The end of May saw a number of striking developments in Washington’s foreign policy in relation to China, the USA’s main geopolitical foe. Several of these developments took place during President Joe Biden’s trip to South Korea and Japan.
Particularly worthy of note were the US President’s long-anticipated announcement about the launch of the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity (IPEF), and the most recent summit of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or Quad, – the fourth such summit to be held since this meeting format was introduced last year. The Quad is made up of the United States, Japan, India and Australia. The IPF and the Quad have one key feature in common – their main goal is to oppose China. Both these groups are part of the “non-military” arm of the USA’s campaign against its main geopolitical rival.
Significantly, as the author has pointed out in previous articles, China’s most important successes in the last two decades – its creation and implementation of the Belt and Road Initiative – have also been in the “non-military” field. The Belt and Road Initiative is key to one of the central principles of Beijing’s foreign policy – the need to involve all participants in the global dialog, irrespective of their ideology, in the process of building a “community with a shared destiny.”
As has already been noted, it was not until the beginning of the Biden administration that the US finally (perhaps too late) appreciated the nature of the main challenge to its retention of its position as de facto leader in the Big Game of Geopolitics. In fact, it is unclear whether there is any need to answer the question of what place Washington currently occupies among the participants in that international game. Clearly the question itself is incorrectly stated, and thus unanswerable. The US could content itself with being one of the leading players.
But things are as they are. And the reality is that US policy towards China is hardening, as Secretary of State Anthony Blinken made clear in an extensive speech at George Washington University on May 26, the day before the end of Joe Biden’s Asian tour. The title of the speech, The Administration’s Approach to the People’s Republic of China, its content and its timing all serve to demonstrate that it was planned as a complement to the events forming part of the President’s trip on the other side of the world.
Anthony Blinken’s main message – “invest, align, compete” – seems at first rather at odds with the overtly confrontational nature of American’s current strategy towards China. That is, it appears to leave open the possibility of an improvement in relations with China.
It is worth pointing out that in the past US policy towards its main rival on the global stage has not been without certain apparent inconsistencies. Thus, towards the end of Donald Trump’s administration there were clear divergences between the President and the Secretary of State in terms of both rhetoric and actual policies. Donald Trump counted the so-called Phase 1 Trade Deal, concluded between the US and China in January 2020, as one of his most important foreign policy achievements in the field of trade. But Donald Trump also launched a tariff war (which is still continuing) aimed at excluding Chinese IT companies from the US market. But, unquestionably, the most outspoken critic of China in the Trump administration, particularly following the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, was the then Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo.
Nevertheless, it is important to note that despite the problems in relations between the US and China, the Phase 1 Trade Deal remains in effect and both parties (though especially China) continue to abide by its terms. Thus, however bad the relations between the two countries appear, there is still an opportunity for things to get better – especially in view of the fact that in economic terms they are dependent on each other. Also of interest are the signals which Janet Yellen, US Treasury Secretary, sent to Beijing last month – and the response made by Li Keqiang, premier of the Chinese State Council.
Nevertheless, it is clear that America’s current policy in relation to China is increasingly dominated by the last of the three activities cited by Anthony Blinken in the speech referred to above: “compete.” That attitude is confirmed both by the content of the speech, given at one of the most prestigious American universities, and by the fact that there are no longer any subtle discrepancies between the positions of the President and the Secretary of State in terms of their policies towards China.
Naturally, in China the far from coincidental timing of the Secretary of State’s speech did not escape notice. Hua Chunying, spokesperson for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, issued an official response to Anthony Blinken’s speech on May 28 (), in the form of eleven posts on Twitter. Together, the eleven tweets pointed out the inconsistencies between the reality of current US policy and one of the main claims made by Anthony Blinken in his speech – that the US “is not looking for conflict or a new Cold War” with China. Citing a number of recent US policy initiatives she demonstrated that Washington is in fact declaring “all-out strategic competition or war” against China.
She criticized the US policy of trying to encircle China by creating a zone of discomfort or outright hostility in its backyard. Examples of this policy included the creation of AUKUS and the Quad and Five Eyes alliances in the Indo-Pacific region. She also spoke out against the USA’s continuing use of tariffs against Chinese trade. Accusing the US of interfering in China’s internal affairs, she cited Washington’s attitude to the Taiwan problem and the hostile propaganda campaigns in relation to the situations in the Autonomous Regions of Tibet and Xinjiang.
At the end of May the situation in Xinjiang was at the center of attention. A day after his speech at the George Washington University, Anthony Blinken used the visit made to Xinjiang by Michelle Bachelet, formerly President of Chile and now UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, as a pretext for another attack on China.
Washington was naturally uncomfortable about the visit going ahead, as one of its main arguments when accusing China of committing human rights abuses in Xinjiang has been the claim that Chinese authorities allegedly prevent foreign observers from traveling to the region. Significantly, the title of Anthony Blinken’s official statement on the visit begins with the word “Concerns.” Specifically, he is concerned about the “UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet and her team’s visit to the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and PRC efforts to restrict and manipulate her visit.”
However, following her visit to Xinjiang, Michelle Bachelet said that she had seen no sign of any restrictions or manipulation. The members of her delegation were able to meet and speak to representatives of all those different sections of society which are the special concern of professional human rights advocates.
Beijing’s reaction to the US propaganda concerning alleged human rights abuses in China’s autonomous regions is entirely predictable. Its simple but telling cartoon on the subject is particularly effective.
In general, the heightened rhetoric from the US Department of State in recent months is in keeping with the general trend in relations between the two leading global powers – namely, a steady deterioration.
One evidence of this dangerous trend in the current global power struggle was another, equally high-profile propaganda campaign by the US, this time directed against China’s activities in the South Pacific. The main focus was on the framework agreement on security cooperation concluded between China and the Solomon Islands at the end of March.
At the end of May Wang Yi, the Chinese Foreign Minister, made a tour taking place in a number of South Pacific island states. The highlights of that trip, and its results, will be discussed in a future article.
Vladimir Terekhov, expert on the issues of the Asia-Pacific region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.