Sometimes in great power geopolitics seemingly small events portend significant changes. Such may be the case with the first two diplomatic encounters between the Biden administration and the Chinese government. First came the acrimonious exchanges in Alaska in March; now comes to another set of testy interactions this week between Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman and her Chinese counterparts State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Vice-Foreign Minister Xie Feng in Tianjin.
The real takeaway from these fractious exchanges is not necessarily that the two governments have a wide range of differences—many of which are systemic and intractable—or that they have spilled into public view. This is well known. The real implication is that China now possesses a new degree of self-confidence, even hubris, and is now insisting that others obey its demands. Taken together with “wolf warrior diplomacy,” economic coercion, and punitive steps against several other countries, it seems clear that a qualitative threshold has been crossed in China’s diplomacy. China is not only disagreeing with others—it is now demanding of others.
In November 2020 the Chinese embassy in Australia issued a 14-point list of grievances it demanded be met if bilateral ties were to improve. Capitulate first, “recognize the error of your ways,” and then there will be a basis for improving relations. The demands on Australia followed on demands lodged against Sweden and other European countries, and before that South Korea and others in Asia.
Most recently, during Deputy Secretary Sherman’s visit, she was presented with two lists of demands from the Chinese side. Among others, the demands included: lifting sanctions and visa restrictions targeted at Chinese officials and entities; unconditionally lift visa restrictions on members of the Communist Party of China and their families; stop harassing Chinese students and scholars in the United States; stop persecuting Asian Americans; withdrawing Meng Wanzhou's extradition request from Canada; stop restricting Chinese companies operations and investments in the U.S.; allowing Confucius Institutes to operate; and stop requiring Chinese media to register as “foreign missions.”
State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang also warned Sherman that China would not tolerate the U.S. claiming a “superior” position or approaching China from a “position of strength.” Before Sherman’s arrival, Wang further warned that China would provide her a “tutorial” on how to conduct diplomacy as equals (echoing Yang Jiechi’s lecture in Alaska). While Sherman went to China looking for ways to establish “guardrails” that would buffer the competition and disputes between the two sides, she was instead met with an unyielding and sanctimonious stance from her interlocutors. This represents a shift in Chinese diplomacy from the days when its officials would politely listen to complaints and expressions of concern from U.S. officials and work out ways to try and accommodate them without losing face or sovereignty. No more, apparently.
It is now clear that Beijing has zero tolerance for criticism and will turn its defensiveness into offense by pushing back hard when other governments express concerns about China’s behavior. In his address commemorating the Chinese Communist Party’s 100th anniversary, Xi Jinping bluntly stated: “We’ll never accept insufferably arrogant lecturing from those ‘master teachers’! We will never allow any foreign force to bully, oppress, or subjugate us. Anyone who would attempt to do so will find themselves on a collision course with a great wall of steel forged by over 1.4 billion Chinese people.”
The United States and China are clearly at loggerheads. Vice Foreign Minister Xie Feng said as much in his opening meeting with Sherman, claiming that the relationship was “stalemated.” Xie went further to lecture her and the American side on making China an “imaginary enemy” and “blaming China for its own problems.” The U.S., he claimed, was waging a “thinly veiled attempt to contain and suppress China” by “waging a whole-of-government and whole-of-society campaign to bring China down.” Xie concluded his accusations by saying: “We urge the United States to change its highly misguided mindset and dangerous policy.”
It seems clear from these statements that China is drawing various lines in the sand. Beijing is accepting no blame for the deteriorated state of relations, refuses to even accept that the two sides are locked into “competition,” and is throwing down the gauntlet that for there to be any improvement in ties it is entirely up to the United States. As Wang Yi told Sherman, “Those who tie the knot, must untie it,” while Chinese spokespersons claimed “strong dissatisfaction” with Washington’s “extremely dangerous China policy.”
With statements and posturing like these, Beijing does not seem interested in finding common ground. “Capitulate first and then we’ll have something to discuss” seems to be Beijing’s position. While Sherman and the American side have clearly tried to decouple competitive and contentious areas from those where the two can cooperate, Xie Feng is quoted as telling her: “It’s not going to work if the U.S. asks for cooperation one day and damages China’s interests on the other.”
All of this seems to indicate that the Chinese side is not adopting a step-by-step or issue-by-issue incremental approach to managing relations with Washington—Beijing is now adopting a maximalist posture by setting down red lines, refusing to even discuss issues occurring inside of China (Xinjiang, Tibet, Hong Kong, human rights, and a range of commercial issues), adopting a moralistic tone in criticizing American domestic affairs, and refusing to give any ground on issues of American and foreign concern. Moreover, Beijing now claims that it speaks for the majority of countries in the world, not the United States.
China clearly sees the United States as in terminal decline—domestically and internationally—and it apparently believes that its day as a global power and leader has arrived. No longer willing to pressure other countries but not the United States, Beijing is making it clear that it is now willing to stand up to the United States as well. This is the main significance of the encounters in Anchorage and Tianjin.