Many in the West were surprised when top Chinese diplomats lashed out against the United States publicly during the first high-level meeting between the Biden and Xi Jinping administrations last week in Anchorage, Alaska. Though smaller powers like Australia and Sweden have experienced Beijing’s “wolf-warrior” diplomacy before, rarely have Chinese diplomats displayed such open condescension toward the U.S. Yet if one understands the true nature of the Chinese Communist Party, the performance in Alaska comes as no surprise.
Claremont McKenna’s Minxin Pei describes the CCP as an entity that treats the world as a jungle, in which “long-term survival depends solely on raw power” and might makes right. Since its founding, the CCP has been deeply hostile to Western democracies and liberal values. The party believes that its survival depends on destroying the liberal world order and establishing a new one in which China is the hegemon. From 1949 to 1979, internal political turmoil and misguided economic policies derailed this plan and almost destroyed China, but despite many subsequent changes, the party never gave up this goal.
Long before MAGA was a twinkle in Donald Trump’s eye, the CCP realized that it must rely on investment and technology from the West to make China great again. Unlike the Soviets, the CCP learned to be patient, flexible, and cunning when it was weak. But as “the balance of power has since shifted in its favour,” Pei writes, the CCP “has consistently been willing to break its earlier commitments when doing so serves its interests.”
President Obama’s first term began at roughly the same time Xi Jinping became the supreme leader of the CCP. Xi initially viewed Obama’s 2011 “pivot to Asia” speech with alarm. Xi had good reason to fear Obama’s pledge to shift America’s resources and strategic focus to the Asia-Pacific region, and especially the southern part. However, it didn’t take long for Xi to realize that he had nothing to fear.
Obama was seeking not containment but deepened engagement with China. Indeed, he was so keen on engaging Beijing that he didn’t authorize any weapon sales to Taiwan in his first year in office and refused to meet the Dalai Lama, spiritual leader to the restive Tibetans. Obama also lent Xi enormous credibility by hosting him at the so-called G2 summit at Sunnylands, California, in 2013. Chinese state media portrayed the meeting as the beginning of America’s finally treating China as an equal power and partner in shaping world affairs. The summit also gave Xi a chance to get a close read of Obama. He walked away from the discussion believing that the “pivot to Asia” was toothless, and that he could fulfill China’s strategic initiatives by exploiting Obama’s eagerness for engagement. One of those initiatives was asserting Chinese control over the South China Sea.
In 2013, China began land reclamation efforts in the region—a move Xi believes is necessary to expand China’s strategic advantage and safeguard its national interests. It began the project slowly, evaluating Washington’s reaction at the same time. When it became clear that Obama wouldn’t push back, China ramped up its island-building activities. Between 2013 and 2015, China reclaimed an estimated 3,200 acres of land on seven features in the South China Sea and equipped those islands with runways, ports, aircraft hangars, radar, and sensor equipment, to the alarm of its Southeast Asian neighbors.
Still, rather than thanking Obama for staying out of the way, Xi decided to humiliate the United States during the president’s visit to China for the September 2016 G20 summit. On September 4, 2016, after Air Force One touched down at Hangzhou airport, Chinese officials refused to provide a staircase for Obama to leave the plane from the front gate. The president eventually had to exit from Air Force One’s backdoor, without the typical red carpet reception. Obama downplayed the incident, but international observers knew better.
The CCP usually choreographs even the most minute details of major international events. No low-level Chinese official would dare to snub the president of the United States unless ordered from on high. Mexico’s former ambassador to China, Jorge Guajardo, told the Guardian that he believed Obama’s treatment was part of a calculated snub: “these things do not happen by mistake. . . . It’s part of stirring up Chinese nationalism. It’s part of saying: ‘China stands up to the superpower.’” Bill Bishop, author of the Sinocism newsletter, agreed that the whole incident was “a deliberate slight intended to make the Americans look diminished and weak.”
From reclaiming islands in the South China Sea to putting millions of Uighurs in internment camps, the CCP has continued to press its position because it hasn’t faced severe consequences for doing so. Past successes have boosted Xi’s confidence that China is powerful enough to do whatever it wants domestically, and increasingly internationally as well.
The Trump administration, however, presented a problem. Speaking of Trump, Pei wrote, “Like their counterparts in Beijing, the US president and his senior advisers not only believe in the law of the jungle but are also unafraid to wield raw power against their foes.” More importantly, unlike all previous U.S. administrations and even those of other countries, Trump’s was “willing to write off the Chinese market in pursuit of broader geopolitical objectives.” From the trade war to the closing of the Chinese Consulate in Houston, China was busy playing defense while Trump was in office. Thus Beijing greeted Biden’s election with palpable relief.
Now that President Biden is filling his administration with veterans from the Obama era, the CCP is anticipating that his foreign policy approach will be an extension of Obama’s: lofty rhetoric covering up a lack of will for taking decisive action. For the CCP, the elderly and frail Biden is a perfect metaphor for U.S. decline.
The CCP also regards America’s deep divisions, especially its racial tensions and last summer’s protests, as weaknesses to exploit. Chinese government officials and state media are increasingly incorporating woke talking points in their attacks on American values. During his long remarks in Alaska, Yang Jiechi, director of the Central Foreign Affairs Commission of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and leader of the Chinese delegation, lectured American diplomats: “the fact is that there are many problems within the United States regarding human rights, which is admitted by the U.S. itself as well. . . . the challenges facing the United States in human rights are deep-seated. They did not just emerge over the past four years, such as Black Lives Matter.” In its most recent editorial about the Alaska summit, China’s state-run Global Times claimed: “everything Washington talks about is centered on the U.S. and on white supremacy.”
Chinese diplomats chose to humiliate the U.S., publicly and on its home turf, because Beijing senses America’s weakness and internal divisions. If the Biden administration fails to respond clearly and forcefully, Chinese diplomats will take note, and the consequences could be far worse than a war of words.
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