May 28, 2024

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Qin Gang’s blistering broadside batters ties

Qin Gang’s blistering broadside batters ties

Hi, China Watchers. This week we assess the state of bilateral ties following Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang’s U.S.-bashing screed on Monday, scrutinize a congressional diplomatic spat with Argentina and parse the politics of China’s “picking quarrels” law. And with U.S.-China relations plunging to ever-new lows, we profile a book that reminds us how ping-pong players, musicians and scientists were an essential vanguard of efforts to normalize bilateral ties back in the (more hopeful) 1970s.

Let’s get to it. — Phelim

The Chinese government is in no hurry to try to reverse the slide of the U.S.-China relationship into frosty acrimony.

Chinese paramount leader XI JINPING tasked newly minted Foreign Minister QIN GANG to channel his best wolf warrior in a two hour press conference on Monday that became a rant against alleged U.S. transgressions against Chinese sovereignty, as I reported after Qin left the podium.

Gone was the Qin whose dovish Washington Post op-ed in December conjured folksy images of the then-ambassador on a John Deere tractor talking up agricultural trade with U.S. farmers while sampling their produce. Enter a stern, Chinese-constitution brandishing Qin accusing the U.S. of “malicious confrontation,” decrying “hysterical neo-McCarthyism” on Capitol Hill and warning that U.S. policies toward China risk putting the two countries on a path to “conflict and confrontation.” Qin’s diatribe veered toward dystopic when he accused the U.S. of “covertly formulating a plan for the destruction of Taiwan.”

The speech signaled that Beijing won’t make a first move to erase tensions in a relationship roiled by a series of incidents — ranging from last month’s Chinese spy balloon debacle to recent administration warnings that Beijing is considering providing lethal weaponry to Russia in its war against Ukraine — that have confirmed U.S. China hawks’ perceptions of a worsening China threat.

And it echoed Xi’s accusation earlier that day that the U.S. and other Western countries were guilty of “all-round containment, encirclement and suppression against us, bringing unprecedentedly severe challenges to our country’s development.” That’s a markedly different tone from when Xi met with President JOE BIDEN in Bali in November and called for a return to “the track of healthy and stable growth to the benefit of the two countries.”

The Biden administration responded to Qin’s comments with an attitude of weary restraint. “With all due respect to the Chinese foreign minister, there is no change to the United States posture when it comes to this bilateral relationship,” National Security Council spokesperson JOHN KIRBY told reporters on Tuesday.

Qin’s words evoked less charitable comments from other parts of Capitol Hill. Qin’s assertions were “incredibly inflammatory and reveal the CCP’s intent to challenge the status quo,” said House Foreign Affairs Committee chair MICHAEL MCCAUL (R-Texas) in a statement. McCaul urged Biden to “respond with strength.”

Qin’s performance didn’t win him any friends on the new House China Select Committee, either. His speech demonstrated “that the now-short lived Chinese Communist Party charm offensive was nothing more than a mirage designed to dupe gullible parties into believing the Party has fundamentally turned a corner in the the aftermath of zero-Covid,” said committee chair MIKE GALLAGHER (R-Wis.).

Qin’s objective may have been to fuel public and policymaker concern about the Biden administration’s increasingly uncompromising policy settings toward China.

Beijing is “trying to ratchet up anxiety about worsening relations and a possible impending clash much as they did when then-House Speaker NANCY PELOSI visited Taiwan — it’s tactical, aimed at elite and public opinion in the U.S. and allied countries,” said AARON L. FRIEDBERG, former deputy assistant for national security affairs in the Office of the Vice President and professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton University.

Meanwhile, expect the bilateral relationship’s negative trajectory to continue. “We are headed towards further intensifying rivalry,” Friedberg said.

Escandaloso! Comments by Rep. MARIA ELVIRA SALAZAR (R-Fla.) at a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing last month about Argentina’s relationship with China have sparked a diplomatic spat.

Salazar, the chair of HFAC’s Western Hemisphere Subcommittee, said at a Feb. 28 hearing that Argentina’s government was “openly considering purchasing Chinese JF-17 fighter jets and making them in Argentina at specially built Chinese factories” and had permitted “the Chinese Communist Party complete control” of a deep space monitoring station in the country’s Neuquén province. Argentina’s President ALBERTO FERNÁNDEZ indicated in December that there were no such plans to purchase Chinese jet aircraft, but U.S. military officials have expressed concern about a Chinese military role at the space tracking facility.

Salazar’s comments prompted Argentine ambassador to the U.S. JORGE ARGÜELLO to respond with a stinging letter of protest last week.

Salazar declined to comment on Argüello’s letter, but he talked to China Watcher about why he wrote it and what all the fuss is about. His responses have been edited for length and clarity.

What offended you about Rep. Salazar’s comments?

Certain statements she made are openly offensive and others are so due to their connotations. The image of my country and of the authorities of my country was portrayed unfairly for domestic political considerations. The very notion that a country — be it the United States or China — intends to impose its will on Argentina is absolutely unacceptable.

What’s up with that space monitoring station?

It is not a military base, but a station that has exactly the same characteristics as the one operated by the European Space Agency in Argentina less than 300 miles from there. I personally visited the station, without any areas being off-limits and without any restrictions. Most importantly — Argentina is entitled to the exclusive use of the facility’s antenna part of the time for its own projects. There is absolutely no mystery in this regard.

What about those Chinese fighter jets?

I was astonished by the alleged project to manufacture aircraft of Chinese origin in Argentine territory to be exported to the region. This is absurd. There is nothing to add: it simply does not exist and has never existed.

What our country is actually doing is assessing the purchase of multi-purpose aircraft. The unjustified veto of the United Kingdom prevents Argentina from acquiring aircraft that contain British parts, which greatly reduces the available supply. The veto covers a very significant number of countries and includes the U.S.


The U.S. to Europe: It’s about you, but it’s also about China

Ahead of President Biden’s meeting with European Union chief URSULA VON DER LEYEN in Washington on Friday, U.S. officials have been offering Europe both urgent warnings about Beijing and pledges to smooth over trade disputes.

But Europe’s response has been ambivalent at best, with many countries hesitant to pull away from the profitable Chinese market — not least Germany, which has strong trade links. The back-and-forth has laid bare the lingering divisions between the United States and European countries on how to address the growing economic power and military might of China.


Biden to reveal nuke submarine plans Monday alongside U.K. and Australian leaders

President Joe Biden will unveil the first phase of an ambitious three-nation nuclear submarine deal next to the leaders of the United Kingdom and Australia on Monday in San Diego, according to six people familiar with the plans. The announcement is the culmination of 18 months of negotiations as the three countries figure out how to provide Australia with a fleet of nuclear-powered submarines, POLITICO’s ALEX WARD, PAUL MCLEARY and I reported on Wednesday.

Germany’s Scholz says China ‘declared it will not deliver’ weapons to Russia

German Chancellor OLAF SCHOLZ on Sunday said China had declared it won’t supply Russia with weapons for its war against Ukraine, suggesting that Berlin has received bilateral assurances from Beijing on the issue. POLITICO’S GABRIEL RINALDI AND HANS VON DER BURCHARD have the full story here.


— FIRST IN CHINA WATCHER: LAWMAKERS SAY CHINA EXPERT DESERVES PRESIDENTIAL HONOR: A group of Democratic lawmakers are urging President Biden to award the Presidential Medal of Freedom to U.S.-China legal scholar JEROME COHEN. Cohen is “a champion of human rights and the rule of law … and has helped shape how we understand China and East Asia in the United States,” Sens. KIRSTEN GILLIBRAND (D-N.Y.), ELIZABETH WARREN (D-Mass.), JEFF MERKLEY (D-Ore.), and Reps. JIM MCGOVERN (D-Mass.) and JERROD NADLER (D-N.Y.) said in a letter sent to the White House today.

 — SENATORS’ BILL TARGETS TIKTOK TAKEDOWN: Sens. MARK WARNER (D-Va.) and JOHN THUNE (R-S.D.) introduced legislation that could result in the banning of social media platform TikTok by empowering the Commerce Department to shutter domestic operations of tech firms from “adversarial” countries including China, POLITICO’s BRENDAN BORDELON and JC WHITTINGTON reported on Tuesday. The RESTRICT Act will create “a comprehensive process within the Department of Commerce to mitigate and which ultimately could lead to banning platforms like TikTok,” Thune told reporters. The bill mirrors the goals of legislation approved by the House Foreign Affairs Committee legislation passed last week. National security adviser JAKE SULLIVAN and Commerce Secretary GINA RAIMONDO both issued statements praising the bill.

But not everyone is applauding. The bill “would ultimately allow the Commerce Secretary to ban entire communications platforms, which would have profound implications for our constitutional right to free speech,” American Civil Liberties Union senior policy counsel, JENNA LEVENTOFF, said in a statement. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson MAO NING called the legislation a “weapon in the name of national security.”

 — KERRY: BILATERAL TENSIONS STALL CLIMATE COOPERATION: President Biden’s climate envoy, JOHN KERRY, is hitting a brick wall in trying to resume productive U.S.-China climate cooperation. “The climate issue has gotten mixed up into all the other tensions that exist between our countries,” Kerry told Axios in an interview on Tuesday. The result: Kerry’s Chinese counterpart, XIE ZHENHUA, has “pulled back a little bit, expressing the feeling that all we’re doing is bashing them,” Kerry said. China suspended climate cooperation in reprisal for then-House Speaker NANCY PELOSI’s Taiwan trip in August, but Xi Jinping declared in November the U.S.-China ”mutual interest” in tackling climate change.

 — BLINKEN PRAISES LITHUANIA’S CHINA COERCION ‘RESOLVE’: Secretary of State ANTONY BLINKEN applauded Lithuania’s defiance of Beijing’s economic punishment for Vilnius’s close relationship with Taiwan. Blinken ‘expressed appreciation for Lithuania’s resolve in withstanding the PRC’s unjustified political and economic coercion,” according to a joint statement Blinken issued with Lithuania’s Foreign Minister GABRIELIUS LANDSBERGIS on Monday.

— TRUDEAU LAUNCHES CHINESE ELECTION INTERFERENCE PROBE: Canadian Prime Minister JUSTIN TRUDEAU buckled to political pressure Monday and called for an investigation into allegations that Beijing interfered with Canadian elections. “I will be appointing an independent special rapporteur, who will have a wide mandate and make expert recommendations on combating interference and strengthening our democracy,” Trudeau told reporters. Mao at China’s Foreign Ministry accused Trudeau of “making an issue about China based on disinformation and lies.” POLITICO’s ZI-ANN LUM has the full story here.

— ‘PICKING QUARRELS’ REAPS PARLIAMENTARY PUSHBACK: A member of China’s parliament, the National People’s Congress, wants to strip police of one of their go-to tools for muzzling dissent. XIAO SHENGFANG will propose an amendment to China’s Criminal Procedure Law during the NPC’s ongoing annual meeting that will abolish the “Picking Quarrels and Provoking Trouble” statute due to his concern that it’s too ambiguous, the Chinese newsmagazine Caixin reported last week.

The vaguely-worded law criminalizes “commotion and causing serious disorder in a public place,” giving police a handy pretext to crush public protests and detain protestors with the threat of prison terms of up to five years for single offenses. The Justice Ministry widened the law’s remit in February 2020 by applying it to anyone who may “insult or intimidate medical personnel, as well as those who spread ‘false news’ or ‘rumors’ about the pandemic,” the nonprofit prisoner release advocacy organization Duihua Foundation reported last year.

Xiao’s challenge to the law puts him at odds with a Chinese security establishment whose influence and power have mushroomed under Xi Jinping. “It is brave to publicly call for removal of the offense — it also reminds that legal activism is down but not out in China,” said MAGGIE LEWIS, a Seton Hall University law professor and expert on U.S.-China legal issues.

Targets of the law have included high-profile Chinese feminists arrested for peacefully protesting against sexual harassment on public transportation. Chinese police have also used the law to detain dozens of peaceful “white paper protesters” who took to the streets in November to decry the impacts of China’s zero-Covid policy prior to the government’s abandonment of it weeks later. Four young female protesters charged with violating the law for participating in those protests — CAO ZHIXIN, ZHAI DENGRUI, LI SIQI AND LI YUANJING — are the focus of a campaign by international human rights organizations demanding their release.

The law is “a formidable, and flexible tool for the government to silence dissent … wielded against a range of people seen as challenging the party line,” said Lewis. As long as it stays on the books it’s “a convenient instrument of repression,” Lewis said.


Washington Post: Democrats and Republicans agree on China. That’s a problem.

Axios: Semafor’s China Problem

The National Interest: How Silicon Valley engineered China’s protest crackdowns


 — USTR, COMMERCE TALK IPEF IN BALI: Acting Assistant U.S. Trade Representative for Southeast Asia, SARAH ELLERMAN and Commerce Department counselor SHARON YUAN will convene the second round of negotiations of the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework March 13-19 in Bali, Indonesia. Your POLITICO cheat sheet on the IPEF and its goals is here.

The Book: Improbable Diplomats: How ping-pong players, musicians and scientists remade U.S.-China relations

The Author: PETE MILLWOOD is a postdoctoral fellow at Hong Kong University studying the history of the Chinese world’s international and transnational relations, particularly with the United States.

Responses have been edited for length and clarity.

What is the most important takeaway from your book?

Visits by American ping-pong players, scientists, and graduate students predated — and helped precipitate — then national security adviser HENRY KISSINGER’s first, secret visit to China in 1971. Later visits to the U.S. by Chinese athletes, acrobats and doctors helped deepen ties at a time when PRC diplomats refused to officially visit the United States. These visits were opportunities for cultural exchange and mutual learning, but they also helped deepen and broaden a fragile rapprochement.

What was the most surprising thing you learned while researching and writing this book?

How much attention top leaders like Kissinger and then-Chinese Premier ZHOU ENLAI paid to people-to-people contacts. Reams of U.S. and Chinese government documents revealed how much time even senior leaders spent monitoring, encouraging and attempting to control interactions between ordinary Americans and Chinese — although by no means always successfully.

What does your book tell us about the trajectory and future of U.S.-China relations?

Ties can recover even from extreme acrimony. In the 1950s, Americans and Chinese killed each other in Korea by the thousands and, during the Cultural Revolution, China broke off almost all contact with the outside world. Ping-pong diplomacy, other early people-to-people visits, and then Kissinger’s 1971 visit helped quickly improve the relationship.

Such a rapid turnaround in relations doesn’t appear likely now — but nor did it in 1971. More contact between the two countries didn’t always reduce tension, and a post-Covid zero resumption of travel won’t by itself resolve disagreements. But it might help.

Got a book to recommend? Tell me about it at [email protected].

Thanks to: Mike Zapler, Heidi Vogt, Suzanne Lynch, Nahal Toosi, Barbara Moens, Erin Banco,Alex Ward, Paul McCleary, Gabriel Rinaldi, Hans Von Der Burchard, David Cohen, Brendan Bordelon, JC Whittington, Matt Kaminski and digital producer Katherine Long.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].