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Why Biden’s “America is Back” for Beijing is “Cold War is Back”

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Joe Biden
Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz

While campaigning for the US presidential election Joe Biden referred to China’s top leader Xi Jinping as a “thug.” Now, barely two months into the White House, President Biden has called the Russian President as a “killer.” It can’t only be the Trump effect. Surely, there is much more to it. “Old wine in new bottle?” is how scholars in Beijing are crudely caricaturing Biden, the “Cold Warrior.” Or, the “old Biden” is anachronistic and his vocabulary is shrinking, many others are saying.

Is Biden pretending Russia and China are military threats to the US? Critics (in the US) of Moscow and Beijing like the US Air Force General Glen VanHerck, the head of Northern Command, in written testimony on March 16 to the Senate Armed Services Committee said: “Russia remains top threat to US homeland.” The four-star general who is directly in charge of the military command dedicated to defending the US from attack singled out Russia while acknowledging at the same China as the “biggest emerging threat.”  Mainstream media, just like a large number of security affairs think tanks, too is consumed by the propaganda that that “old dread of nuclear disaster just like the country that precluded it” has all but disappeared but the actual threat of nuclear catastrophe is much more real than we realize. 

On the other hand, there are usual cynics who are relentlessly campaigning that someone needs to say “China and Russia are not our enemies.” Dean Lindorff, for example, founding member of online newspaper collective This Cant Be Happening says, “Somehow, the opinion-makers in the media, the bloated military brass with all their ribbons and stars and with little to do but worry about how to keep their massively overbuilt operation afloat with ever more taxpayer money, and the members of the Congress who like to gin up fears among the voters so they’ll keep voting for them have gotten everyone thinking that Russia is still hell bent on world communist takeover and that China is trying to replace the US as global hegemon.” (Emphasis added)

At another level, more often than not it is the Pentagon, the US media and the Congress which together in tandem create panic environment resembling a threat from the “fabricated enemy.” Recall Time magazine report a little over two years ago, entitled “Here’s Why Russian Bombers Are in Venezuela. And Why the US Is So Angry About.” In December 2018, the US press was filled with alarms that the Russian jet was “capable of carrying nuclear weapons.” However, the truth was that Russia had “flown one of its aging long-range bombers over the pole and loaded with some supplies to donate to Venezuela.” On the contrary, it is the US who has been sending nuclear capable bombers, both B-52 Stratofortresses and the much more ominous B-2 Stealth bombers, halfway around the world, to actively bomb other countries, Dave Lindorff wrote in the article cited above. No wonder, Lindorff’s website has been declared a threat by the Department of Homeland Security – the only news organization in the US labeled as such.

But why are PRC strategic affairs analysts and China-US affairs commentators calling the return of Biden this time round as the US president, the return of the Cold War in Sino-US relations?

As soon as the presidential campaign trail concluded in November last year, a Chinese commentator wrote: “Besides entertaining the Chinese people, the theatrics of the two presidential candidates also helped us better understand that the so-called presidential democracy and the US Congress are nothing but a play-ground for [the US] capital.” Explaining further sharpening domestic contradictions the US capital has been encountering following declining manufacturing industry at home since the end of Cold War, the left-leaning commentator opined: “Biden’s is only the victory of anti-Trump alliance. After he takes office, Biden will prove to be incapable of resolving contradictions arising out of varying interest groups. It is but natural he will use more subtle and fierce means to shift these contradictions – for example, foreign wars.”

But this above only reflects the position of China’s ideologically oriented large majority of anti-US imperialism leftist intelligentsia. Who have been vehemently and rabidly “attacking”  the so-called “pro-US” elite both inside the party-state and among elite scholars, researchers in China’s key universities and think tanks – especially since the Trump-led “all out US political war against China” in mid-2018. The “pro-US” elite may not be as large in numbers but they certainly hold more weight in the decision making. In other words, they also adhere by the pro-reform, pro-market regime. Take for example Zhang Yiwei, a senior researcher with the Beijing-based “liberal” Charhar Institute and who also holds concurrent senior researcher position at the Chongyang Financial Research Institute at the prestigious Renmin University in the Chinese capital. Unlike the leftists, who saw the roots of the ongoing worsening of the US-China conflict in the ideologically opposed social systems, Zhang Jingwei et al analyzed itfrom the lens of individuals and anti-China mentality of top members of the Trump team.

In a widely circulated signed article on November 19 last year, within hours of Biden being declared as the president-elect, Zhang Jingwei wrote: “The China-US relationship depends on the Biden team.” While citing the example of the Phase One Trade Deal signed between Washington and Beijing in January 2020, Zhang did not think, if reelected, Trump would have pushed the bilateral relationship into New Cold War. But he also did not rule out Biden actually succumbing to domestic political dynamics and financial pressures to lead the US-China relations in the direction of a New Cold War. Zhang pointed out, Biden’s China policy will be hampered by Trump and his supporters. Biden victory will turn Trump and his followers into firmly, and even violently, opposing every policy decision of the new administration – be it foreign affairs or domestic policies. “Just like Trump had to adopt tougher measures against Russia in order to get rid of the ‘Russia Gate’ impact, Biden too will have to go out of his way to prove his administration is more anti-China than the previous administration in order to get rid of the ‘China Gate’ scandal involving his son and himself,” Zhang wrote.

Secondly, discounting the opinion of the most Chinese leftists, Zhang upheld that President Trump was not against China. “Had there been no coronavirus, Trump would not have unleashed all-front new Cold war against China,” according to Zhang. What made it further worse was the Trump administration was filled with anti-China hawks – from former chief strategist Bannon to Vice President Pence, Zhang emphasized. “And then there was Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Bannon, Pence and Pompeo became the chief architects of the US anti-China policy. On the other hand, the situation will become worse if Biden cabinet is filled with anti-China elements in the Democratic Party,” Zhang wrote in worrying tone.

Third, Zhang also cautioned China’s decision makers and wrote, “Compared with Mike Pompeo and others like him, the anti-China elements in the Democrat Party are better skilled to manipulate ideology and exploit anti-China resonance at a global scale.” Yet Zhang Jingwei got it completely wrong when he pre-empted the president-elect’s China policy and hoped “the Sino-US relations during Biden tenure may see the uplifting of the current New Cold War deadlock.”

In contrast, as I sign off, news is coming in “Top American Chinese diplomats clash publicly at start of first talks of Biden Presidency.” In a preview of the high-level Anchorage “adventure,” I did write last Monday for Modern Diplomacy “US, China Officials to Fly All the Way to Anchorage, to Disagree.” 

To conclude, no matter the outcome of two-day Alaska tete a tete, “the world’s most consequential relationship will only get more systematically stressed.” In the words of China’s English language Caixin Daily, which many media observers at home and in the global press reckon is communist China’s most “liberal” and “independent” newspaper, the “frosty ties” between the world’s top two economies trapped in Thucydides Trap are here to stay, and for long time. “No matter whether Democrats or Republicans win the US presidential election in 2024 or 2028, we are going to see at least 10 years of frosty ties between Beijing and Washington,” Caixin Daily commented.

The Alaska fiasco should leave no one in doubt Beijing’s firm resolve to expect the “old Cold Warrior” Joe Biden to continue to strive hard to push US-China ties further into what you might call a New Cold War or Biden Cold War!

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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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