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Hi, China Watchers. This week we unpack U.S. credibility challenges at next week’s U.S.-Pacific Island Country Summit, scrutinize the Biden administration’s sunsetting of “strategic ambiguity” toward Taiwan and track a Hong Kong authoritarian dust-up at the Smithsonian. We also parse China’s reflexive blame of foreigners for infectious disease outbreaks and profile the third in a series of books that assesses Xi Jinping’s hardline politics and personality.
Mark your calendar: Next Wednesday, Sept. 28 at 10:15AM EST/4:15PM CEST please join Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) and French legislator Benjamin Haddad in a special Twitter Spaces discussion with your host and my colleague in Brussels Stuart Lau on how Xi’s move toward China leader-for-life status may rally and rattle the U.S.-EU relationship.
Let’s get to it. — Phelim
The Biden administration will convene the first-ever U.S.-Pacific Island Country Summit on Sept. 28-29 in Washington — an urgent effort to redeem U.S. credibility in a region where China is filling the void created by decades of U.S. disengagement.
Biden aims to reverse Beijing’s diplomatic inroads among the islands powered by decades of economic and development aid that threatens to render the U.S. regionally irrelevant.
The administration is hinging its pitch of closer relations with Pacific Island countries to intangibles including “shared history, values, and people-to-people ties.” But those are empty buzzwords unless Biden pairs them with substantive, long-term benefits to Pacific Island countries rivaling those provided by China.
“We are going to step up our game with respect to supporting a variety of initiatives across the Pacific,” Kurt Campbell, the U.S. National Security Council’s Indo-Pacific coordinator, said this week at a Carnegie Endowment for International Peace event. “It is not just one or two meetings — this is a very sustained effort that will involve almost all the key players in the U.S. government who have interests in the Indo-Pacific.”
Those initiatives include greater military cooperation between the U.S. and Pacific Island countries. The U.S. will conclude an 11-day military exercise tomorrow/Friday in Fiji that included personnel from Australia, the United Kingdom and New Zealand.
Long time, no see. Campbell’s challenge is a widespread perception among Pacific Island countries that the U.S. is unreliable.
“America premised their whole efforts in the Pacific on [Cold War] geostrategic competition, and once that [Soviet] threat was gone, America didn’t see the reason to be in the Pacific anymore,” said PATRICIA O’BRIEN, professor of history in the Asian Studies Program at Georgetown University. “[That] provided huge openings for China once they were ready to expand into the Pacific in the 2000s.”
For many Pacific Islanders, the most visible symbols of U.S. engagement are the remains of former World War II battlefields such as Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands. That influence vacuum has lubricated China’s steady diplomatic outreach in the absence of a competitive U.S. alternative.
“We have done things that I think were foolish such as close embassies and discontinue the Peace Corps … and China is busy offering them help with those needs with a bunch of conditions, and that’s a hard choice to put them in,” said Rep. ED CASE (D-Hawaii), co-chair of the Congressional Pacific Islands Caucus and a longtime proponent for closer U.S. ties with the region.
COFA silver lining. The good news for the U.S. is that the State Department is close to renewing strategic partnership agreements with the Pacific Island nations of Palau, Micronesia and the Marshall Islands after six months of intensive negotiations, Special Presidential Envoy Amb. JOSEPH YUN told China Watcher this week.
The renewal of those agreements, called Compacts of Free Association, will effectively firewall those three countries from a relentless drive by Beijing to displace the U.S. as the region’s dominant superpower.
But Yun warned against U.S. complacency as it competes with China for the loyalties of other Pacific Island countries. “What the Pacific countries are looking for is a long-term, sustainable relationship and not just [the U.S.] paying attention now and then,” Yun said.
Solomon Islands’ surprise. Beijing’s controversial security pact sealed with Solomon Islands in April rang alarm bells about China’s diplomatic penetration of the region. That agreement — concluded despite strong objections from the U.S., Australia, Japan and New Zealand — served as a rebuke of U.S. diplomatic disengagement with Oceania. And it has spurred a flurry of U.S. diplomatic outreach to the Solomons and other Pacific Island nations to reverse perceptions that the U.S. has abandoned the region.
“The PRC’s success in negotiating a security deal with the Solomon Islands has really created a sense of urgency … the administration was caught off guard and is now forced to play catch-up,” said STEVE CHABOT (R-Ohio), ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Asia subcommittee, in a statement.
U.S. suspicions about the security pact’s impact on the Solomon Islands’ relationship with the U.S. appear justified. Solomon Islands denied port access to a U.S. Coast Guard cutter last month due to unspecified “bureaucratic reasons” and subsequently imposed a temporary moratorium on all foreign naval ships. “[There] appears to be the Chinese export [to the South Pacific] of both technologies and approaches that are basically designed to replicate certain elements of authoritarian leadership,” Campbell said.
China insists its engagement in the South Pacific doesn’t aim to displace the U.S. “Growing relations with the [Pacific Island countries] is not about seeking a ‘sphere of influence’ and does not target any third party,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson WANG WENBIN said Wednesday.
South Pacific Build Back Better: There is a bipartisan consensus that reversing China’s South Pacific influence expansion requires investment in U.S. diplomatic infrastructure. “In order to enable them to choose the U.S., we must have a physical diplomatic presence — including an embassy and ambassador — in every Pacific Island country,” said Sen. MARSHA BLACKBURN (R-Tenn.), a member of the Senate Armed Service Committee.
But Pacific Islanders want assurances those embassies won’t fall prey to shifting U.S. budget lines or geostrategic priorities. “Pacific leaders resent being used as pawns in this geopolitical contest,” said MIHAI SORA, research fellow in the Sydney, Australia-based Lowy Institute’s Pacific Islands Program. “Pacific cultures have long memories and it will take time to win Pacific countries’ trust that the U.S.’s strategic intent in the region is genuinely to their benefit.”
Big ticket deliverables. Winning that trust will require the U.S. to ensure that next week’s summit includes deliverables that address islanders’ key concerns. A diplomatic pat on the back and an unambitious financial aid package — like the modest $150 million Biden doled out among ASEAN’s 10 member states in May — is likely to underwhelm summit participants.
“[China is] going island-by-island from a national level down to the village level. I don’t really think that the U.S. has got a handle on how much money and resources would be needed to combat China in the same way, so they have to think of other ways to do it,” O’Brien said. “I think they really need to come up with some big long-term program that addresses climate action and also the economic and social recovery from Covid.”
Initiatives to address the existential threat that the climate crisis poses to Pacific Island countries will get leaders’ attention. China has helped power its diplomatic inroads with a bespoke climate diplomacy aimed to address concerns about rising sea levels. China’s special envoy on climate change, XIE ZHENHUA, last week convened a “climate change dialogue and exchange meeting” in Beijing with diplomatic representatives from Vanuatu, Samoa, Kiribati, Solomon Islands, Micronesia, Fiji and Tonga, the Chinese Foreign Ministry reported.
No retreat. The stakes of U.S. efforts to successfully reengage with Pacific Island countries have implications far beyond the South Pacific. U.S. willingness and ability to reestablish itself as a credible alternative to China’s enticements in the region will affect perceptions of U.S. resolve worldwide.
“If the U.S. is not present, then other countries in far flung regions around the world will conclude that the United States is retrenching and retreating at the very time that China is expanding aggressively,” said Sen. TODD YOUNG (R-Ind.). “So, if we don’t provide reassurance in the Pacific, then it could very well undermine our interests in other parts of the world.”
—BIDEN CHALLENGES CHINA-RUSSIA ITU DOMINANCE: President JOE BIDEN on Tuesday issued a direct appeal for U.N. member states to support the candidacy of a U.S. national to take the top job at the United Nations’ powerful International Telecommunication Union. The ITU develops international standards for global information and communications technology ranging from mobile phones to wifi. “I ask all UN Member States to join the United States in voting for DOREEN BOGDAN-MARTIN at the upcoming International Telecommunication Union elections in Bucharest, Romania,” Biden said in a statement Tuesday, citing her “integrity, experience and vision.”
Biden’s stumping for Bogdan-Martin seems to reflect a strategy to reassert U.S. influence in the ITU following the eight-year chairmanship of China’s HOULIN ZHAO. Zhao marked his tenure by manipulating internet and 5G mobile technology and governance “with an eye towards paving the way for Huawei [corporate dominance],” said DAN BAER, U.S. ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe from 2013 to 2017 and a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Biden likely also wants to block the Russian Federation’s candidate for the ITU top job, RASHID ISMAILOV. Ismailov’s resume includes four years as deputy minister in the Russian Ministry of Telecom and Mass Communications as well as a stint at China’s telecom equipment firm Huawei, which the U.S. Federal Communications Commision declared a national security threat in 2020.
“In challenging Ismailov, the Biden administration is seeking to restore the ITU’s independence, as well as stymie Moscow’s attempts to manipulate the international standards-setting system to Russia and China’s advantage,” said CRAIG SINGLETON, senior China fellow at the nonprofit Foundation for Defense of Democracies. The White House didn’t respond to a request for comment.
—BIDEN BURIES TAIWAN ‘STRATEGIC AMBIGUITY’: Biden’s pledge that the U.S. would defend Taiwan against a military attack by China laid bare his administration’s more uncompromising approach to the possibility of Chinese aggression, your host reported Monday. And it reflects deepening concerns about Beijing’s intentions following the live-fire military drills it launched around the island after House Speaker NANCY PELOSI‘s contentious Taiwan visit last month, as well as ongoing violations by Chinese military aircraft of the median line between Taiwan and China.
But national security adviser JAKE SULLIVAN said Tuesday that Biden’s pledge of a U.S. military defense of Taiwan was merely an answer to “a hypothetical [question]… he has also been clear that he does not — has not changed U.S. policy towards Taiwan.” Biden hammered that point home in his speech to the U.N. General Assembly on Tuesday. “We remain committed to our One China policy…and we continue to oppose unilateral changes in the status quo by either side,” Biden said.
China has responded to Biden’s comments with relative restraint. “The U.S. remarks … severely violate the commitment the U.S. made not to support Taiwan independence,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson MAO NING said Monday. Taipei praised Biden’s comments “for once again emphasizing the staunch and rock-solid U.S. security commitment to Taiwan,” the island’s Foreign Affairs Ministry said in a statement on Monday.
—RUBIO SLAMS SMITHSONIAN’S HK GOVT TIES: Sen. MARCO RUBIO (R-Fla.) tweet-slammed the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Gallery last week for hosting a concert sponsored by the Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office on Friday. “The @americanart museum is hosting a ‘Classy Sassy Jazzy Hong Kong Night’ this weekend in partnership with #CCP mouthpiece #HKETO. Federal buildings should never be used to legitimize the CCP’s agenda. @smithsonian should call off this disgraceful event immediately,” Rubio tweeted. Hong Kong pro-democracy activists launched a campaign in July demanding that local institutions — starting with the Smithsonian — sever close ties to the territory’s official representatives because of their complicity with abusive government policies.
Rubio’s tweet alerted Washington, D.C.-based Hong Kong pro-democracy activists, who converged on the Renwick on Friday evening and handed out flyers stamped “Please don’t attend this event!”
“Renwick Gallery is right across the street from the White House and you’ve got this dictatorship renting it out,” BRIAN KERN, a member of D.C.-based activist group DC4HK, told China Watcher.
HKETO defended the concert series as an effort to “promote Hong Kong talents to U.S. audiences” while the Smithsonian didn’t respond to a request for comment.
—TAIWAN U.K. REP’S ROYAL FUNERAL TREATMENT: Taiwan’s U.K. representative got a rare taste of diplomatic privilege this week with an invitation to sign an official condolence book for the late Queen Elizabeth II in London. “Given its high regard for Taiwan-UK relations…the UK authorities extended a special invitation to Representative KELLY HSIEH,” Taiwan’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement on Sunday. “It is rather contemptible for the [Taiwan] authorities to use the condolence arrangement for political hype and political gains,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson MAO NINGsaid in response.
—PUTIN AND XI MEET IN UZBEKISTAN: Chinese President XI JINPING had a bilateral meeting with Russian President VLADIMIR PUTIN on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Uzbekistan last week. Xi and Putin vowed to “play a leading role in injecting stability into a world of change and disorder,” an otherwise detail-free Chinese Foreign Ministry statement said. But Putin’s separate comments referenced Xi’s unspecified “questions and concerns” about the Ukraine conflict. That indicated that despite the two countries’ so-called “no limits” partnership, the Chinese government is unhappy about Putin’s carnage in Ukraine.
—MAO’S STAND UP SPEECH RECONSIDERED: Yesterday marked the 73rd anniversary of Chairman MAO ZEDONG’S speech in Tiananmen Square in which he famously declared that “The Chinese people … have now stood up!” The problem: He may never have said that. But the speech offers a rich rendering of recurrent themes that persist in the ruling Chinese Communist Party’s worldview and influence U.S.-China relations to this day.
The U.S. is an enemy of a strong and unified China. “It is because we have defeated the reactionary Kuomintang government backed by U.S. imperialism that this great unity of the whole people has been achieved.” Shades of that rhetoric flourish in recent Chinese government accusations that the U.S. relationship with Taiwan “seriously infringes upon China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
China is beset by foreign-backed internal threats. “The imperialists and the domestic reactionaries will certainly not take their defeat lying down … they are sure to engage in sabotage and create disturbances by one means or another and every day and every minute they will try to stage a comeback.” This speaks volumes for a modern Chinese state that in recent years has devoted higher budgetary spending to internal security than it has to fund the People’s Liberation Army.
-The friendless superpower? “We have friends all over the world.” In 2022 China can claim transactional client state relationships (North Korea), relationships premised on mutual hostility toward the U.S. (Russia) and partners enticed by Belt and Road Initiative infrastructure investment. But friendship remains elusive.
—CHINA’S INFECTIOUS DISEASE FOREIGN BLAME GAME: China recorded its first case of monkey pox on Friday, prompting some xenophobic public health advice. “Avoid skin to skin contact with foreigners,” WU ZUNYOU, chief epidemiologist at the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said in a Weibo post the next day. Stigmatizing foreigners as vectors of infectious disease isn’t isolated to the PRC. Former President Donald Trump declared Covid-19 “the Chinese virus” and other more explicitly racist terms. China responded by peddling the conspiracy theory that Covid emerged from a bioweapons lab at Fort Detrick in Maryland.
The Chinese government response to monkeypox echoes the authorities’ reaction to an earlier pandemic, supercharged by contemporary geopolitical grievance. “Like their U.S. counterparts, Chinese scientists and public health officials were initially convinced that HIV-AIDS spread mainly through homosexuality and promiscuity … contrary to Chinese morality,” said YANZHONG HUANG, senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations. “And there’s this new attitude associated with China’s international ascendance and coupled with the national narrative of China’s century of humiliation that encourages this growing hostility toward the West … [and] attributes China’s problems to external and especially Western forces or factors.”
—WANG YI SUBS FOR XI AT UNGA: President Xi apparently decided that his trip to Uzbekistan to attend the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit was enough in-person diplomacy for September. But Chinese Foreign Minister WANG YI is in New York and will likely read China’s speech at the United Nations General Assembly this Saturday, time TBA, while Xi rests up in Beijing for his 20th Party Congress activities next month.
The Book: Xi Jinping: The Most Powerful Man in the World
The Authors: STEFAN AUST is the former editor-in-chief of Der Spiegel; ADRIAN GIEGES is the longtime Beijing correspondent for the German weekly news magazine Stern
What does your book research tell us about how Xi Jinping will rule China – and engage with the international community – after he receives a third term in October?
He has a clear plan: to make China the leading world power by 2049, the centenary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. This includes not only growing economic power and increased prosperity for the Chinese people, but also what he sees as reunification with Taiwan. The formula “one country, two systems” is still spoken of here. But after Xi used force to stifle this model in Hong Kong, no one in Taiwan will get involved. A war is therefore inevitable — with devastating consequences for China’s relationship with the rest of the world. Some hope Xi will shy away from it due to economic interests. But our research has shown that whether dealing with business enterprises, Covid, or international affairs, Xi puts ideology ahead of pragmatism, which sets him apart from his predecessors.
What was the most surprising thing you learned about Xi while you researched and wrote this book?
Xi Jinping’s father, Xi Zhongxun, was very close to the Dalai Lama. Old Xi looked after him when the Tibetan studied in Beijing for half a year in 1954. When the Dalai Lama’s brother Gyalo Thondup was in Beijing for negotiations in 1987, Xi Zhongxun became the interlocutor again, wearing as a sign of goodwill a watch that the Dalai Lama had given him more than three decades earlier. In the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, too, Xi senior represented a more moderate position, achieving the release of several thousand herdsmen who had been imprisoned in a “class struggle campaign” in the early 1950s. A sharp contrast to his son Xi Jinping’s policies today.
What does your analysis of Xi’s history, motivations and objectives tell us about the trajectory and future of U.S.-China relations?
In 1985, Xi Jinping stayed for a few days in a private house in a farming community in Iowa, where he wanted to get to know life in the USA. His daughter, XI MINGZE, graduated from Harvard University in 2014. In principle, Xi is interested in improving relations with the United States. The problem: Because of his other goals, and because of China’s increased strength, he will demand that the U.S. stay out of anything he sees affecting Chinese interests, particularly in the Pacific. This is unacceptable for the USA. Positive changes in the U.S.-China relationship are therefore not to be expected.
Got a book to recommend? Tell me about it at [email protected]
Thanks to: Mike Zapler, Matt Kaminski and digital producer Andrew Howard.Do you have tips? Chinese-language stories we might have missed? Would you like to contribute to China Watcher or comment on this week’s items? Email us at [email protected]
Correction: The September 15 edition of this newsletter misstated the initials for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.
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