PRC officials and agencies; lifting visa restrictions on CCP members and their families, and Chinese students; and lifting restrictions on Chinese companies and Confucius Institutes. The second was a list of concerns, including complaints about unfair treatment of PRC citizens in the U.S.; “harassment” of the PRC embassy and consulates; and the rise of anti-Chinese sentiment in America and violence against PRC citizens. 

PRC foreign minister Wang Yi issued three “red lines” to Sherman in their meeting:

  • The U.S. must not “challenge, slander, or even attempt to subvert the path and system of socialism with Chinese characteristics”;
  • The U.S. must not “attempt to obstruct or interrupt China’s development process”;
  • The U.S. must not “infringe upon China’s sovereignty” or “undermine China’s territorial integrity.” Also, Xinjiang, Tibet, and Hong Kong “have never been human rights or democracy issues.” 

According to the State Department read-out of the Tianjin meeting, 

  • Deputy Secretary Sherman and State Councilor Wang “had a frank and open discussion about a range of issues, demonstrating the importance of maintaining open lines of communication between our two countries.” They also discussed the “responsible management” of the Sino-U.S. relationship. Sherman told Wang that while “the United States welcomes the stiff competition between our countries—and that we intend to continue to strengthen our own competitive hand—but that we do not seek conflict with the PRC.”
  • Sherman raised U.S. concerns about PRC activity “in private–as we have in public–” that “run counter to our values and interests and those of our allies and partners, and that undermine the international rules-based order.” These include “Beijing’s anti-democratic crackdown in Hong Kong; the ongoing genocide and crimes against humanity in Xinjiang; abuses in Tibet; and the curtailing of media access and freedom of the press.” She also raised concerns about “Beijing’s conduct in cyberspace; across the Taiwan Strait; and in the East and South China Seas.”
  • Sherman mentioned the detention of U.S. and Canadian citizens in mainland China, and “reminded PRC officials that people are not bargaining chips.” She also “reiterated concerns about the PRC’s unwillingness to cooperate with the World Health Organization and allow a second phase investigation in the PRC into COVID-19’s origins.”
  • Sherman “affirmed the importance of cooperation in areas of global interest, such as the climate crisis, counternarcotics, nonproliferation, and regional concerns including DPRK, Iran, Afghanistan, and Burma.”  

Our take
1. The CCP side was clearly more aggressive and demanding in Tianjin than in Alaska. However, just like in Anchorage, the PRC diplomats engaged in political theater, propaganda and disinformation, and hegemonic signaling. 

For instance, virtually all of Xie Feng’s claims and criticisms of the U.S. are classic Marxist “whataboutism” and “oppressor versus the oppressed” framing. These rhetorical techniques invoke lies, false narratives, or disinformation to guilt-trip the opposing party into nonconfrontation and adherence with the communist regime, as well as dupe audiences less familiar with Marxist operations into sympathizing with the PRC and hating the United States. Concurrently, Xie promoted CCP hegemony and “the East is rising and the West is in decline” (東升西降) narrative with the usual “great, glorious, correct” (偉光正) propaganda about the PRC’s “accomplishments” while pushing the so-called “new type of international relations” and “a community with shared future for mankind.” 

Xi Jinping called on officials to create a “trustworthy, lovable and respectable” image for the PRC back in May. But the CCP and communist regimes in general are untrustworthy by nature, and can be expected to change tack on a dime when the situation calls for it. Further, survival and dominance are top priorities for Xi and the CCP, and the circumstances leading to the Sino-U.S. meeting in Tianjin demanded more “wolf warrior” diplomacy from Wang Yi and Xie Feng, not less. 

The CCP is turning to nationalism to deflect domestic attention away from the worsening “perfect storm” of problems facing the regime. The Chinese economy underperformed in the second quarter, and the reserve ratio requirement cut that came a day after the release of economic data signaled even more weakness than the official figures let on. Slashed civil servant salaries hint at government fiscal shortages, and the purge of senior food apparatus officials point to potential food shortages as well. The authorities’ bungling of the recent Zhengzhou flood could yet spark social, economic, political, and food supply problems for the CCP. China has also seen a rise in new cases of COVID-19. Meanwhile, countries are increasingly finding their voice and standing up to the CCP’s malign behavior, including in cyberspace, incursions of territorial waters, and over bullying trade practices. Beijing’s technology and online tuition clampdown has also roused investors to the dangers of political risk in China and resulted in them ditching PRC equities. 

In the face of mounting problems, Xi and the CCP are likely hoping that talking tough to America and hyping the U.S. “existential threat” to China will make the Chinese people “forget” the regime’s problems for the moment (aiding the Party’s survival) and rally around the Party against an external foe (helping the Party maintain dominance). The CCP has no qualms about sacrificing the interests of foreign elites and investors if it means the unity of the masses at home. Demonstrations of reconciliation and softness (“lovable”) at this crucial juncture would only lose Xi and the CCP much-needed domestic support and embolden other countries to keep speaking up to and get tougher on the PRC. Moreover, Xi also badly needs a “win” of some sort to stem the regime’s compounding misfortunes and boost his flagging “quan wei” ahead of crucial meetings at Beidaihe (where 20th Party Congress key personnel arrangements and Xi’s bid for a third term will likely be discussed) and the Sixth Plenum of the 19th Central Committee. 

The domestic situation aside, Xi and the CCP likely believed that they could get away with an aggressive, demanding showing in Tianjin because they sensed U.S. unwillingness to confront China. The Biden-Harris administration has demonstrated over the past six months that it will not adopt the Trump administration’s frank and outspoken approach to the “China challenge,” particularly in the crucial realm of ideological confrontation. In the leadup to the Tianjin meeting, Washington made “goodwill gestures” that are arguably minor concessions to the CCP (see the next point), immediately signaling to Beijing that the U.S. claim of speaking to China “from a position of strength” was largely empty rhetoric. Finally, the U.S. framing of the meeting itself—a forum to “maintain open lines of communication,” ensure that “guard rails and parameters [are] in place to responsibly manage the relationship,” and avoid conflict with China despite “stiff competition”—would be interpreted by the CCP as Washington running scared of China. Hence, Xi and the CCP naturally pressed home their advantage to advance the Party’s domination agenda with more belligerent diplomacy and dictates to the United States. 

The CCP has little incentive to shift away from its combative posture against America. The U.S. has always been the Party’s top ideological foe since the founding of the PRC, and the CCP’s worsening political crisis at home and abroad gives it even less incentive to play nice at this juncture. The CCP’s ambition to be the world hegemon also means that no amount of concessions from the U.S. will satisfy its “bottom line,” and the Biden-Harris administration will be naive if they believe the contrary. Meanwhile, Xi Jinping is pushing for a norm-breaking third office term in 2022, and needs to appear as strong and unyielding as possible, particularly when it comes to doing one better than the United States. 

Going forward, Xi and the CCP will likely maintain and even escalate tensions in the Sino-U.S. relationship as “victories” in external matters become more precious for preserving regime security and sustaining Xi’s personal authority.   

2. At a glance, the State Department’s readout of Wendy Sherman’s trip to Tianjin suggests a degree of continuity between the Biden-Harris administration and the Trump administration in confronting the CCP. Sherman raised concerns about malign CCP behavior, and most noteworthily, spotlighted the regime’s “ongoing genocide and crimes against humanity in Xinjiang.” 

While Sherman’s effort at calling out the CCP is laudable, the circumstances in which the censure was delivered is dubious. As we pointed out in the point above, Washington saw the Tianjin meeting as a chance to touch bases with Beijing and likely to de-escalate tensions (“responsibly manage the relationship”). In other words, the manner in which the criticism was put forth to the CCP in person is questionable, especially if repairing the bilateral relationship was Washington’s key goal. Curiously, the Biden-Harris State Department may have obliquely conceded that it took a less inflammatory route in confronting the CCP over behavior by noting in the Tianjin meeting readout that Sherman raised concerns “in private–as we have in public”; if there was no difference between what was said privately versus publicly, why bother to draw the distinction?

The Trump administration demonstrated in its dealings with the PRC that the best way to keep the CCP honest is by backing up words with appropriate actions and keeping private and public messaging in sync. This left CCP diplomats no option but to put on a pretense of civility in meetings with senior Trump officials even while its propagandists were adopting a “wolf warrior” approach at home — Beijing knew that there was the face-losing possibility of meetings being called off at the last minute and the risk of heavier U.S. sanctions if they displayed open belligerence. In contrast, the CCP has no fear of being censored informally or privately, and has always exploited Western countries’ willingness to distinguish between private and public messaging as a condition for negotiations to continue its gross human rights violations and other malicious behavior. 

Tianjin looks even worse than Anchorage for the U.S. side very likely because the Biden-Harris administration and its associates sent mixed or conciliatory signals before the meeting. Prominent recent developments include: 

  • July 14: CNN reported that the Biden-Harris administration is looking to establish an emergency hotline with Beijing akin to the “red phone” between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. We noted in point one that the CCP views Washington’s eagerness to avoid conflict as a sign of fear and weakness. 
  • July 19: The U.S. and its allies jointly condemned the PRC’s “irresponsible behavior in cyberspace, particularly over the Microsoft Exchange Server hack in March 2021. However, no action was taken to punish the PRC or genuinely hold the regime to account for the recent cyber crime beyond the joint statement (at least at the time of writing). The editorial boards of mainstream media outlets described the Biden-Harris administration’s censure as “toothless” and a “message of weakness.” Per The Wall Street Journal, “A coalition against Chinese cyber attacks is nice, but not if the result is a lowest-common-denominator response—i.e., nothing. Beijing may conclude that harsh words are all the U.S. can unite its allies behind.”
  • July 23: The PRC sanctioned seven Americans in retaliation for U.S. sanctions over Hong Kong on July 16, including former Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, US-China Economic and Security Review Commission chair Carolyn Bartholomew, and Human Rights Watch China director Sophie Richardson. The Biden-Harris administration’s response to the sanctions was relatively muted, with White House press secretary Jen Psaki saying that the U.S. remains “undeterred” by the PRC’s sanctions.
  • July 23: The Justice Department dropped cases against five PRC researchers who were charged with hiding their People’s Liberation Army affiliations during the Trump administration. 
  • July 23: According to media reports, Huawei hired veteran Democratic lobbyist Tony Podesta as it seeks to expand its U.S. influence operations. 

On the current trajectory, the Biden-Harris administration’s approach to China resembles either the first or second scenarios we previously laid out in analyzing the administration’s interim national security and foreign policy strategies. To briefly recap, the first scenario sees Washington work towards leadership change in the PRC per “The Longer Telegram” strategy, while the second anticipates a shift away from the “rollback communism” approach of the Trump administration towards a gradual “normalization” of the Sino-U.S. relationship to the pre-Trump and pre-Xi era. While the U.S. performance leading up to and in Tianjin suggests that the second scenario is currently playing out, the remarks touching on CCP factional politics by senior administration officials like Kurt Campbell and Washington’s consistent spotlighting of issues that concern the political legacies of Xi Jinping and his rivals (Xinjiang, Falun Gong, Hong Kong, etc.) indicate that the “anti-Xi, not anti-CCP” strategy remains very much on the cards.  

Less likely, however, is the Biden-Harris administration’s complete diplomatic capitulation to the CCP. Unless Beijing was utterly successful in capturing the entire American and Western ruling elite, the establishment elite are not naive enough to surrender their interests to the Party without a struggle. The establishment elite and Wall Street are also painfully aware from the Ant Group, Didi Chuxing, and online tuition cases that Xi Jinping’s continued rule is bringing them losses on investments and increasing their exposure to China’s political and financial risks. In other words, a complete return to the “engagement” policy of old is impossible as long as Xi remains in charge, while there is growing incentive to seek Xi’s ouster.

Meanwhile, the Biden-Harris administration will likely also be looking for “wins” in handling China to deflect attention away from mounting domestic woes, including rising inflation, resurging coronavirus cases, election audits, and growing grassroots pushback against Marxism-derived ideologies and behavior in America, increasingly associated with the mainstream Left. Looking ahead, the Biden-Harris administration could grow more confrontational towards China in areas that it feels more comfortable with, such as human rights, or has no choice but to act in order to safeguard national security, such as cyberspace, technology, and supply chains. 

But if Washington truly wants to speak from a “position of strength” and not make empty gestures, then it must show Beijing that the CCP’s “red lines”—which really reveal where the Party’s weaknesses lie—are not sacrosanct. To that end, the Biden-Harris administration should consider adopting the Trump administration’s ideological approach (i.e. differentiate between the Party and the Chinese people) and end the practice of raising concerns privately to the CCP on the issues that matter. Washington should also publicly raise “sensitive” human rights matters to Beijing like the genocide in Xinjiang, the persecution of Tibetans, house Christians, and Falun Gong practitioners, and even the CCP’s practice of forced organ harvesting. Being too respectful of the CCP’s “red lines” simply means that the U.S. will have to endure more humiliating bilateral meetings like the ones in Anchorage and Tianjin. 

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