Some analysts are wrongly pointing to the tenor of President Joe Biden‘s meeting with Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping as a sign of detente. The reality is that U.S. relations with China will continue to worsen because China’s main ambition is to expand its influence and displace the U.S.-led democratic international order.
Two incidents at the G-20 summit in Bali, Indonesia, underline the absurdity of believing that Sino-American relations can significantly improve.
First, there was the experience of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Wednesday. Trudeau was very publicly dressed down by Xi in front of a gaggle of Canadian journalists. Trudeau’s outrageous crime? He had used a Tuesday meeting with the all-powerful Chinese leader to complain about China’s interference in Canada’s 2019 elections, and he had made his displeasure known publicly. Xi didn’t like that the media found out about this.
“Everything we discussed was then leaked to the [newspapers]. That’s not appropriate,” Xi said. He called for Trudeau’s “sincerity” before the Canadian leader politely interjected to defend himself. Xi then interrupted Trudeau to say, “Let’s create the conditions first.” Shaking hands, Xi promptly walked off.
Xi in translation: If you want trade and cooperation, you had better stop resisting my national security policies, even when they directly affect Canadian interests. Be more like our German puppets and less like our American rivals.
The exchange underlines the arrogant and deeply authoritarian character of Xi’s government. Believing itself the senior party in any and all interactions, China has no qualms about making demands of others. But, frustrated by souring public attitudes toward China in Western nations, Beijing is deeply sensitive to foreign criticism. Indeed, China even demands that Western officials actively spread pro-China propaganda to their domestic populations. During a July meeting with his Australian counterpart, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi called on Canberra to make a number of pledges. These included his demand that Australia “stick to building positive and pragmatic social foundations and public support.” As with the Trudeau exchange, it’s proof of Communist China’s zero-sum approach to foreign policy. It’s Xi’s way or the highway.
Don’t believe it? Then consider Xi’s interaction with the British government on Wednesday.
Xi and Britain’s new prime minister, Rishi Sunak, had agreed to hold their own bilateral meeting on the sidelines of the G-20 summit. Sunak sought to lay positive foundations for that meeting with conciliatory rhetoric toward Beijing. One would have expected Xi to leap at the opportunity to try and draw America’s closest ally away from Washington’s China policy — indeed, Sunak doesn’t exactly have a hawkish reputation when it comes to China; on the contrary, Sunak has fostered U.S. concern that he might acquiesce to Chinese mercantilism as prime minister.
Instead, China reacted by canceling the two leaders’ meeting and deliberately humiliating Sunak by describing the reasons why. The Chinese Communist Party’s Global Times propaganda outlet curtly observed that “Chinese experts believe that it is possible that the cancellation is a way for China to express its strong dissatisfaction with Britain’s recent provocations on the Taiwan question.”
How very subtle. The Global Times explained that Beijing is furious over Sunak’s refusal to rule out sending arms to Taiwan: “If these nations want to maintain their communication with China, they should know that the prerequisite is that they should never tread on China’s red line issue — the Taiwan question. … It seems that Sunak’s trick of softening his stance toward China didn’t work.” Then came the kicker: “Under the heavy influence of Washington, London is constantly narrowing its diplomatic path to serve U.S. strategic considerations at the cost of China-UK relations. But is it worth it? Or who will this benefit? Britain needs to think about these questions thoroughly before it’s too late.”
Again, not exactly subtle. China knows that the post-Brexit United Kingdom is desperate for bolstered trade to assist its struggling economy. Xi’s price is Britain’s utter submission to Beijing.
Still, Xi’s attempt to cancel Sunak and Trudeau fits perfectly with his preferred diplomatic strategy for shooting China in its own foot. Yes, these incidents will make Xi look strong at home (an obsession for the Chinese leader), but they will also aggravate not just the British and Canadian governments but also their respective populations. And unlike the Chinese government, those Western governments rely on the favor of their populations to retain power. In turn, if China’s ultimate diplomatic intent is to establish a more favorable political space for its geopolitical agenda, Xi’s G-20 antics are likely to have the exact opposite effect.
If nothing else, Xi’s shoddy treatment of the two closest U.S. allies proves that hopes of any practical detente are mere delusions.