Biden’s diplomatic frenzy in China hits the GOP’s great wall of contempt

Beijing is set to get its third high-profile visit from a senior US official in the space of a month. But for now, they mostly talk for the sake of talking.

President Joe Biden’s climate envoy John Kerry will be in Beijing to four days of meetings from Sunday – following recent visits by Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen. His task: to urge the Chinese government to honor its commitments to reduce global-warming methane emissions and to “move away from coal,” Kerry said during a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee hearing on Thursday. . The first step in all of this: to simply relaunch the stalled climate talks.

As Beijing continues to refuse to renew high-level military communications between the two countries, visits by senior officials show that the “thaw” predicted by Biden is happening in at least some areas.

Chinese Supreme Leader Xi Jinping said significant results from Blinken’s trip last month. “Both sides have made progress and reached a common understanding on some specific issues, which is very good,” Xi said. Yet Xi has given no details of that progress, and Chinese diplomats say they want more than happy talks from senior US officials. “Communication should also be effective – it should not be just for the sake of communicating or just to address one’s own concerns while disregarding the other party’s concerns,” Minister Jing Quan told the Chinese Embassy. China in Washington.

Blinken and Yellen returned to Washington with promises of higher-level diplomatic contacts rather than tangible progress on burning US-China issues or detailed plans for next steps in bilateral dialogue. “I don’t have anything specific to announce on the future process,” Yellen told reporters in Beijing on Sunday at the end of his visit.

GOP lawmakers say the Biden administration is wasting its time. The flow of senior administration officials to Beijing constitutes “a zombie engagement with the Chinese Communist Party – all the while the CCP’s malign behavior has gotten worse, not better,” said Rep. Mike Gallagher (R- Wis.), chairman of the House Select Commission on China.

Biden’s envoys are struggling to restore some predictability to a relationship that plunged to a 50-year low following the China spy balloon incident in February. The incident shattered a relationship already marred by trade tensions, Beijing’s slashing of Taiwan and human rights abuses in Xinjiang.

The Biden administration argues that face-to-face dialogue plays a role of its own — lessening mistrust and clearing the way for conversations about difficult topics.

“None of this is resolved, resolved with one visit, one trip, one conversation. It’s a process,” Blinken told reporters last month.

Such talks – vague as they are – are important at a time when senior US military officials have warned that rising bilateral tensions are pushing the two countries towards a possible military conflict within the next four years. Kerry said on Thursday that diplomatic engagement with Beijing is necessary to avoid “the potential for mistakes, the potential for something to inadvertently drag us into open and heated conflict.”

But Blinken’s meetings with Xi and other senior Chinese officials have been hard to sell to Washington as a success.

The administration has asked China to take steps to limit the role of Chinese chemical exporters in the opioid overdose epidemic. But Blinken’s Chinese hosts only agreed to “explore the creation of a task force or joint effort” to reduce the flow of Chinese precursor chemicals that Mexican cartels are turning into fentanyl, Blinkentold reporters reported. during his trip.

Although Blinken told his Chinese hosts that a top priority for the United States was to resolve cases of American citizens wrongfully detained or subject to exit bans in China, no releases have taken place.

And while Blinken has “repeatedly” raised a desire for the United States to resume high-level military communications, China continues to be reluctant to do so. The freeze – which extends to Beijing’s rejections of Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s requests to meet his Chinese counterpart, Li Shangfu – raises the risk of a potential military crisis in the Indo-Pacific.

Blinken’s outreach in Beijing was “weak and desperate” and constituted “appeasement of the Chinese Communist Party,” Rep. Elise Stefanik (RN.Y.) said in a statement last month.

Yellen’s four days in Beijing last week produced upbeat rhetoric but no breakthrough on the issues troubling US-China trade relations. The Treasury Secretary told reporters ahead of the trip that she planned to discuss China’s “unfair economic practices…barriers to market access for foreign companies and intellectual property issues.”

But Beijing has shown no movement on those fronts, in part because Yellen has made no concessions on pending U.S. initiatives like curbs on outbound investment and curbs on Chinese companies’ access to cloud services. American computing.

The answer in an op-ed by China’s state-run Xinhua news agency: “It’s unproductive when the United States positions itself for dialogue and communication, while tightening its lockdown and containment against China.”

That meant Yellen spent most of his time in Beijing “trying to reassure the Chinese about American intentions” rather than thinking about approaches to specific bilateral disputes, said Mary Lovely, senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics. . Although Yellen reiterated that the United States was not trying to decouple from the Chinese economy, the response from his Chinese hosts was likely “Well, show me the money,” Lovely said.

Kerry hopes he will have better luck in his meetings with his counterpart, Xie Zhenhua, and other senior Chinese officials next week. But Kerry is likely to make little progress in persuading Beijing to reduce its reliance on coal-fired power generation as it struggles to revive its faltering economy.

“I wouldn’t look for breakthroughs…relationships between the two governments remain very difficult,” said David Sandalow, a former senior Energy Department official in the Obama administration and founder of the US-China program at the Center on Global. Columbia University. Energy policy.

Kerry’s potential advantage: US-China climate cooperation is critical to the success of the UN’s year-end deal. climate conference in Dubai. But Beijing suspended a joint U.S.-China task force on climate cooperation as part of a retaliation package for then-president Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan in August. “It would be substantial progress if Kerry and Xie could come out of their meetings saying ‘we have agreed that the working group will meet x number of times by Dubai,'” said Joanna Lewis, associate professor at Georgetown University. and an expert on China’s climate policies.

Kerry’s travel plans have reinvigorated GOP skepticism on Capitol Hill.

“Despite the sweet words that CCP diplomats whispered into climate envoy Kerry’s ear at Davos or COP26, in 2022 China began construction of coal-fired power plant capacity six times the that of the rest of the world together,” Chinese committee chairman Gallagher said. China’s environmental record makes it “enemy number one” on climate issues, rather than a partner, Gallagher said.

Others have argued that the focus on climate is completely wrong. “Combating China and its malware should be the State Department’s top priority” rather than climate cooperation, said Michael McCaul (R-Texas), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

The Biden administration argues that China’s status as the world’s biggest carbon emitter makes US efforts to boost climate cooperation with Beijing inevitable. To refuse to do so “would be malpractice of the worst kind – diplomatic and political,” Kerry said.

Democratic lawmakers are holding out for the Biden approach — arguing talks about the talks are the start of progress.

“I reject the idea that diplomacy is an act of weakness,” said Rep. Ritchie Torres (DN.Y.), a member of the House Select Committee on China. “Communication is what countries do, especially when the two countries are the most powerful in the world.”

And the reestablishment of regular and reliable high-level contact between senior officials can also help pave the way for a much-anticipated face-to-face meeting between Biden and Xi later this year.

Raising awareness of Blinken, Yellen and Kerry provides “an essential foundation for a successful Xi-Biden meeting at APEC in the fall and helps prevent the relationship from further deteriorating,” said Susan Shirk, former undersecretary of the Clinton Administration Deputy State.

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