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As ‘Ping Pong Diplomacy’ Completes Fifty Years, ‘Diplomacy’ is Missing in the US-China Ties

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Before the anti-China consensus became fashionable among the bipartisan US political elite during the Trump years, headwinds against Beijing were blowing in Washington by the first half of President Obama’s first term. As a result, diplomacy had started becoming a casualty in the US-China relations. Many view the unfolding of “Pivot to Asia” policy a decade ago as Obama’s “gift” to Trump. Under Biden, according to analysts, “diplomacy is back” is aimed only at the US allies. Or else, why is the new US president pushing ahead with his two predecessor’s enduring legacy of “no diplomacy” in the US-China relation? And why even after five months in the White House, President Biden’s China envoy and China policy are both missing?

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During the past two hundred years, relations between China and the US/West have mostly been troubled and far from being smooth. Like in a Shakespearean tragedy, “the catastrophic events and unfolding misfortunes” in the relationship have always seemed more inevitable than accidental. And just like in a Shakespearean tragedy, here too the various ups and downs and crises have been mostly, if not always, caused by the side characters. As historians are now telling us, the “diplomatic snafu” between Qianlong Emperor and King George III’s famous Macartney Mission was actually caused not by the Qing ruler’s arrogance but by the man who translated King George III’s letter of state into Chinese – José Bernardo de Almeida, a Jesuit priest living in Beijing.

Let me hasten to clarify, as in a Shakespearean tragedy the ignorance and heartlessness of some side characters made the destruction inevitable, by citing historians to blame the individuals, or just like some scholars have tried to put the blame on the worsening US-China relations under President Trump on his largely “inexperienced” and shockingly “unqualified” China team, one is not trying to undermine or altogether ignore the importance of the role of social forces. Mark the words of a Chinese scholar who recently said: “The ‘Ping-Pong Diplomacy’ which opened the door to the bilateral diplomatic relations between China and the US in 1971 was mere accidental, not inevitable. The two countries would have found other ways to gradually normalize their ties.”  

In foreign policy literature, various definitions of diplomacy, the noun, are offered to satisfy everyone’s needs. However, the practice of diplomacy in recent decades, especially as witnessed following the end of the Cold War, is increasingly acquiring a definition of “a cyclic trap in which measures and countermeasures” determine how countries behave with one another. Therefore, countries tend to label other country’s behaviour according to their own success or lack of it while dealing with each other. Hence, we have been exposed to a good range of such labels, namely “wolf warrior diplomacy,” “tough diplomacy,” “coercive diplomacy,” “amoral diplomacy,” “aggressive diplomacy,” “porcupine diplomacy” and so on. The latest addition in the ever evolving diplomacy neologism is “equal-footing diplomacy.”

Also called “equal diplomacy,” the term owes its birth to Professor Zhang Weiwei of the China Institute of Fudan University in Shanghai. Zhang is an immensely popular current affairs commentator and enjoys a ‘rock star’ like celebrity status in China. When asked on a recent TV show if there was any change in China’s diplomacy in the “new era” [meaning Xi Jinping era], Zhang said: “The answer is ‘equal diplomacy,’ meaning the time of US interfering in China’s domestic issues is gone.” Invoking the example of the Qianlong Emperor during the Qing dynasty, Zhang warned the US of meeting similar fate if it does not drop its sense of superiority in keeping up with the new era of “equal-footing” diplomatic engagement with other countries [read China].           

In sharp contrast, the unprecedented scenes of exchange of angry sparks between the secretary of state Antony Blinken and the CPC’s highest-ranking diplomat Yang Jiechi three months ago, speak of the sad saga of “substandard or no diplomacy” left between Beijing and Washington. In a recent piece, I had characterized the highpoints of the two-day drama in Anchorage – the first top level diplomatic meeting between China and the US since Biden became the president – as that of “hungry visitors, purple hair, and Blinken and Yang ‘going purple in the face’.” A Bloomberg opinion piece caricatured the Alaska dialogue between the US and China respectively as “brawl between ‘diplomatic fox’ and ‘hedgehog’.”

Speaking of the “missing” diplomacy in Sino-US relations, it is fair to say the Chinese have been consistently urging the US not to let “the differences turn into conflict” and to “maintain dialogue, communication and coordination between the two nations.” Earlier in March this year, following the “disastrous” Alaska dialogue, President Biden in his first wide-ranging press conference since stepping into the White House, had accused China of “seeking superpower supremacy.” Rejecting Biden’s characterization of China’s goal as being to replace the US as the next superpower, Cui Tiankai, China’s longest serving ambassador in the US had said: “Our goal is not to compete with or replace any other country. Hopefully, people will better understand this.”

On the other hand, instead of hearing phrases like “cooperation,” one has only heard   Washington of pushing “strategic rivalry and competition” with China – since March 2018 under the Trump administration and subsequently under President Biden. The skeptics of the US foreign policy claim, Biden took office promising a new era of “American international leadership and diplomacy.” Barring few exceptions – such as America returning to the Paris Agreement, the new (extended) deadline to withdraw from Afghanistan, and more recently a sudden kneejerk summit with Putin, the US foreign policy during the past five months has been the policy of reassertion and not reversal of military action over diplomacy.

Furthermore, Biden’s failure to keep his promise to prioritize diplomacy as the primary instrument of foreign policy is more strikingly and starkly manifested in the US attitude towards Beijing. It is “diplomacy as (un)usual.” In addition to the Trumpian “anti-China” campaign comprising democracy protests in Hong Kong, accusations of genocide in Xinjiang, and undermining “One China” policy using Taiwan to continue war preparations aimed at mainland China, the Biden administration’s two most recent offensive against communist China within past few weeks are the Senate’s $250 billion Innovation and Competition Act and the President’s maiden trip to Europe for G7, NATO and US-EU summits, respectively. 

The Act, also being called by the US media as “China competitiveness bill,” is aimed at countering the chief US strategic competitor’s growing economic influence. Whereas the key focus of the European tour was to attempt to strong-arm the European allies into fully aligning behind Washington’s increasingly aggressive sanctions and other economic and political measures against China. According to the Financial Times, Biden had already lined up the governments of Japan, South Korea and Australia, but now faced his “most delicate task yet—trying to coax a wary Europe to work more closely with Washington on China.”

It is in this mutually hostile atmosphere, China’s passing of Anti-Foreign Sanctions Law in May should be seen as a clear signal that the era of dialogue and diplomacy between the two rival powers has broken down. Many Chinese observers in fact have long warned that the quick erosion of trust between Washington and Beijing was the result of “loss of diplomacy.” Moreover, at least some analysts have also pointed out the bilateral relationship is increasingly defined by “slander, propaganda, and misinformation.” A CX Daily opinion analysis, in reaction to Biden administration’s relentless vitriol against China did predict not long ago that “in Biden era and beyond we are going to see at least 10 years of frosty ties between Beijing and Washington.”

As far back as in June last year, Professor Wang Jisi of the Peking University, one of China’s most influential US watchers had forewarned: “Unfortunately, both Beijing and Washington see each other as ‘political virus.’ China-US relations, with or without the end of the pandemic era, will continue to deteriorate.” It is pertinent to recall, Joseph Biden opened his presidency, as also his maiden visit abroad as president, by declaring “America is back” and “diplomacy is back.” Immediately, questions started being asked: America or diplomacy is back where? Some skeptics explained the US was trying to “reclaim” its lost world leadership; while others thought the phrase was meant to convey that the “US has returned to working with the allies.”

Be that as it may, one thing is clear that as far as China goes, the meaning of Biden’s twin phrases “America is back” and “diplomacy is back” is “the Trump era has not ended.” It is indeed intriguing that some Chinese have again placed high hopes for a diplomatic breakthrough on the Tokyo Olympics this month. Both Chinese and the US athletes will be competing at the Summer Olympics. In 1971, it was in Nagoya in Japan where the table tennis players from China and the US “accidentally” ran into each other and paved the way for what scholars now celebrate as “Ping-Pong Diplomacy.” Just as Biden was telling the European leaders last month “America is back” and “let us focus on China,” a GT opinion piece surprised many by asking: Can US, China repeat “ping pong diplomacy”?

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Americas

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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As Refugees Flee Central America, the Mexican Public Sours On Accepting Them

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Authors: Isabel Eliassen, Alianna Casas, Timothy S. Rich*

In recent years, individuals from Central America’s Northern Triangle (El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras) have been forced out of their home countries by extreme poverty and gang violence. While initial expectations were that the Lopez Obrador administration would be more welcoming to migrants, policies have slowly mirrored those of his predecessor, and do not seem to have deterred refugees. COVID-19 led to a decrease in refugees arriving in Mexico, and many shelters in Mexico closed or have limited capacity due to social distancing restrictions. Now that the COVID-19 situation has changed, arrivals could increase again to the levels seen in late 2018 or 2019, with overcrowded refugee centers lacking in medical care as potential grounds for serious COVID-19 outbreaks.

Mexico increasingly shares a similar view as the US on this migration issue, seeking ways to detain or deport migrants rather than supporting or protecting them. For instance, Mexico’s National Immigration Institute has been conducting raids on freight trains to find and detain migrants. Public opinion likely shapes these policies. In the US, support for allowing migrants into the country appeared to increase slightly from 2018 to 2019, but no significant majority emerges. Meanwhile, Mexican public opinion increasingly exhibits anti-immigrant sentiments, declining considerably since 2018, with a 2019 Washington Post poll showing that 55% supported deporting Central Americans rather than providing temporary residence and a 2019 El Financiero poll finding 63% supportive of closing to border to curb migration.

New Data Shows the Mexican Public Unwelcoming

To gauge Mexican public opinion on refugees, we conducted an original web survey June 24-26 via Qualtrics, using quota sampling. We asked 625 respondents to evaluate the statement “Mexico should accept refugees fleeing from Central America” on a five-point Likert scale from strongly disagree to strongly agree. For visual clarity, we combined disagree and agree categories in the figure below.

Overall, a plurality (43.84%) opposed accepting refugees, with less than a third (30.08%) supportive. Broken down by party affiliation, we see similar results, with the largest opposition from the main conservative party PAN (52.90%) and lowest in the ruling party MORENA (41.58%). Broken down by gender, we find women slightly more supportive compared to men (32.60% vs. 27.04%), consistent with findings elsewhere and perhaps acknowledgment that women and children historically comprise a disproportionate amount of refugees. Regression analysis again finds PAN supporters to be less supportive than other respondents, although this distinction declines once controlling for gender, age, education and income, of which only age corresponded with a statistically significant decline in support. It is common for older individuals to oppose immigration due to generational changes in attitude, so this finding is not unexpected.

We also asked the question “On a 1-10 scale, with 1 being very negative and 10 very positive, how do you feel about the following countries?” Among countries listed were the sources of the Central American refugees, the three Northern Triangle countries. All three received similar average scores (Guatemala: 4.33, Honduras: 4.05, El Salvador: 4.01), higher than Venezuela (3.25), but lower than the two other countries rated (US: 7.71, China: 7.26) Yet, even after controlling for general views of the Central American countries, we find the public generally unsupportive of accepting refugees.

How Should Mexico Address the Refugee Crisis?

Towards the end of the Obama administration, aid and other efforts directed at resolving the push factors for migration in Central America, including decreasing violence and limiting corruption, appeared to have some success at reducing migration north. President Trump’s policies largely did not improve the situation, and President Biden has begun to reverse those policies and re-implement measures successful under Obama.

As discussed in a meeting between the Lopez Obrador administration and US Vice President Kamala Harris, Mexico could adopt similar aid policies, and decreasing the flow of migrants may make the Mexican public respond more positively to accepting migrants. Lopez Obrador committed to increased economic cooperation with Central America days into his term, with pledges of aid as well, but these efforts remain underdeveloped. Threats to cut aid expedite deportations only risks worsening the refugee crisis, while doing little to improve public opinion.

Increasingly, the number of family units from Guatemala and Honduras seeking asylum in Mexico, or the United States, represents a mass exodus from Central America’s Northern Triangle to flee insecurity. Combating issues such as extreme poverty and violence in Central American countries producing the mass exodus of refugees could alleviate the impact of the refugee crisis on Mexico. By alleviating the impact of the refugee crisis, refugees seeking asylum will be able to navigate immigration processes easier thus decreasing tension surrounding the influx of refugees.

Likewise, identifying the public’s security and economic concerns surrounding refugees and crafting a response should reduce opposition. A spokesperson for Vice President Harris stated that border enforcement was on the agenda during meetings with the Lopez Obrador administration, but the Mexican foreign minister reportedly stated that border security was not to be addressed at the meeting. Other than deporting migrants at a higher rate than the US, Mexico also signed an agreement with the US in June pledging money to improve opportunities for work in the Northern Triangle. Nonetheless, questions about whether this agreement will bring meaningful change remain pertinent in the light of a worsening crisis.

Our survey research shows little public interest in accepting refugees. Public sentiment is unlikely to change unless the Lopez Obrador administration finds ways to both build sympathy for the plights of refugees and address public concerns about a refugee crisis with no perceived end in sight. For example, research in the US finds public support for refugees is often higher when the emphasis is on women and children, and the Lopez Obrador administration could attempt to frame the crisis as helping specifically these groups who historically comprise most refugees. Likewise, coordinating efforts with the US and other countries may help portray to the public that the burden of refugee resettlement is being equitably shared rather than disproportionately placed on Mexico.

Facing a complex situation affecting multiple governments requires coordinated efforts and considerable resources to reach a long-term solution. Until then, the Central American refugee crisis will continue and public backlash in Mexico likely increase.

Isabel Eliassen is a 2021 Honors graduate of Western Kentucky University. She triple majored in International Affairs, Chinese, and Linguistics.

Alianna Casas is an Honors Undergraduate Researcher at Western Kentucky University, majoring in Business Economics, Political Science, and a participant in the Joint Undergraduate/Master’s Program in Applied Economics.

Timothy S. Rich is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Western Kentucky University and Director of the International Public Opinion Lab (IPOL). His research focuses on public opinion and electoral politics.

Funding for this survey was provided by the Mahurin Honors College at Western Kentucky University.

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