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How will the U.S. Vice President, Kamala Harris, approach U.S.-China relations?

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Image credit: Gage Skidmore/ flickr

Over the past several months, countless scholars and policy analysts have put forward predictions and recommendations for how the Biden administration might approach relations with China. Will Washington send an olive branch to Beijing in the interest of containing the spread of COVID-19? Will the administration work with China to curb global carbon emissions? What steps will Biden take to forestall the descent into a new Cold War?

Often overlooked in this discussion is the role that the Vice President will play in the crafting of American foreign policy. Biden and his team are entering the White House amid severe domestic challenges — from COVID-19 and an economic recession to an accelerated decay in American democracy. While the President’s hands will be tied at home, the Vice President may assume a greater role in foreign affairs. During the Obama years, by comparison, the President faced off against a slow economic recovery and drawn-out political gridlock, so it was the Vice President that famously spent “more time” with China’s General Secretary Xi Jinping than any other world leader. Now, in 2021, it is worth considering how the new Vice President might approach relations with Beijing.

It goes without saying that the bilateral relationship with China will be one of the most significant foreign policy issues of the United States for the foreseeable future. By many accounts, the United States and China have entered a period of great power rivalry. Competition has intensified across all aspects of the relationship, from trade and technology to global governance and strategic domains. In many cases, China is narrowing the power gap with the U.S. The U.K.’s Center for Economics and Business Research, for example, predicts that China’s economy will overtake the U.S.’ in dollar terms by 2028, five years earlier than previously forecast. Going forward, the Vice President’s style of engagement with Chinese leaders will greatly affect whether or not the two countries’ are able to effectively manage intensified competition.

Harris’ record on China policy reveals her largely principled view of foreign affairs. As a Senator, Harris co-sponsored the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act and the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act, which permit the use of sanctions against Chinese officials responsible for human rights violations. In her own words, the Vice President claims, “We [the administration] will cooperate with China on global issues like climate change, but we won’t allow human rights abuses to go unchecked.” In this way, Harris’ worldview can be characterized as a continuation of the liberal tradition in American politics, one that seeks to promote democratic values abroad.

When asked to describe the most important foreign policy achievement of the United States since the end of World War II, Harris cited “the post-war community of international institutions.” In this spirit, the Vice President is expected to reaffirm America’s commitment to multilateralism in the form of institutions — like NATO and the WHO — and revitalize international agreements — like the JCPOA and the Paris Agreement.

Despite her predilection toward values-based foreign policy, Harris is far from insensitive to economic and strategic concerns. During the Vice Presidential debate with Mike Pence in October, the then-democratic nominee argued that the Trump administration had “lost” the trade war with China. Harris characterized the administration’s unilateral tariff policies as self-defeating, while voicing support for addressing China’s trade violations within international bodies like the WTO. In conversation with the Council on Foreign Relations in 2019, Harris similarly suggested that the U.S. “work with allies in Europe and Asia to confront China on its troubling trade practices.” Forming this kind of joint coalition could enable the new administration to strike a stronger bargain with Beijing and, ultimately, prove even tougher on China than the administration before it.

In this way, the Vice President’s liberalism cannot be separated from her strategic thinking. Harris recognizes that upholding American values and related institutions sustains U.S. credibility and attracts allies. As such, the Vice President has recommended forging stronger ties with neglected partners in Africa to preempt “illiberal countries” from laying the ground rules there.

The rub, of course, is that a principled foreign policy risks alienating so-called illiberal counterparts just as it may bring like-minded parties closer together. If the U.S. insists, for instance, that China alter its behavior with respect to core sovereignty interests — in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Xinjiang, or Tibet — cooperation in other areas may be hard to come by, even on issues where the U.S. and China largely agree.

Looking back, it is clear that relations between Washington and Beijing remained stable during the Obama years largely as a result of the circumscribed scope in which engagement was carried out. While climate change and the economy remained front-rank issues, human rights and strategic concerns were relegated to secondary importance. It is within this context that the U.S. effectively coordinated with China during the financial crisis and signed several joint resolutions on climate change. On the other hand, the administration was unable to restrain China’s militarization of the South China Sea or put an end to state-sponsored cyberattacks on U.S. personnel and organizations. What this means for the incoming administration is that joint talks will have to proceed along parallel tracks whereby mutual differences can coexist with concrete progress on other issues. This approach may be best summarized with the Chinese idiom, “harmony through difference” (和而不同).

Over the next four years, the Vice President is expected to bring noticeable changes to the U.S.-China relationship, but her leadership is unlikely to significantly alter its long-term trajectory. While the form of engagement may shift — from bilateralism to multilateralism — and the focus of negotiations could change — from the U.S. trade deficit to climate change or human rights — U.S. relations with China are likely to remain fraught for decades to come.

The views expressed in the attached article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or positions of the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center.

Nathaniel Sher is a Research Assistant at the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center in Beijing. He writes about U.S.-China relations, tech policy, and global governance. Nathaniel received his MA in International Relations from the University of Chicago.

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Hardened US and Iranian positions question efficacy of parties’ negotiating tactics

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The United States and Iran seem to be hardening their positions in advance of a resumption of negotiations to revive a 2015 international nuclear agreement once Iranian President-elect Ebrahim Raisi takes office in early August.

Concern among supporters of the agreement to curb Iran’s nuclear program which former US President Donald J. Trump abandoned in 2018 may be premature but do raise questions about the efficacy of the negotiating tactics of both parties.

These tactics include the Biden administration’s framing of the negotiations exclusively in terms of the concerns of the West and its Middle Eastern allies rather than also as they relate to Iranian fears, a failure by both the United States and Iran to acknowledge that lifting sanctions is a complex process that needs to be taken into account in negotiations, and an Iranian refusal to clarify on what terms the Islamic republic may be willing to discuss non-nuclear issues once the nuclear agreement has been revived.

The differences in the negotiations between the United States and Iran are likely to be accentuated if and when the talks resume, particularly concerning the mechanics of lifting sanctions.

“The challenges facing the JCPOA negotiations are a really important example of how a failed experience of sanctions relief, as we had in Iran between the Obama and Trump admins, can cast a shadow over diplomacy for years to come, making it harder to secure US interests,” said Iran analyst Esfandyar Batmanghelidj referring to the nuclear accord, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, by its initials.

The Biden administration may be heeding Mr. Batmangheldij’s notion that crafting sanctions needs to take into account the fact that lifting them can be as difficult as imposing them as it considers more targeted additional punitive measures against Iran. Those measures would aim to hamper Iran’s evolving capabilities for precision strikes using drones and guided missiles by focusing on the providers of parts for those weapon systems, particularly engines and microelectronics.

To be sure, there is no discernable appetite in either Washington or Tehran to adjust negotiation tactics and amend their underlying assumptions. It would constitute a gargantuan, if not impossible challenge given the political environment in both capitals. That was reflected in recent days in Iranian and US statements.

Iranian Spiritual Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei suggested that agreement on the revival of the nuclear accord was stumbling over a US demand that it goes beyond the terms of the original accord by linking it to an Iranian willingness to discuss its ballistic missiles program and support for Arab proxies.

In a speech to the cabinet of outgoing President Hassan Rouhani, he asserted that the West “will try to hit us everywhere they can and if they don’t hit us in some place, it’s because they can’t… On paper and in their promises, they say they’ll remove sanctions. But they haven’t lifted them and won’t lift them. They impose conditions…to say in future Iran violated the agreement and there is no agreement” if Iran refuses to discuss regional issues or ballistic missiles.

Iranian officials insist that nothing can be discussed at this stage but a return by both countries to the nuclear accord as is. Officials, distrustful of US intentions, have hinted that an unconditional and verified return to the status quo ante may help open the door to talks on missiles and proxies provided this would involve not only Iranian actions and programs but also those of America’s allies.

Mr. Khamenei’s remarks seemed to bolster suggestions that once in office Mr. Raisi would seek to turn the table on the Biden administration by insisting on stricter verification and US implementation of its part of a revived agreement.

To achieve this, Iran is expected to demand the lifting of all rather than some sanctions imposed or extended by the Trump administration; verification of the lifting;  guarantees that the lifting of sanctions is irreversible, possibly by making any future American withdrawal from the deal contingent on approval by the United Nations Security Council; and iron-clad provisions to ensure that obstacles to Iranian trade are removed, including the country’s unfettered access to the international financial system and the country’s overseas accounts.

Mr. Khamenei’s remarks and Mr. Raisi’s anticipated harder line was echoed in warnings by US officials that the ascendancy of the new president would not get Iran a better deal. The officials cautioned further that there could be a point soon at which it would no longer be worth returning to because Iran’s nuclear program would have advanced to the point where the limitations imposed by the agreement wouldn’t produce the intended minimum one year ‘breakout time’ to produce enough enriched uranium for a bomb.

“We are committed to diplomacy, but this process cannot go on indefinitely. At some point, the gains achieved by the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) cannot be fully recovered by a return to the JCPOA if Iran continues the activities that it’s undertaken with regard to its nuclear program…The ball remains in Iran’s court, and we will see if they’re prepared to make the decisions necessary to come back into compliance,” US Secretary Antony Blinken said this week on a visit to Kuwait.

Another US official suggested that the United States and Iran could descend into a tug-of-war on who has the longer breath and who blinks first. It’s a war that so far has not produced expected results for the United States and in which Iran has paid a heavy price for standing its ground.

The official said that a breakdown in talks could “look a lot like the dual-track strategy of the past—sanctions pressure, other forms of pressure, and a persistent offer of negotiations. It will be a question of how long it takes the Iranians to come to the idea they will not wait us out.”

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Wendy Sherman’s China visit takes a terrible for the US turn

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Photo: Miller Center/ flickr

US Deputy Secretary of State, Wendy Sherman, had high hopes for the meeting in China. At first, the Chinese side did not agree to hold the meeting at all. The reaction had obvious reasons: Antony Blinken’s fiasco in Alaska left the Chinese disrespected and visibly irritated. This is not why they travelled all the way.

So then the State Department had the idea of sending Wendy Sherman instead. The US government actually needs China more than China needs the US. Sherman was in China to actually prepare the ground for Biden and a meeting between the two presidents, expecting a red carpet roll for Biden as if it’s still the 2000s — the time when it didn’t matter how the US behaved. Things did not go as expected.

Instead of red carpet talk, Sherman heard Dua Lipa’s “I got new rules”. 

That’s right — the Chinese side outlined three bottom lines warning the US to respect its system, development and sovereignty and territorial integrity. In other words, China wants to be left alone.

The bottom lines were not phrased as red lines. This was not a military conflict warning. This was China’s message that if any future dialogue was to take place, China needs to be left alone. China accused the US of creating an “imaginary enemy”. I have written about it before — the US is looking for a new Cold War but it doesn’t know how to start and the problem is that the other side actually holds all the cards

That’s why the US relies on good old militarism with an expansion into the Indo-Pacific, while aligning everyone against China but expecting the red carpet and wanting all else in the financial and economic domains to stay the same. The problem is that the US can no longer sell this because there are no buyers. Europeans also don’t want to play along.

The headlines on the meeting in the US press are less flattering than usual. If the US is serious about China policy it has to be prepared to listen to much more of that in the future. And perhaps to, yes, sit down and be humble.

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Why Jen Psaki is a well-masked Sean Spicer

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When Sarah Huckabee Sanders showed up on the scene as White House Press Secretary, the reaction was that of relief. Finally — someone civil, normal, friendly. Jen Psaki’s entry this year was something similar. People were ready for someone well-spoken, well-mannered, even friendly as a much welcome change from the string of liars, brutes or simply disoriented people that the Trump Administration seemed to be lining up the press and communications team with on a rolling basis. After all, if the face of the White House couldn’t keep it together for at least five minutes in public, what did that say about the overall state of the White House behind the scenes?

But Psaki’s style is not what the American media and public perceive it to be. Her style is almost undetectable to the general American public to the point that it could look friendly and honest to the untrained eye or ear. Diplomatic or international organization circles are perhaps better suited to catch what’s behind the general mannerism. Jen Psaki is a well-masked Sean Spicer, but a Sean Spicer nevertheless. I actually think she will do much better than him in Dancing With The Stars. No, in fact, she will be fabulous at Dancing With The Stars once she gets replaced as White House Press Secretary.

So let’s take a closer look. I think what remains undetected by the general American media is veiled aggression and can easily pass as friendliness. Psaki recently asked a reporter who was inquiring about the Covid statistics at the White House why the reporter needed that information because Psaki simply didn’t have that. Behind the brisk tone was another undertone: the White House can’t be questioned, we are off limits. But it is not and that’s the point. 

Earlier, right at the beginning in January, Psaki initially gave a pass to a member of her team when the Politico stunner reporter story broke out. The reporter was questioning conflict of interest matters, while the White House “stud” was convinced it was because he just didn’t chose her, cursing her and threatening her. Psaki sent him on holidays. Nothing to see here folks, move along.

Psaki has a level of aggression that’s above average, yet she comes across as one of the most measured and reasonable White House Press Secretaries of the decade. And that’s under pressure. But being able to mask that level of deflection is actually not good for the media because the media wants answers. Style shouldn’t (excuse the pun) trump answers. And being able to get away smoothly with it doesn’t actually serve the public well. Like that time she just walked away like it’s not a big deal. It’s the style of “as long as I say thank you or excuse me politely anything goes”. But it doesn’t. And the American public will need answers to some questions very soon. Psaki won’t be able to deliver that and it would be a shame to give her a pass just because of style.

I think it’s time that we start seeing Psaki as a veiled Sean Spicer. And that Dancing with the Stars show — I hope that will still run despite Covid.

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