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The Shape of Sino-US Relations under President Joe Biden

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Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz

Chinese and United States reports and statements indicate that the foreign policy of the United States will not undergo a radical change. The US president may introduce amendments to some sub-details, as for the broad headings of the US policy towards China; it will not change, as some people claim. President Biden was clear from the outset that China is the main competitor for his country and that the US must curb China’s political reign and its tremendous economic progress, in a recent fiery statement by the US President that China will be held accountable for its human rights violations, such statements are similar to those made by former President Donald Trump during his political attack on China.

However, last week, President Biden made his first phone call to Chinese President Xi Jinping. During the call, the US President affirmed that the US adheres to preserving the security and stability of the Indian and Pacific oceans, and that the interest of the American people will be on the top of priorities. Unfortunately, President Biden expressed, in a way that does not differ from his predecessor, the US’s concern about the economic policies pursued by the Chinese administration in the Hong Kong and Xinjiang regions, and criticized the rapid steps taken by Beijing regarding Taiwan. Before making that phone call, President Biden had referred to the intense competition between his country and China, which is raging in terms of the great Chinese economic and political progress in addition to the enormous military capabilities that the Chinese People’s Liberation Army has become.

As for the Chinese president, he called on his US counterpart for cooperation and constructive communication with the aim of resolving the accumulated crises that have worsened greatly during the era of former President Donald Trump. Also, the leadership in the Chinese Communist Party has called on the US administration to cooperate and extend a hand instead of political maliciousness and destructive economic policies. But it seems that the US administration is intent on placing China in the category of political accusations. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has expressed that the US is determined to hold China accountable with regard to human rights and the violation of the rules of democracy in Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Tibet.

China has made many achievements in the last decade. For the first time in modern human history, a non-Western country can accomplish a technological achievement. China was able to obtain 5G while it is on its way to 6G.This achievement was a resounding shock in the West, specifically the United States; this achievement was a resounding shock in the West, specifically the United States. In an unethical and illegal manner, the daughter of the president of the Chinese company “Huawei” was arrested in Canada and then the Canadian authorities handed her over to the US. This random step indicates the US failure and imbalance in the technological sector for the first time in favor of China after the US was on the throne of technology. The rational policy pursued by the Chinese administration has recently led to the elimination of extreme poverty, and China has made economic progress in light of COVID-19 and the economic recession, which indicates the resilience of the Chinese economy and its ability to achieve growth in the most difficult circumstances.

The US administration often criticizes China for violating human rights, oppression and unjust order, but in fact the Chinese administration pursues a development policy towards Xinjiang and other rural areas in China. In recent years, China has expanded the transportation network to reach all Chinese regions and increased the budget allocated for development and education, thus most of the rural population has become skilled and specialized workforce. It is a smart strategy to eliminate extremism and terrorism because poverty is an incubator for terrorism. The West often refers to technical institutes and training centers designed to integrate marginalized Chinese populations into active citizens as centers of oppression and torture. More than once, the Chinese administration has made it clear through reports, but it seems that the US is determined to maintain the maliciousness.

Chinese-US cooperation in the era of President Biden will be limited to global issues of concern to humanity, such as: climate change, health (specifically in the fight against COVID-19) and arms control; as for economic competition and political rockslide, the situation is still unclear on the horizon, but it is unlikely to reach a state of calm. President Biden is pursuing a policy of openness and engagement with international organizations, unlike his predecessor, which constitutes a golden opportunity for China to improve its relationship with the US and restore what President Trump has destroyed. The Sino-US relationship is the most important bilateral relationship in the field of international relations and cannot be overlooked. Both the United States and China possess a strong economy, a developed military, and an increasing political role on the international stage.

China adopts a policy of openness to neighborhood and stable relationship with some countries with which it shares contradictory interests and regional differences, such as South Korea, Japan and the Philippines. This wise Chinese policy makes it difficult to create regional differences or Asian rift between China and other regional countries. It is clear that the Asia-Pacific region will be on the top of President Biden’s priorities. The United States is on its way to making a nuclear agreement with Iran and ending the conflicts in the Middle East, such as reopening the borders between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and serious peace negotiations to end the war on Yemen. Therefore, the Middle East is not a priority for the United States in this era because the greatest danger threatens the US economy and the US’s position in the modern international system is coming from the East, specifically China, which has become the main competitor to the US.

Wang Da indicated that President Biden’s policy will be more severe than President Obama’s policy toward China, although both presidents belong to the same party and have similar visions. Biden was Vice President Barack Obama, but the political and economic situation of China in continuous progress and it has become difficult for the United States to tame despite President Trump’s attempts to impose economic sanctions through trade war and taxes, Wang Da indicates that President Biden’s policy will be softer in dealing with China than President Trump. The United States is very concerned about China’s acquisition of advanced technology and its tremendous economic growth, so the efforts of the new US administration will focus on curbing this Chinese progress.

Li Xiao points out that the Biden administration will restore the alliances that President Trump’s policies have destroyed in East Asia and the ASEAN region, as most of President Biden’s team members were concluding agreements in the Asia-Pacific region to confront China economically and politically, such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Jiang Yang considers that the Chinese administration should strengthen its relations with its Asian neighbors, especially those countries that have troubled relations with China, such as India, Japan and Vietnam, in order to block the door on the United States to create differences in Asia. Most experts expect that the public opinion campaign launched by the United States against China will intensify regarding Xinjiang, Hong Kong, Tibet and Taiwan, but this fake propaganda will not affect the Chinese progress.

The United States under President Obama does not resemble the United States under President Biden. The capabilities of the United States are constantly shrinking, while China is in stable progress and it is expected to become the first economic power in the coming years. Even the United States’ European allies do not agree with it on the hostility of China because of the great economic interests that unite Europe with China. The United States is still the great power, but there is a shift from unipolarism to competitiveness with the United States. The Chinese-US relationship will not be worse than it was during the era of President Trump, as the reliance is always on President Biden to break the ice and restore what his predecessor corrupted.

Mohamad Zreik is a doctor of international relations. His research interests focuses on Middle Eastern Studies, Chinese foreign policy, China-Arab relations, and international relations of East Asia.

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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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