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



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



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



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



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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