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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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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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