High-level U.S. and Chinese officials met in the city of Tianjin earlier this week, and during the meeting, Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Xie Feng laid out China’s grievances with the United States. Among the main complaints he made, Xie listed U.S. sanctions on top party officials, visa restrictions on party members, restrictions on Confucius Institutes and Chinese companies, and the extradition demand for Huawei Chief Financial Officer Meng Wangzhou.
Much like the clash at the Anchorage summit earlier this year, the meeting between Xie and U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman began with extensive criticisms from the Chinese side, and the meeting ended up resolving none of the outstanding issues between the two governments. For its part, the State Department released a readout that also amounted to little more than a litany of complaints. U.S.-Chinese relations seem to be trapped in a downward spiral of hectoring and sanctions from our government and aggrieved lashing out from theirs. It is imperative that the United States finds a way to break out of this pattern and stabilize the relationship before it deteriorates further.
The intensifying Cold War-like rhetoric in Washington has encouraged China’s siege mentality reflected in Xie’s remarks. The Biden administration’s decision to frame the relationship as part of a “contest with autocrats” and the tendency to cast a wide range of foreign and domestic policy issues in terms of competition with China have both also contributed.
Xie noted that latter tendency: “The U.S. side talks about China at every turn, and it seems as if it is unable to speak or do anything if it does not involve China.” It’s not surprising that the Chinese government has interpreted the administration’s China policy in sharply adversarial terms such that Xie reportedly told Sherman that U.S. policies were a “thinly veiled attempt to contain and suppress China.” Many Western China hawks would like to tear away the veil and leave no doubt.
Xie was quoted in a statement from the Chinese foreign ministry identifying the root of the problems with the relationship, and he said that “[t]he foundational reason is that some people in the U.S. are treating China as an ‘imagined enemy’.” The growing hawkish consensus around China policy in Washington has provoked a similarly overwrought nationalist reaction in the Chinese government. Hard-liners in both countries thrive on the mutual recriminations and suspicions that have come to define the relationship, and they must be delighting in the miserable state of U.S.-China diplomacy.
China’s siege mentality was already on display to some degree in President Xi Jinping’s speech marking the Chinese Communist Party’s centenary. China hawks were quick to seize on Xi’s warning that other governments should not oppress or subjugate China lest they end up with “heads cracked and bleeding” as evidence of Beijing’s aggressive intentions, but what it really showed was the extent to which the Chinese government sees itself as being surrounded and threatened from the outside. Insofar as U.S. policies in East Asia are being cast in terms of a new anti-Chinese containmentpolicy, that fuels fear that the United States seeks to encircle and weaken them, and that in turn encourages China to behave more combatively.
Australia’s outgoing secretary of foreign affairs and trade, Frances Adamson, called attention to this siege mentality last month in a speech in Canberra: “Few really grasp that this great power is still dogged by insecurity as much as driven by ambition. That it has a deeply defensive mindset — perceiving external threats even as it pushes its interests over those of others.” The last thing that the United States and its allies should be doing to a major power that has such a siege mentality is to hound it and corner it at every turn, but that is exactly what the hawkish anti-China consensus would have our government do.
There are some things that the Biden administration could do to help make Beijing feel less under siege that would not require making major changes to policy. One would be to drop the democracy vs. autocracy framing of its foreign policy, which does little to advance the cause of democrats anywhere but makes U.S. diplomacy less flexible in our government’s dealings with authoritarian states.
Another would be to give up on the “rules-based order” rhetoric, which comes across as equal parts hypocrisy and arrogance in most parts of the world. The United States and China are bound to have some significant disagreements, but those disagreements can be managed more productively if they are handled as bilateral issues rather than test cases of China’s submission to a U.S.-led “order” that China views as illegitimate and arbitrary.
It may be difficult for Biden administration officials to stop using this language, since it is so thoroughly embedded in their worldview. If they would like to build a working relationship with Beijing to address issues that affect the whole world, this is the least they can do. It is possible that the anti-China consensus in Washington wouldn’t tolerate much more than that in any case.
Biden is unlikely to satisfy any of China’s demands for “remedial” action. He would face enormous criticism for agreeing to any sanctions relief for Chinese officials, and he has so far shown no inclination to lift sanctions even when it might lead to a successful diplomatic outcome.
Even so, the administration should take Xie’s list of grievances seriously when considering future actions against China, and it should be careful about imposing sanctions that it knows it will probably never be able to lift. Punitive measures have had no effect on Chinese government behavior, but they have stoked plenty of resentment and hostility. Our government will presumably dismiss Xie’s list of grievances out of hand, but it should recognize that the demands that Washington makes of other countries seem similarly outlandish and unreasonable. The United States is unaccustomed to being on the receiving end of such demands, and China evidently wants our government to understand that they think turnabout is fair play.
The U.S.-Chinese bilateral relationship is arguably the most important international relationship in the world. The nature of that relationship will likely determine the shape of much of the rest of this century. The hardening conventional wisdom in Washington that the United States has been too accommodating to China for the last 30 years is leading our government down a treacherous path of confrontation that both countries will likely come to regret. The United States should not want and cannot afford to court major power conflict with a country as large and powerful as China.
The poor state of the relationship with China right now is just a foretaste of what we can expect if there is a full-blown militarized rivalry between our governments. It is up to Americans to demand that our leaders steer the Washington away from that course. Ultimately, the United States needs to break with the idea that its relationship with China is a zero-sum competition. Until that happens, the risk of U.S.-Chinese tensions moving towards disastrous conflict will remain unacceptably high.
Daniel Larison is a regular columnist at Responsible Statecraft, contributing editor at Antiwar.com, and a former senior editor at The American Conservative magazine. He has a Ph.D. in History from the University of Chicago. He writes regularly for his newsletter, Eunomia, on Substack.
Ukraine would consider inviting Russian officials to a peace summit to discuss Kyiv’s proposal for a negotiated end to the war, according to Andriy Yermak, the Ukrainian president’s chief of staff.
“There can be a situation in which we together invite representatives of the Russian Federation, where they will be presented with the plan in case whoever is representing the aggressor country at that time will want to genuinely end this war and return to a just peace,” Yermak said over the weekend, noting that one more round of talks without Russia will first be held in Switzerland.
The comment represents a subtle shift in Ukrainian messaging about talks. Kyiv has long argued that it would never negotiate with Russian President Vladimir Putin, yet there is no reason to believe Putin will leave power any time soon. That realization — along with Ukraine’s increasingly perilous position on the battlefield — may have helped force Kyiv to reconsider its hard line on talking with the widely reviled Russian leader.
Zelensky hinted at a potential mediator for talks following a visit this week to Saudi Arabia. The leader “noted in particular Saudi Arabia’s strivings to help in restoring a just peace in Ukraine,” according to a statement from Ukrainian officials. “Saudi Arabia’s leadership can help find a just solution.”
Russia, for its part, has signaled that it is open to peace talks of some sort, though both Kyiv and Moscow insist that any negotiations would have to be conducted on their terms. The gaps between the negotiating positions of the two countries remain substantial, with each laying claim to roughly 18% of the territory that made up pre-2014 Ukraine.
Ukraine’s shift is a sign of just how dire the situation is becoming for its armed forces, which recently made a hasty retreat from Avdiivka, a small but strategically important town near Donetsk. After months of wrangling, the U.S. Congress has still not approved new military aid for Ukraine, and Kyiv now says its troops are having to ration ammunition as their stockpiles dwindle.
Zelensky said Sunday that he expects Russia to mount a new offensive as soon as late May. It’s unclear whether Ukrainian troops are prepared to stop such a move.
Even the Black Sea corridor — a narrow strip of the waterway through which Ukraine exports much of its grain — could be under threat. “I think the route will be closed...because to defend it, it's also about some ammunition, some air defense, and some other systems” that are now in short supply, said Zelensky.
As storm clouds gather, it’s time to push for peace talks before Russia regains the upper hand, argue Anatol Lieven and George Beebe of the Quincy Institute, which publishes Responsible Statecraft.
“Complete victory for Ukraine is now an obvious impossibility,” Lieven and Beebe wrote this week. “Any end to the fighting will therefore end in some form of compromise, and the longer we wait, the worse the terms of that compromise will be for Ukraine, and the greater the dangers will be for our countries and the world.”
In other diplomatic news related to the war in Ukraine:
— Hungary finally signed off on Sweden’s bid to join NATO after the Swedish prime minister met with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban in Budapest, according to Deutsche Welle. What did Orban get for all the foot dragging? Apparently just four Swedish fighter jets of the same model that it has been purchasing for years. The prime minister blamed his party for the slow-rolling, saying in a radio interview prior to the parliamentary vote that he had persuaded his partisans to drop their opposition to Sweden’s accession.
— French President Emmanuel Macron sent allies scrambling Tuesday when he floated the idea of sending NATO troops to Ukraine, according to the BBC. Leaders from Germany, the United Kingdom, Italy, Poland, and other NATO states quickly swatted down the idea that the alliance (or any individual members thereof) would consider joining the war directly. Russia said direct conflict with NATO would be an “inevitability” if the bloc sent troops into Ukraine.
— On Wednesday, Zelensky attended a summit in Albania aimed at bolstering Balkan support for Ukraine’s fight against Russia, according to AP News. The Ukrainian leader said all states in the region are “worthy” of becoming members of NATO and the European Union, which “have provided Europe with the longest and most reliable era of security and economic development.”
— Western officials were in talks with the Kremlin for a prisoner swap involving Russian dissident Alexei Navalny prior to his death in a Russian prison camp in February, though no formal offer had yet been made, according to Politico. This account contrasts with the one given by Navalny’s allies, who claimed that Putin had killed the opposition leader in order to sabotage discussions that were nearing a deal. Navalny’s sudden death has led to speculation about whether Russian officials may have assassinated him, though no proof has yet surfaced to back up this claim. There is, however, little doubt that the broader deterioration of the dissident’s health was related to the harsh conditions he was held under.
U.S. State Department news:
In a Tuesday press conference, State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said the situation on the frontlines in Ukraine is “extremely serious.” “We have seen Ukrainian frontline troops who don’t have the ammo they need to repel Russian aggression. They’re still fighting bravely. They’re still fighting courageously,” Miller said. “They still have armor and weapons and ammunition they can use, but they’re having to ration it now because the United States Congress has failed to act.”
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Janet Yellen, United States Secretary of the Treasury. (Reuters)
On Tuesday, U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen strongly endorsed efforts to tap frozen Russian central bank assets in order to continue to fund Ukraine.
“There is a strong international law, economic and moral case for moving forward,” with giving the assets, which were frozen by international sanctions following Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, to Kyiv, she said to reporters before a G7 meeting in San Paulo.
Furthermore on Wednesday, White House national security communications adviser John Kirby urged the use of these assets to assist the Ukrainian military.
This adds momentum to increasing efforts on Capitol Hill to monetize the frozen assets to assist the beleaguered country, including through the “REPO Act,” a U.S. Senate bill which was criticized by Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) in a recent article here in Responsible Statecraft. As Paul pointed out, spending these assets would violate international law and norms by the outright seizure of sovereign Russian assets.
In the long term, this will do even more to undermine global faith in the U.S.-led and Western-centric international financial system. Doubts about the system and pressures to find an alternative are already heightened due to the freezing of Russian overseas financial holdings in the first place, as well as the frequent use of unilateral sanctions by the U.S. to impose its will and values on other countries.
The amount of money involved here is considerable. Over $300 billion in Russian assets was frozen, mostly held in European banks. For comparison, that’s about the same amount as the entirety of Western aid committed from all sources to Ukraine since the beginning of the war in 2022 — around $310 billion, including the recent $54 billion in 4-year assistance just approved by the EU.
Thus, converting all of the Russian assets to assistance for Ukraine could in theory fully finance a continuing war in Ukraine for years to come. As political support for open-ended Ukraine aid wanes in both the U.S. and Europe, large-scale use of this financing method also holds the promise of an administrative end-run around the political system.
But there are also considerable potential downsides, particularly in Europe. European financial institutions hold the overwhelming majority of frozen Russian assets, and any form of confiscation could be a major blow to confidence in these entities. In addition, European corporations have significant assets stranded in Russia which Moscow could seize in retaliation for the confiscation of its foreign assets.
Another major issue is that using assets to finance an ongoing conflict will forfeit their use as leverage in any peace settlement, and the rebuilding of Ukraine. The World Bank now estimates post-war rebuilding costs for Ukraine of nearly $500 billion. If the West can offer a compromise to Russia in which frozen assets are used to pay part of these costs, rather than demanding new Russian financing for massive reparations, this could be an important incentive for negotiations.
In contrast, monetizing the assets outside of a peace process could signal that the West intends to continue the conflict indefinitely.
In combination with aggressive new U.S. sanctions announced last week on Russia and on third party countries that continue to deal with Russia, the new push for confiscation of Russian assets is more evidence that the U.S. and EU intend to intensify the conflict with Moscow using administrative mechanisms that won’t rely on support from the political system or the people within them.
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Activist Layla Elabed speaks during an uncommitted vote election night gathering as Democrats and Republicans hold their Michigan presidential primary election, in Dearborn, Michigan, U.S. February 27, 2024. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook
A protest vote in Michigan against President Joe Biden’s handling of the war in Gaza dramatically exceeded expectations Tuesday, highlighting the possibility that his stance on the conflict could cost him the presidency in November.
More than 100,000 Michiganders voted “uncommitted” in yesterday’s presidential primary, earning 13.3% of the tally with most votes counted and blasting past organizers’ goal of 10,000 protest votes. Biden won the primary handily with 81% of the total tally.
The results suggest that Biden could lose Michigan in this year’s election if he continues to back Israel’s campaign to the hilt. In 2020, he won the state by 150,000 votes while polls predicted he would win by a much larger margin. This year, early polls show a slight lead for Trump in the battleground state, which he won in 2016 by fewer than 11,000 votes.
“The war on Gaza is a deep moral issue and the lack of attention and empathy for this perspective from the administration is breaking apart the fragile coalition we built to elect Joe Biden in 2020,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), a progressive leader who has called for a ceasefire in Gaza, as votes came in last night.
Biden still has “a little bit of time to change this dynamic,” Jayapal told CNN, but “it has to be a dramatic policy and rhetorical shift from the president on this issue and a new strategy to rebuild a real partnership with progressives in multiple communities who are absolutely key to winning the election.”
Rep. Ro Khanna, a prominent Biden ally, told Semafor the vote is a “wake-up call” for the White House on Gaza.
The “uncommitted” option won outright in Dearborn, a Detroit suburb with a famously large Arab American population. The protest vote also gained notable traction in college towns, signaling Biden’s weakness among young voters across the country. “Uncommitted” received at least 8% of votes in every county in Michigan with more than 95% of votes tallied.
The uncommitted campaign drew backing from prominent Democrats in Michigan, including Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and state Rep. Abraham Aiyash, who is the majority leader in the Michigan House. Former Reps. Andy Levin and Beto O’Rourke, who served as a representative from Texas, also lent their support to the effort.
“Our movement emerged victorious tonight and massively surpassed our expectations,” said Listen to Michigan, the organization behind the campaign, in a statement last night. “Tens of thousands of Michigan Democrats, many of whom [...] voted for Biden in 2020, are uncommitted to his re-election due to the war in Gaza.”
Biden did not make reference to the uncommitted movement in his victory speech, but reports indicate that his campaign is spooked by the effort. Prior to Tuesday’s vote, White House officials met with Arab and Muslim leaders in Michigan to try to assuage their concerns about the war, which has left about 30,000 Palestinians dead and many more injured. (More than 1,100 Israelis died during Hamas’s Oct. 7 attacks last year.)
The president argues that his support for Israel has made it possible for him to guide the direction of the war to the extent possible, though his critics note that, despite some symbolic and rhetorical moves, he has stopped far short of holding back U.S. weapons or supporting multilateral efforts to demand a ceasefire.
Campaigners now hope the “uncommitted” effort will spread to other states. Minnesota, which will hold its primaries next week, is an early target.
“If you think this will stop with Michigan you are either the president or paid to flatter him,” said Alex Sammon, a politics writer at Slate.
Meanwhile in the Republican primary, former President Donald Trump fended off a challenge from former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley. With 94% of votes in, Trump came away with 68% of the vote, while Haley scored around 27%.