Thursday, January 19, 2023

2023 bodes poorly for US international relations

First posted On Asia Times. America’s top diplomat Antony Blinken’s most important task for the new year is to secure a summit meeting between US President Joe Biden and China’s leader, Xi Jinping. The odds of Blinken coming up empty and failing to arrange this meeting are exceedingly high. The reason is that China is growing weary of repeated cycles of Biden saying one thing and doing just the opposite. As Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi is alleged to have said in a telephone conversation with Blinken, “This business of warmly embracing while getting stabbed in the back is getting tiresome.” As reported by Asia Times from Bali, Biden committed not to interfere with China’s governing structure, not to wage a new cold war with China, not to recruit allies to align against China, and not to promote or support Taiwan independence, nor reject the principle of one China. He also pledged that the US does not intend to initiate military conflict, wage economic warfare, decouple the two economies or hinder China’s economic development. Any unbiased observer could be forgiven for thinking that after the warm and fuzzy three-hour meeting, Biden would seize the opportunity to take steps to relax the bilateral tension. He could have rescinded the foolish tariff war initiated by former president Donald Trump and carried on by his own administration. The trade war has worked against American interests, as the trade deficit has continued to grow in China’s favor while tariff-added prices on Chinese imports increased inflationary pressure for the American consumer. But Biden did not. He could have backed off on the draconian semiconductor embargo he imposed on China, as a gesture of goodwill. He did not. Biden didn’t mean what he said Instead, Biden signed the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which included $10 billion in military aid to Taiwan. This aid is actually in the form of a loan. At $2 billion per year, Biden has placed orders on behalf of Taiwan with America’s weapons makers and has already sent the bill for the interest charges to the Taipei government. Typical of Washington chicanery, Taipei pays first for a possible future delivery of advanced weapons. Based on past records, Taipei holding an empty bag is not beyond the realm. After the new year dawned, Washington is also said to be ready to send “observers” to sit in offices inside the Taiwanese government for a stint of up to two years. Of course, observers have a way of becoming advisers and eventually becoming a take-charge shadow government, turning President Tsai Ing-wen’s government into zombies. Biden has also sent word to Taipei that the period of four-month active duty for conscripted soldiers is too short. President Tsai dutifully ordered a revision of the statute to 12 months commencing in 2024. Critics in Taiwan jeered at this alleged toughening of military preparedness. They opined that the 12-month training will qualify the young soldiers to carry and fire a rifle but stand no chance in face of advanced firepower, if the People’s Liberation Army were to invade. Getting these young people killed in action, however, would satisfy Washington in getting Taiwan to stand as proxy versus China, just like Ukraine in the proxy war with Russia. Of course, all the developments related to Taiwan directly contradict the solemn pledges Biden made at the Group of Twenty summit in Bali. There are two takeaways for the world. One is that what American leaders say can’t be trusted; their promises do not equate obligations. Second, the US will act only in itss own self-interest and care not a whit about its allies. Treating Taiwan as a pathetic vassal is just one example. America’s European allies have already seen the cost of joining the US in supporting the proxy war in Ukraine. While Ukrainians and Russians were expected to be the big losers in the conflict, the Europeans did not expect to become victims of runaway inflation. The rise of inflation was due to the American sanctions on Russia, which retaliated by stopping the flow of gas and oil to the European Union. The pain of being an American ally As French President Emmanuel Macron bitterly observed, the Europeans were offered relief with liquefied natural gas (LNG) from the US, but at four times the domestic American prices. Thus while the EU paid through the nose for their energy, the Americans reaped obscene profit. Hardly an ethical or honorable way to treat an ally. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz also saw through the American duplicity and he quickly organized an 11-hour visit to Beijing to meet with Xi Jinping in early November, before the G20. He took along a delegation of senior CEOs to reaffirm and cement the bilateral economic relationship with Germany’s largest trading partner – especially crucial as Europe has to confront rampant, ongoing inflation. Macron also sees the urgency of building France’s economic ties with China and is busily arranging for a visit by him to be formally added to Xi’s official calendar. It’s hard to know where he is in the queue. Heads of state of Italy, Australia and New Zealand are also jockeying to meet with Xi. They all see economic tie-ups with China in one form or another as a top-priority item on their national agendas. However, the first to meet Xi in the new year is Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. He arrived in Beijing on Tuesday for a three-day visit. As Asia Times reports, the Philippines is in desperate need for foreign capital investment and just the kind of help with infrastructure building that China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is known for. Unqualified success of BRI First proposed by Xi in 2013, the BRI has become China’s signature tool of diplomacy. Close to 150 countries had signed up to become members of the BRI by the end of 2022. Many of the BRI projects involved building transportation corridors via trains or highways and ports and harbors. Such infrastructure projects enabled the host country to join or expand its participation in world trade. Other projects involved hospitals, libraries and schools. All were designed to help the economy of the host country. The projects are financed by China at below-market interest rates and even at zero interest in some cases. Chinese companies provide the leadership, management and technology to implement each project. In the early years, China bore the slings and arrows of criticism from the Western media and from Washington politicians. Now, with hundreds of projects going on around the world, the BRI has become well accepted in much of the developing world. Any Westerner still warning about China’s “debt trap” diplomacy is treated with derision and contempt. China’s message is easy to understand. It is in favor of open trade and mutually beneficial collaboration. It does not require geopolitical pledges of allegiance or alignment. And it does not wish to argue over who has the correct definition of human rights or democracy, or insist on who is right. After the 25th People’s Congress in late October, Xi began to meet with other national leaders. Vietnam’s Communist Party chief Nguyen Phu Trong became the first foreign leader to visit Beijing, quickly followed by Germany’s Scholz. World leaders eager to meet with Xi Xi then left Beijing for the G20 summit in Bali and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Thailand. Leaders lined up to meet with Xi on the sidelines of both summits, eager to re-establish bilateral relations and explore economic cooperation with the world’s largest trading nation. President Xi later went on a three-day state visit to Saudi Arabia. In Riyadh, China concluded a US$25 billion deal for oil. The Saudis also hosted an inaugural China-Arab states summit during Xi’s visit, and a meeting with the Gulf Cooperation Council, which comprises Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. On top of China’s 25-year strategic partnership with Iran, China can now claim to being friends with 1.8 billion people of the Islamic world, be they Sunnis or Shiites. Before the end of calendar year 2022, China also entered a free-trade deal with Ecuador, the fourth such deal in America’s back yard, in addition to Chile, Costa Rica and Peru. Contrary to what the wise old men of the West are telling Washington, world trade and globalization are far from dead but more popular than ever with the countries that are not members of Group of Seven. For the year of 2023, there are two earth-shaking developments that might catch the US by surprise. One is the possible routine use of the petro-renminbi as means of payment for energy from the Middle East. The internationalization of the yuan has been a gradual process and Washington could easily be caught off guard, like a frog in a steamer. The total replacement of the petrodollar is not likely in 2023 but the renminbi inroad could give Washington a real nightmare to worry about. A grand collaboration in Siberia A doozy of a deal in the offing is the ongoing discussion between Russia and China for a grand collaboration involving Siberia. As discussed in Asia Times, American sanctions and pressure on Russia have forced President Vladimir Putin to deepen his alliance and dependence on China. Historically, Russia has always been leery of opening Siberia for Chinese investment for fear of losing control of the territory owing to the potential of an overflowing Chinese population that could flood the frozen tundra region. Now Putin is in desperate need to realize the full potential of 40% of the landmass currently in permafrost hibernation. According to Russia media, the deal on the table would involve China investing $160 billion on 79 projects. The projects would not just include extracting oil, gas and minerals but would also cover infrastructure, agriculture, automotive, machinery and communications. China has the money, technology, know-how and most crucially, the hardy and hard-working people to make it happen. Russia needs the economic development that comes from industries. Now, figuratively speaking, while Blinken is sitting in the reception room waiting to be summoned to discuss another Biden-Xi summit, he has to be prepared to answer two likely questions from Qin Gang, the newly appointed Chinese foreign minister. What’s the point of another summit? What is there to talk about? Virtually all national leaders have been invited to meet with Xi in Beijing. A subtle snub would be for Xi to offer to meet with Biden in Xiamen. Other than not being Beijing, Xiamen has a lot of subtle symbolism. From Xiamen, one can see Kinmen, an island that belongs to the Taipei government. Xiamen is warm and scenic and maybe Biden won’t care. He might think he has been transported to the Caribbean. Of course, Biden could also return the compliment and offer to host the return summit in Taipei. After all, the US already owns that city and the government there.

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