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US, China Officials to fly down all the way to Anchorage, to disagree

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State Department Photo by Ron Przysucha/ Public Domain

As the US warns China to brace for “difficult” issues when they meet in Anchorage on Thursday, Beijing has reiterated the US must give up the anti-China Cold War mentality. Some Chinese commentaries are even saying the two countries’ top officials likewise met in June year too. And, they had agreed to disagree. Early reactions in Beijing should leave no one in doubt the two sides have already agreed to disagree in Anchorage too.

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At last, the Biden administration has made the first move to initiate a dialogue with Beijing. Not that Beijing is complaining. As a matter of fact, Beijing has long been asking the new US administration to come to the negotiating table. For in China’s diplomacy-speak, to come to the table means a relationship is being “managed” well, even if the participating sides are uncharitable to each other! At the same time, despite everyone around the globe expecting a high-level get-to-know-each-other between the world’s two largest economies to take place sooner than later, reactions in Beijing and Washington, as also from Tokyo to London, it is known to all this top officials’ tete a tete will further get shrouded with intangibles than result in anything tangible.

Alaska meet to test Biden’s first balancing act with Beijing, the Washington Post pronounced within hours of Secretary of State Antony Blinken unveiling the news during a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on last Wednesday. I added ‘first’ to the headline, for I thought the newspaper might have inadvertently missed it. The Chinese language ftchinese.com reported in the morning, Washington local time, on the same day, “US-China to hold Biden administration’s first high-level meeting” (my translation). The two rival nations will meet for the first time to hammer out differences to come to the negotiating table, it further said. Japan’s NIKKEI Asia first repeated the Financial Times report of Wednesday, saying “US and China lay groundwork for 1st high-level meeting under Biden.” However two days later, calling the development a fierce psychological warfare over how to define the bilateral relationship, the Japanese daily headlined it as “US and China play mind games over how to frame Alaska meeting.”

Wondering who invited whom? And whether the get-together in Anchorage is a meeting or a strategic dialogue, perhaps Nikkei Asia was echoing similar views expressed in a Chinese commentary a day earlier, which categorically stated that “it will be a dialogue that will explain each other’s positions, attitudes, and principles. Therefore, it can be expected this dialogue will fail to define Sino-US bilateral relationship.” (Emphasis added)

Earlier on, though Premier Li Keqiang did make China’s position clear by stating “China wants ‘mutual respect’ from ahead of Alaska talks.” What Li was actually conveying to Washington was Beijing’s firm stance on what are the tangibles in Beijing’s view. Beijing’s position is clear and well-thought out, or else why would Premier Li say “want” instead of “expect,” according to a Chinese commentary. What is Beijing’s “firm stance?” As is typical of Beijing foreign policy narrative, the top leaders leave the “real” job of detailing to the foreign ministry spokespersons or to authoritative IR scholars. As this is what precisely Li Guangman does in his commentary mentioned above. Guangman lists five points explaining what China wants: the US must view China and Sino-US relations in an objective and rational manner; the US must give up the Cold War and zero-sum game mentality; the US must respect China’s sovereignty, security, and development interests; the US must stop interfering in China’s internal matters; and the US must focus on cooperation, manage differences, and push Sino-US relations back on the right track of sound and steady development.

The last point as put forward by Guangman does not match with the 5-points advocated by the Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian. The spokesperson’s point number five is: the US should follow the spirit of the phone call between the two presidents. Let me quickly touch upon two other relevant points related to Zhao Lijian’s remarks before returning to a few early commentaries in Beijing on the talks being held in Alaska. First is the controversy which NIKKEI Asia has called “psychological” warfare, i. e. who most wants the meeting to be held; and second is the difference in perceptions. While Blinken, who was the first to break the news of high-level summit, simply called Anchorage meeting an opportunity to set the tone for US-China relations during the Biden era, in which the two sides will face off on everything from national security and trade to the economy and human rights. “This is not a strategic dialogue. There’s no intent at this point for a series of follow-on engagement,” Blinken making it clear stated.

On the other hand, Zhao Lijian posted his remarks on the foreign ministry website next day – last Thursday – saying “China, invited by the United States, will have a high-level strategic dialogue with the US side in the coming days (Emphasis added).” Interestingly, while Beijing is yet to officially clarify the gaffe of calling it “strategic dialogue,” a commentator in Beijing attributed the difference in the wordings to the time gap between Washington and Beijing. Of course, no one will buy it. Let’s wait and watch to see if and when Zhao Lijian retreats his words. Meanwhile, ideological factionalism has surfaced in Beijing on what to make of the prospective meeting with Washington, irrespective of its nomenclature.  

First reactions from Beijing’s (leftist leaning) commentariat to the news that the US and China will hold high-level first strategic dialogue in Anchorage are not only dismissive but also condescending. Dismissive because the tete-a-tete in the capital of Alaska is being viewed as the unproductive repeat of a similar futile exercise which was held last June in Hawaii between Mike Pompeo, the then Secretary of State who was seen by Beijing as the most rabid, most evil anti-China Trump administration official and Yang Jiechi – the CPC Politburo member and head of the Party’s Foreign Affairs Office. Condescending because the Chinese leftists look at both the US and China’s pro-US elite with scorn.

The Global Times, which is labeled by the leftist IR scholars in China as “pro-America,” did welcome in a report it published on March 11 on Premier Li Keqiang’s press conference at the conclusion of “two sessions,” the great news of the world’s two biggest economies’ decision to take the first step to reset their problematic ties. Admiring the unusual gesture of China’s Premier to announce the Alaska meet – according to GT, Premier Li departed from the routine post-NPC press meet tradition which focuses on issues related to national economy and people’s livelihood – the pro-Beijing English daily wrote: “Normally, the Premier’s press conference after the closing of the annual session of the National people’s Congress would focus on broad issues…But since China-US relations are the most consequential ties in the world and will have an impact on China’s own development, Premier Li’s remarks on the upcoming meeting [in Alaska] reflects China’s sincerity to fix its ties with the US.” (Emphasis added

Interestingly, Premier Li on his part, has displayed his astute political character while disclosing the news of a “2+2” meeting between the two countries’ chief diplomats next week. Maintaining intricate balance between views of leftists and non-leftists both inside the party and within academia, Li Keqiang proclaimed: “China and the US could engage in multi-faceted and multi-tiered dialogue. Even if consensus cannot be reached for time being, we can exchange views, increase trust and explain confusions, which will help manage and resolve differences.” (Emphasis added)

Finally, why meet in Alaska? According to White House press secretary Jen Psaki, “It was important for us to that this administration’s first meeting with Chinese officials be held on American soil.” NIKKEI Asia interpreted Psaki’s remarks as playing to the domestic constituency. Whereas writing in the “liberal” Chinese digital news platform which is widely read in China, the US affairs correspondent seemed unaware of any “spin” or “home audience” angle in choice of venue. Citing the views of Chinese Social Science Academy’s Professor Liu Weidong, She opined: “Anchorage is a good choice as the venue and it is ‘midpoint’ from both Washington and Beijing.” To sum up, there is clear indication of what is the mood in Beijing in what a veteran US affairs commentator wrote: “Now the US has a new president. But America is not new, it is the same old [Trump’s] America. The US character has not changed. The US position and consensus on encircling, containing and attacking China has not changed. It will not change.” Therefore, China must stop fantasizing about the Unites States, he warned. Strong words, indeed. Surely, not his alone! 

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Roads and Rails for the U.S.

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For those who expect the newly announced $2 trillion Biden infrastructure program to be a goodbye to potholes and hello to smooth-as-glass expressways, a disappointment is in store.  The largest expenditure by far ($400 billion) is on home/community care, impacting the elderly or disabled.  The $115 billion apportioned to roads and bridges is #4 on the list. 

The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) keeps tabs on our infrastructure and their latest report (2020) gave it an overall grade of C-.  Although bridges worsened, this is a modest improvement on the previous report (2017) when the overall grade was D+.  If $115 billion in spending sounds adequate, one has to remember it costs $27 billion annually for upkeep.

Astounding it might be the backlog in spending for roads and bridges runs at $12 billion annually.  Go back 20 years and we have a quarter trillion shortfall.  Add all the other areas of infrastructure and the ASCE comes up with a $5 trillion total.  It is the gap between what we have been spending and what we need to.  Also one has to bear in mind that neglect worsens condition and increases repair costs. 

One notable example of maintenance is the Forth rail bridge in Scotland.  A crisscross of beams forming three superstructures linked together, it was a sensation when opened in 1890 and now is a UN World Heritage Site.  Spanning 1.5 miles, its upkeep requires a regular coat of paint.  And that it gets.  Rumor has it that when the unobtrusive painters reach the end of their task, it is time to start painting again the end where they began — a permanent job to be sure though new paints might have diminished such prospects.

Biden also proposes $80 billion for railways.  Anyone who has travelled or lived in Europe knows the stark contrast between railroads there and in the U.S.  European high-speed rail networks are growing from the established TGV in France to the new Spanish trains.  Run by RENFE, the national railway, Alta Velocidad Española (AVE) trains run at speeds up to 310 km/h (193 mph)  — a speed that amounts to a convenient overnight trip between Los Angeles and Chicago.

The hugely expensive new tracks needed can be considered a long-term investment in our children’s future.  But it will take courage to contest the well-heeled lobbies of the airplane manufacturers, the airlines and big oil.

If Spain can have high-speed rail and if China already has some 24,000 miles of such track, surely the US too can opt for a system that is convenient for its lack of airport hassle and the hour wasted each way in the journey to or from the city center.  Rail travel not only avoids both but is significantly less polluting.  

Particularly bad, airplane pollution high above (26 to 43 thousand feet) results in greater ozone formation in the troposphere.  In fact airplanes are the principal human cause of ozone formation.

Imagine a comfortable train with space to walk around, a dining car serving freshly cooked food, a lounge car and other conveniences, including a bed for overnight travel; all for a significantly less environmental cost.  When we begin to ask why we in the US do not have the public services taken for granted in other developed countries, perhaps then the politicians might take note.

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Congress and the Biden administration should end FBI immunity overseas

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Image source: U.S. Embassy in Uzbekistan

The FBI notably has an extended international presence running 63 offices in select countries overseas. The offices are called “legats” and are situated at the US Embassy in the host country. One of the major reasons for FBI’s international presence is fighting international terrorism.

The FBI legat personnel at the US embassies are fully accredited diplomats enjoying full diplomatic immunity but that poses several questions that are worth asking, such as: how is it possible for law enforcement to be diplomats and is that a good idea, legally speaking?

Police work should not enjoy diplomatic immunity because that opens the door to abuse. Does the FBI’s immunity overseas mean that the FBI attaches can do no wrong in the host country? How do we tackle potential rights infringements and instances of abuse of power by the FBI towards locals in the host country? The DOJ Inspector General and the State Department Inspector General would not accept complaints by foreigners directed at the FBI, so what recourse then could a local citizen have vis-a-vis the FBI legat if local courts are not an option and the Inspector Generals would not look into those cases?

This presents a real legal lacuna and a glitch in US diplomatic immunity that should not exist and should be addressed by Congress and the new Biden administration.

While FBI offices overseas conduct some far from controversial activities, such as training and educational exchanges with local law enforcement, which generally no one would object to, the real question as usual is about surveillance: who calls the shots and who assumes responsibility for potentially abusive surveillance of locals that may infringe upon their rights. It’s an issue that most people in countries with FBI presence around the world are not aware of. The FBI could be running “counter-terrorism” surveillance on you in your own country instead of the local police. And that’s not nothing.

When we hear “cooperation in the area of counter-terrorism”, as recent decades show, there is a great likelihood that the US government is abusing powers and rights, without batting an eyelash. That exposes local citizens around the world to unlawful surveillance without legal recourse. Most people are not even aware that the FBI holds local offices. Why would the FBI be operating instead of the local law enforcement on another country’s territory? That’s not a good look on the whole for the US government.

The legal lacuna is by design. This brings us to the nuts and bolts of the FBI legats’ diplomatic immunity.

Diplomatic immunity is governed by the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations of 1961, under Chapter III on privileges and immunities. The US is also a state party to the Convention, along with most states around the world. While there could be some variations and disagreements on bilateral basis (including on weather for example one state could be hosted and represented through the embassy of another state in a third state), on the whole there is a universal consensus that the Vienna Convention sets the rules establishing diplomatic immunities and privileges.

Under the Vienna Convention, only top diplomats are given the highest degree of immunity from the law. This means they cannot be handcuffed, arrested, detained, or prosecuted by law enforcement officials of the country in which they’re stationed. Diplomatic immunities and privileges also include things like diplomatic “bags” (with very peculiar cases of what that could entail) and notably, protection and diplomatic immunity for the family of diplomats.

It is a universal consensus that not everyone who works at an Embassy has or should have diplomatic immunity.  Immunity is saved for diplomats whose role has to be protected from the local jurisdiction of the country for a reason. Not all embassy staff should enjoy diplomatic immunity. Granting law enforcement such as the FBI full legal immunity for their actions is bad news.

Only the top officials at an embassy are diplomats with an actual full immunity — and that’s for a reason.

It makes sense why a diplomat negotiating an agreement should not be subjected to local courts’ jurisdiction. But the same doesn’t go for a law enforcement official who acts as a law enforcement official by, for example, requesting unlawful surveillance on a local citizen, in his law enforcement capacity, while thinking of himself as a diplomat and being recognized as such by the law.

Law enforcement personnel are not diplomats. Dealing with extraterritorial jurisdiction cases or international cases is not the same thing as the need for diplomatic immunity. If that was the case, everyone at the export division at the Department if Commerce would have diplomatic immunity for protection from foreign courts, just in case. Some inherent risk in dealing with international cases does not merit diplomatic immunity – otherwise, this would lead to absurdities such as any government official of any country being granted diplomatic immunity for anything internationally related.

The bar for diplomatic immunity is very high and that’s by design based on an international consensus resting upon international law. Simply dealing with international cases does not make a policeman at a foreign embassy a diplomat. If that was the case every policeman investigating an international case would have to become a diplomat, just in case, for protection from the jurisdiction of the involved country in order to avoid legal push-back. That’s clearly unnecessary and legally illogical. Being a staff member at an embassy in a foreign country does not in and of itself necessitate diplomatic immunity, as many embassy staff do not enjoy diplomatic protection. It is neither legally justified nor necessary for the FBI abroad to enjoy diplomatic immunity; this could only open up the function to potential abuse. The FBI’s arbitrary surveillance on locals can have a very real potential for violating the rights of local people.  This is a difference in comparison to actual diplomats. Diplomats do not investigate or run surveillance on locals; they can’t threaten or abuse the rights of local citizens directly, the way that law enforcement can. Lack of legal recourse is a really bad look for the Biden administration and for the US government.

The rationale for diplomatic immunity is that it should not be permitted to arrest top diplomats, who by definition have to be good at representing their own country’s interests in relation to the host state, for being too good at their job once the host state is unhappy with a push back, for example. The Ambassador should not be exposed to or threatened by the risk of an arrest and trial for being in contradiction with the interests of the host state under some local law on treason, for example, because Ambassadors could be running against the interests of the host state, by definition. And that’s contained within the rules of diplomatic relations. It’s contained in the nature of diplomatic work that such contradictions may arise, as each side represents their own country’s interests. Diplomats should not be punished for doing their job. The same doesn’t apply to the FBI legats. Issuing surveillance on local citizens is not the same as representing the US in negotiations. The FBI legats’ functions don’t merit diplomatic immunity and their actions have to be open to challenge in the host country’s jurisdiction.

The FBI immunity legal lacunae is in some ways reminiscent of similar historic parallels, such as the George W. Bush executive order  that US military contractors in Iraq would enjoy full legal immunity from Iraqi courts’ jurisdiction, when they shouldn’t have. At the time, Iraq was a war-torn country without a functioning government, legal system or police forces. But the same principle of unreasonable legal immunity that runs counter international laws is seen even today, across European Union countries hosting legally immune FBI attaches.

Congress and the Biden administration should end FBI immunity overseas. It can be argued that for any local rights infringements, it is the local law enforcement cooperating with the US Embassy that should be held accountable – but that would ignore that the actual request for unlawful surveillance on locals could be coming from the FBI at the Embassy. The crime has to be tackled at the source of request. 

When I reached out to the US Embassy in Bulgaria they did not respond to a request to clarify the justification for the FBI diplomatic immunity in EU countries.

To prevent abuse, Congress and the Biden Administration should remove the diplomatic immunity of the FBI serving overseas.

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Competition and cooperation between China and the United States and the eighth priority

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In mid-March U.S. President Biden held his first press conference since taking office. Speaking about Sino-U.S. relations, Biden said: “I will prevent China from surpassing the United States of America during my term of office”. At the same time, he also stressed that he would not seek to confront China, but to keep up fierce competition between the two countries.

Focusing on competition between major powers is one of the important changes in U.S. foreign policy in recent years. As the strengths of China and the United States draw closer together, the United States increasingly feels that its own ‘hegemony’ is threatened. During Trump’s tenure, the United States has caused a trade war, a technology war, and even a complete disagreement with China in an attempt to curb China’s development momentum and erode Chinese positions.

The expansion of the competitive field and the escalation of the competitive situation have become the hallmarks of Sino-U.S. relations during this period. Although Biden’s policy line has made substantial changes to ‘Trumpism’, it still has much of its predecessor’s legacy with regard to its policy towards China.

The first foreign policy speech made by U.S. Secretary of State Tony Blinken listed China Challenge as the eighth priority, preceded by:

1) ending the COVID-19 pandemic;

2) overcoming the economic crisis, reviving the economy at home and abroad, as well as and building a more stable and inclusive global economy;

3) renewing democracy;

4) reforming immigration and creating a humane and effective immigration system;

5) rebuilding alliances, revitalising U.S. ties with allies and partners with the system that the military calls force multiplier;

6) tackling climate change and leading a green energy revolution;

7) securing U.S. leadership in technology; and

8) confronting China and managing the greatest geopolitical test of the 21st century, i.e. relations with China, which is the only country with economic, diplomatic, military and technological power to seriously challenge the international system and equilibria.

The eighth medium-term guideline for the national security strategy sees China as an important competitor. These guidelines clearly show that competition still sets the tone in the way President Biden’s Administration’s manages relations with China, as was the case in the previous four-year period.

At a press conference on March 26, 2021, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said the above statements were not surprising. It is clear that China and the United States are competing on different interest levels.

The key factor, however, is to compete fairly and justly and to improve oneself. The appeal to the other side is moderation and restraint, not life or death, or a zero-sum game. These words are along the same lines as Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s statement when he spoke about Sino-U.S. relations at a session of the National Congress of People’s Representatives of the People’s Republic of China (the Chinese Parliament). It is not only a response to the U.S. strategy of competition with China, but it also provides a model for the future way in which superpowers should proceed together.

The reality of Sino-U.S. competition is unavoidable, but competition can be divided into benign and vicious. The former is a winning model for “improving oneself and understanding the needs of the other side”.

Since Deng Xiaping’s reforms and opening up to international trade, China has begun its own reconstruction. It has continuously widened the scope for benign competition and has changed its mindset by actively embracing the world’s different political parties and participating in international competition. It has also inspired enthusiasm for innovation and creativity and made progress in various fields.

At the same time, development has also provided ample opportunities for countries around the world and injected growth momentum into the global economy: this is a typical example of China’s good interaction and common development with all countries around the globe.

Conversely, fierce competition means breaking rules and systems and even breaking the demarcation line to prevent or contain the opponent, and this is usually followed by fierce conflicts.

The two World Wars of the last century were extreme examples of violent competition between great powers: the first as a clash between capitalist imperialisms in search of new markets; the second as a result of mistakes made in the peace treaties that ended the Great War, plundering the losers and causing misery, resentment and chauvinistic desires.

In today’s world, competition without respect for the other side has not disappeared from the scene of history. Trump Administration’s frantic anti-China activity over the last four years has not only failed to make the United States ‘great again’, but has caused a linear decline in its national competitiveness, at least according to the World Competitiveness Yearbook 2020 published by the Lausanne-based International Institute for Management Development, which sees the United States dropping from third to tenth place. Besides the fact that its international image has seriously plummeted and Sino-U.S. relations have hit the lowest ebb since the establishment of diplomatic relations. It can clearly be seen that fierce competition will only restrain its promoters and ultimately harm the others, themselves and the international community.

In December 2020 General Mark Alexander Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (a body that brings together the Chiefs of Staff of each branch of the U.S. military and the Head of the National Guard Bureau), said in an interview that ‘great powers must compete. This is the essence of the world’.

There is no problem with this statement: it is not wrong, but it is important to maintain a state of competition and contact between major powers, precisely to ensure that it does not turn into conflicts or wars that are fatal to mankind and the planet as a whole.

The gist of the speech shows that some U.S. elites also believe that China and the United States should adhere to the principle of ‘fighting without breaking each other’. The importance and the overall and strategic nature of Sino-U.S. relations determine that no one can afford the zero-sum game, which is a lose-lose as opposed to a win-win game – hence we need to ensure that competition between the two countries stays on the right track.

Competition between China and the United States can only be fair and based on rules and laws. This is the basic rule of international relations, in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations as its point of reference.

Regardless of the common interests of China, the United States or peoples in the world, both countries should make this system promote healthy and fair competition, thus turning it into the greatest value of sharing and cooperation.

China’s goal has never been to surpass the United States, but to advance steadily and become better and no longer a prey to imperialism and colonialism as it has been the case since the 19th century, when Great Britain waged the two Opium Wars (1839-1842 – 1856-1860) to have not only the opportunity, but also the right to export drugs to the Middle Empire – hence Great Britain was the first pusher empowered and authorized by the force of its weapons.

Although – by its own good fortune -the United States has never been England, it should not always be thinking of surpassing the others or fearing being overtaken by the others, but should particularly focus on Secretary of State Blinken’s first seven priorities and raise its expectations.

China should show its traditional political wisdom and manage Sino-U.S. relations in accordance with the principles of non-conflict, non-confrontation, mutual respect and win-win cooperation, so that Sino-U.S. relations can develop in a healthy and stable way for the good of the whole planet.

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