On Friday night, Chinese President Xi Jinping had a video call with US leader Joe Biden, following a flurry of diplomatic activity between the two countries in America’s bid to try and get Beijing to oppose Russia’s special operation in Ukraine.
The United States has, without due evidence, accused Russia of seeking Chinese assistance to help in the war effort, which is now into its fourth week.
A few days previously, US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan met with Chinese Vice Premier Yang Jiechi in Rome, Italy. The meeting was not unproductive and reportedly lasted seven hours.
Whilst it should be clear that China does not endorse the conflict in Ukraine, with Beijing having publicly reaffirmed its support for peace, dialogue and a respect of the national sovereignty and territorial integrity of nations, the question needs to be asked again: “Why does China owe the US any favors?”
Of course, it is undeniable that it is in the mutual interest of both Washington and Beijing that the conflict is stopped, given the instability, unpredictability and risks it poses to the rest of the world. However, the query still stands as to whether America should be given such an act of goodwill by China, cost-free, in helping undermine what has been one of its most important strategic relationships.
In the run-up to this phone call, the White House marketed the discussion as “managing our competition.” This echoed with the sound of previous dialogues which had failed to make any kind of substantial progress in China-US relations.
The last time Xi and Biden spoke was during their virtual summit in November. Though anticipated as a breakthrough in easing tensions between the two countries, the White House proceeded after the meeting to blacklist scores more Chinese companies, initiate a smear campaign with the view to diplomatically boycott the Beijing Winter Olympics and supported an import ban on all products from Xinjiang on the grounds of forced labor.
This has mirrored a constant pattern from the Biden administration of constantly seeking selective engagement with China and making demands on some fronts, while simultaneously sticking to the hostile Cold War-era foreign policy against Beijing and treating China as a de-facto enemy.
It might be described as a form of diplomacy whereby the US believes it can “have its cake and eat it at the same time” — reserving a right to continually antagonize China on military, economic and political fronts but then turn round and facilitate cooperation a la carte, as if Beijing will not demand any concessions for such behavior.
China, of course, has always been open to cooperating with the US and has never made any secret of it. The US expects Chinese goodwill, on the matter of climate change, trade concessions and now Russia, but simultaneously accuses China of genocide, is supporting pro-independence sentiment in Taiwan, is blacklisting scores of Chinese companies and has pursued a global campaign to try and crush Huawei.
It has also attempted to smear and derail projects such as the Belt and Road Initiative, has created new hostile alliances and blocs against it such as the Quad and AUKUS, and is actively encouraging countries to take sides against it.
Why, on the premise of any of this, does China owe the US anything? Even as this crisis continues, it might be noted that recently the US stripped the license of another Chinese telecommunications company to operate in the country. And, on March 5 Nikkei reported that the US was planning to spend up to US$24 billion in surrounding China with “anti-missile” systems on the first island chain. The list goes on.
You might ask yourself, what happens when the Ukraine conflict is over? The medium shifts straight back to the “Indo-Pacific” and the US once again goes full throttle against China, propaganda campaigns over Xinjiang will resume when a space in the news cycle opens and of course Taiwan-based provocations, too.
China ultimately must be prepared to drive a hard bargain with the US. Washington must understand that it cannot pursue aggression and hostility against Beijing and then simply expect it to acquiesce to its interests, especially when the conclusion is likely to amount to greater containment efforts against China itself.
America must in turn provide carrots, not sticks, and abandon the Trump legacy and policy of attempting to undermine China. If the US seeks cooperation, it must earn it, diplomacy is about goodwill and compromise, not stabbing people in the back.
The author is a South Korea-based English freelancer. The views are his own.