A principal foreign policy objective of the Obama White House was “pivot to Asia”. However, the Arab Spring, interventions in the Middle East, the Russia-Ukraine war in 2014, and the annexation of Crimea by Russia did not allow him to focus on Asia. But a White House fact sheet titled “Advancing the Rebalance to Asia and the Pacific” published on November 16, 2017, stated the following:
“As President Obama told Chinese President Xi Jinping during his state visit in September, the United States welcomes the rise of a China that is peaceful, stable, prosperous, and a responsible player in international affairs. Building a constructive relationship with Beijing that simultaneously supports expanding practical cooperation on global issues while candidly addressing differences between us is an important component of the Rebalance. We support China becoming an increasingly capable and active partner in addressing regional and global challenges, and in working with us and others to strengthen the existing international system of norms, rules, and institutions…”[i]
The objective of the “pivot to Asia” was obvious as China had emerged as the world’s second major power. It was about China’s growing military capabilities, the balance of power in the Indo-Pacific region, Taiwan, trade, technological competition, and climate change. However, the language used was positive and conducive to cooperation. It reflected a desire for constructive engagement with China. Unfortunately, it did not come to fruition.
President Xi Jinping visited the US in April 2017. President Trump hosted him for a two-day summit at the Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida, where bilateral trade and North Korea topped the agenda. Afterward, President Trump said, “tremendous progress” had been achieved in the US-China relationship.
A year later, the Trump administration announced sweeping tariffs on Chinese imports in response to Chinese “theft” of American technology and intellectual property. A downturn in relations began.
In July 2020, China ordered the closure of the US consulate in the southwestern city of Chengdu, in a tit-for-tat escalation between the two countries. China said the move was in response to the US closing its consulate in Houston and accused staff in Chengdu of meddling in its internal affairs. Secretary Pompeo said the US decision was taken because China was “stealing” intellectual property.
Finally, on January 19, 2021, the day before President Trump left the White House, Secretary Pompeo, declared that China was committing genocide against Uyghurs in the Xinjiang province. Some attributed this to his future political ambitions. Anthony Blinken, nominated to succeed Pompeo, told a Senate confirmation hearing that he agreed with the designation of genocide.
In brief, the downturn in China-US relations became increasingly visible.
On June 14, 2021, Mr. Biden arrived in Brussels on his first trip to Europe as President. The Brussels Summit Communiqué issued by the NATO Heads of State and Government on that day broke new ground by mentioning China in a NATO public statement for the first time. It said, “China’s stated ambitions and assertive behavior present systemic challenges to the rules-based international order and areas relevant to Alliance security.”
Three months after the NATO summit, on September 15, 2021, President Biden, Prime Ministers Morrison, and Johnson announced the creation of AUKUS. China reacted. On September 24, 2021, President Biden hosted the first-ever Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD) summit between Australia, India, Japan, and the US, reflecting changing attitudes towards China’s growing regional outreach and its territorial claims in the Indo-Pacific.
On February 4, 2022, three weeks before Russia’s onslaught on Ukraine, President Putin and President Xi Jinping held talks in Beijing. The joint statement issued after their meeting said:
“Friendship between the two States has no limits, there are no “forbidden” areas of cooperation, strengthening of bilateral strategic cooperation is neither aimed against third countries nor affected by the changing international environment and circumstantial changes in third countries.”
On February 24, 2022, Russia invaded Ukraine. The Chinese-Russian Joint Statement issued only three weeks earlier led to speculation about whether President Putin had informed his Chinese counterpart about his intentions. China categorically denied any knowledge of the invasion.
However, Beijing did not openly oppose the Russian invasion leading to continuing accusations by the US that China stands behind Russia in the Ukraine conflict, adding another dimension to the strategic competition between the two leading powers.
In brief, there is renewed warfare between the two great powers in Europe and strategic rivalry with increasing frictions in nearly every aspect of bilateral relations between the US and China. Thus, there are those, prominently among them Professor John Mearsheimer, who argue that US policies have moved Moscow and Beijing closer to one another. If Washington was viewing China as its top strategic competitor, he says, it should have handled the question of Ukraine differently and refrained from opening the door to Kyiv’s NATO membership at the Bucharest NATO summit in 2008. Unfortunately for Washington, the October 7 Hamas attack on Israel and Tel Aviv’s invasion of Gaza leading to much criticism on humanitarian grounds has created a second problem for the US on top of the war in Ukraine which is turning into a long war of attrition.
On November 10, the Fifth Annual US-India 2+2 Dialogue of Foreign and Defense Ministers was held in New Delhi. The joint statement issued at the end of the meeting said that the US and India reaffirmed their resolve to promote a resilient, “rules-based international order” with respect for international law, including the UN Charter, sovereignty, and territorial integrity, and to ensure peace and prosperity for all. Among the topics discussed were the developments in the Indo-Pacific, Middle East, and Ukraine among other regions. And the Ministers reaffirmed their commitment to further deepen the multifaceted defense partnership. The principal addressee of the messages given was obvious but what exactly the “rules-based international order” is, if indeed there is such an order, remains a question.[ii]
Five days later, US President Joe Biden and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping met in San Fransisco on the occasion of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit. This was Xi Jinping’s first visit to the US since 2017. Statements issued following the talks struck a positive note in both Washington and Beijing. [iii] [iv]
On the top issue of Taiwan, according to the US readout of the talks, President Biden reiterated that the United States opposes any unilateral changes to the status quo from either side, that it expects cross-strait differences to be resolved by peaceful means, and that the world has an interest in peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait. He also called for restraint in China’s military activity in and around the Taiwan Strait.
The Chinese readout says, “President Xi Jinping elaborated on China’s principled position on the Taiwan question. He pointed out that the Taiwan question remains the most important and most sensitive issue in China-U.S. relations. China takes seriously the positive statements made by the United States in the Bali meeting. The U.S. side should take real action to honor its commitment of not supporting “Taiwan independence”, stop arming Taiwan, and support China’s peaceful reunification. China will realize reunification, and this is unstoppable.”
Under the “one-China policy,” Washington acknowledges that there is but one China and that Taiwan is a part of China. In other words, this is a different relationship than the one between Russia and Ukraine. However, trying to resolve the issue through military means would benefit neither side and would have the most negative consequences for the world. Thus, the best way to avoid a crisis seems to be for Beijing to show restraint in its military activity around the Taiwan Strait, and the South China Sea, and for Washington to refrain from statements and actions Beijing regards as provocations.
In San Fransisco, Presidents Biden and Xi agreed to resume military-to-military communications China had severed military-to-military communications last year after then-US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan. They also agreed to take steps to tackle the flow of fentanyl into the US, which has contributed to a rise in overdose deaths in the country.
All in all, the meeting did not resolve outstanding problems between the two powers but helped reduce tensions, and perhaps reflected an understanding as to how “strategic competition” would continue thereon. The agreement of the two leaders that their teams will follow up on their discussions in San Francisco with continued high-level diplomacy and interactions, including visits in both directions and ongoing working-level consultations in key areas is a positive signal.
But, of course, there had to be something spoiling the mood. President Biden, as he was exiting his press conference following talks with President Xi, responded to a reporter’s question by saying he considered him a dictator.
“He’s a dictator in the sense that he is a guy who runs a country… based on a form of government that is totally different from ours,” he said.[v] The Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson responded to Biden’s comments by calling it “extremely erroneous” and an “irresponsible political maneuver, which China firmly opposes.” When Mr. Biden made a similar comment last June in Bali, Chinese officials had again reacted angrily and described it as “extremely absurd and irresponsible“. Mr. Biden has many allies in the Middle East who are not democratic leaders but he does not call them dictators.
Before the meeting of the two leaders, some Western international observers drew attention to China’s economic and domestic problems. After the meeting, they linked President Xi’s softer approach to the bilateral relationship to these challenges. One might add, however, that with the wars in Ukraine and Gaza, the difficulties experienced in winning the Global South, and endless domestic political problems, Washington may also wish to avoid a worsening of relations with Beijing. After all, the US presidential election is only a year away and most Americans do not want a Biden-Trump rematch. Moreover, Taiwan will hold a presidential election in January 2024. Thus, both leaders might have preferred to ease the tension between the two countries before these two crucial elections.
As for Türkiye, everything else is now secondary to our open support for Hamas and anti-Israel stance. The rights and wrongs of the war in Gaza, its tragic humanitarian dimension aside, it is clear that this would exclude Ankara from playing any role whatsoever in future peace negotiations, taking part in regional peace initiatives, and cooperating with major players to that end. Regrettably, ideology and domestic political interests appear to have taken over Türkiye’s long-term national interests.