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A Likely Biden-Xi Sit-down in Rome: G20 aka G2?

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The US administration officials are citing the same three factors for a possible Biden-Xi summit in coming October as they were for the 3-hour long Biden-Putin sit-down last month in Switzerland. If so, then why is it that Biden chose to first summit with the Russian “killer” and not with the “thug” in Beijing? Because as President Biden sees it, the stakes are far higher with Xi. Analysts in Washington are telling us, to the White House, Russia is a mere “irritation,” but Beijing has become a serious existential threat.  

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In recent weeks, two of Biden’s top foreign policy “troika” have publicly stated, with Biden-Putin summit in the rearview the President is gearing up for a higher-stakes summit encounter: with the Chinese President Xi Jinping. Jake Sullivan and Kurt Campbell on more than one occasion in recent weeks have indicated a possible Biden-Xi sit-down at the G20 summit in Rome in October-end, which both the leaders are expected to attend. If the sit-down does take place, questions will still be asked why a Biden-Xi summit, being described as the “most consequential foreign policy move” of the Biden presidency, did not precede an inconsequential Biden-Putin meet?

Indeed, after four disastrous Trump years for China, Beijing has been long hoping that Biden in the White House would mean less tumult in the US-China relations. However, President Biden’s tougher stance on China is not something Beijing’s top diplomats in-charge of implementing the country’s US had bargained for. Even President Xi himself, upon whom the CPC politburo has bestowed all decision-making powers to “manage” China’s relations with the United States, has been clueless as to why Biden’s America is continuing to keep China on the defensive, and for how long? But Xi Jinping it seems, thanks to Biden’s “less than satisfying” European tour, is now suddenly optimistic of a one-to-one meeting with Biden on the cards.     

As was expected, Biden’s maiden foreign tour has been evaluated a success or failure based on mostly subjective assessments, ie, determined more by one’s geographical location and geopolitical worldview. Yet despite claims of Biden’s European tour being an outright success by some, it is nonetheless true amid mixed reactions and mismatched expectations, the two sides (ie, The US and the EU) were left with unanswered questions: how to forge “alliance of Western democracies” against authoritarian rivals? How to “reinvigorate the liberal democratic model”? How to arrive at a consensus about how to deal with China? According to Pierre Vimont, a senior fellow at Carnegie Europe, in spite of the joint statement issued at the end of the EU-US summit, “a more than visible shortcoming was on the issue of long-term future relationship with China.” 

Not particularly enamored by the slogan “America is back,” Europe’s focus seemed to be on getting from the Chinese leaders a clear commitment to abide by a genuine rules-based international order, particularly in trade matters where Europe wants to impose an improved level playing field. Just as a Moscow-based security affairs analyst recently commented: “Most EU countries do not want to fight China. They believe America is imposing China and Europe on each other as ‘unwanted enemies.’ For they also believe, unlike China and America, Europe’s ambitions are regional and not global.”

Speaking of the summit diplomacy, especially when the US presidents are to hold    sit-downs with an adversary, apparently, internal negotiations within the administration is viewed as a tougher road. For example, even though the White House tried to sell the notion that President Xi was to be blamed for “souring the Trump-Kim Jung Un” second meeting, the truth is the Trump administration was never prepared to seriously discuss any issue with the North Korean leader. Besides, national security advisor John Bolton, the formidable chairman of Trump’s new “war cabinet” was never agreeable to the idea of US-North Korean diplomacy. As Melvin Goodman, a former CIA analyst who is now a professor of government at the John Hopkins University explained, “the Trump-Kim summit was a failure before starting.” Goodman cites yet another example, “one of President John F. Kennedy’s greatest successes was disciplining the Pentagon in 1963 in order to negotiate the Partial Test Ban Treaty.”  

That diplomacy was not his cup of tea, manifested early on in Trump’s choice of both his secretaries of state, Tillerson and Pompeo, respectively. According to reports, scores of career officials and staffers working in the Harry Truman Building, are feeling relieved at the exit of Mike Pompeo and are hoping Antony Blinken can revitalize American diplomacy. In the words of 2018 Pulitzer Prize winner The New Yorker contributing editor Ronan Farrow, “Pompeo’s chaotic tenure, and that of his predecessor, Rex Tillerson, left deep institutional and cultural scars that continue to impede American diplomatic efforts around the world.”     

Diplomacy, besides being defined as subtle art, we are told is also seen as a practitioner’s art. In sharp contrast to his predecessor, President Biden is described by many as a conscious leader. This perhaps explains why Biden is moving slowly in setting up a summit meeting with Xi. As David Feith, former deputy assistant secretary of state East Asia and Pacific Affairs under Trump recently observed: “It is significant that President Biden has strongly signaled to his own administration and other governments that he wants to prioritize China competition in US policy and US diplomacy.” (Emphasis added).

On the other hand, as mentioned above, Beijing has let it be known “it was pleasantly surprised” on hearing reports of Biden finally “making sense” in his China policy. As Cao Xin, a Beijing-based influential IR expert wrote in his weekly column in ftchinese.com, “Last week, Kurt Campbell, the US Coordinator for the Asia-Pacific made two headlines grabbing statements. First, the United States stands by ‘One China Policy’ and does not recognize Taiwan as an independent country. Second, I expect the two leaders to establish contact with each other soon.” Welcoming the news that President Biden has signaled to his own administration to prioritize a sit-down with president Xi, Liu Pengyu, a spokesperson for China’s embassy in Washington said, “China and the United States have maintained communication on dialogues and exchanges at all levels.”

In this above context, China’s vice president Wang Qishan has become the highest ranking Chinese official to openly convey that Beijing is willing to go the extra mile to sit down with Washington for a dialogue to manage differences. Wang Qishan was speaking at an event last week in Beijing celebrating the 50th anniversary of the US National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger’s historic visit to China. “China-US bilateral ties are at a critical point. The two countries should respect each other’s sovereignty, security, and development interests. The US strategy towards China should avoid misguidance and miscalculation,” Wang said.

The 98-year old Kissinger attended the event through a video call and said, “Conflict between the US and China will divide the whole world.”

Recall here what National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan had told reporters a month ago: “[Biden-Xi summit] is now just a question of when and how.” However, it is interesting that the third top member of Biden’s China “team,” secretary of state Antony Blinken is yet to affirm the White House is making efforts to create an opportunity for the Biden-Xi summit. Perhaps unhappy with the top-level US-China diplomatic dialogue in Alaska four months ago, Biden has been compelled to himself take the initiative in establishing some “rules of the road” and predictability in US-China relations. But what is intriguing is, just before the G20 Ministerial was to be held in Italy a couple of weeks ago, a State Department official denied a possible Blinken-Wang Yi meeting, as the Financial Times had reported.

To sum up, with Sullivan and Campbell already in toe and not much known why Blinken has not yet spoken on the stage being set for Biden-Xi summit in Rome, a report in South China Morning Post yesterday confirmed the US President has instructed the State Department to dispatch the deputy secretary of state Wendy Sherman to visit China next week. The Hong Kong daily claims the State Department No. 2 will meet the Chinese vice foreign minister Xie Feng, paving the way for the top-level encounter later in the year. Additionally, Bonnie Glaser, an Asia expert at the German Marshall Fund of the United States also confirmed citing sources of a possible second “telephone meeting” between the two leaders following Wendy Sherman’s visit. A section of the US media is claiming, Xi Jinping willing, a final visit to Beijing by Biden’s “Asia Tsar” Jake Sullivan in September-October will set the stage for Biden to turn the world’s attention on Rome not for G20 but for China-US summit diplomacy, or “G2.”

Postscript: News is just filtering in that the US deputy secretary of state’s China visit has been shown a red flag by Beijing. As was reported earlier (mentioned above), Wendy Sherman’s second Asia tour in as many months beginning tomorrow, was being attached special significance in anticipation of the likely Biden-Xi summit at G20 in Rome later in October.  We shall dissect this sudden toughening of diplomatic stance by Beijing, perhaps not seen in many years, in my following analysis.

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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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Americas

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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Americas

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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