GEOPOLITICS OF THE UNITED STATES AND CHINA IN THE INTERREGNUM. THE MEETING IN ANCHORAGE, ALASKA.
Geopolitics of the United States and China in the Interregnum: The Meeting in Anchorage, Alaska (March 18, 2021). By Fernando Gómez Herrero (Birkbeck, U of London, fernandogherrero.com, (firstname.lastname@example.org).
@Frederic J. Brown, AFP via France24.com (13/03/21)
The world got to see something of a meeting of at least four significant men. This is about some visuals and some words, both dimensions are important, in relation to the U.S.-China competition that is already brandished as the crucial arena in the following decades (perhaps, water is better image in relation to what follows). What we see or read is not the whole story, secretaries hold secrets of state, yet some analysis may help us form some idea of how things may develop between these two big nations and inevitably all other nations of the world.
On the American side, there was Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan. On the Chinese side, the Director of the Office of the Central Commission for Foreign Affairs Yan Jiechi and the State Councillor Wang Yi. There were interpreters on both sides handling the exchanges in Chinese and the American English languages. The Chinese interpreter had to work more than her counterpart from what we could see. American rhetoric was not at its best. It did not at all soar like a bad eagle all over the distant geography of Alaska. Were Blinken and Sullivan taken by surprise? I found the Chinese officials handled this first meeting with greater sophistication and diplomatic aplomb. From a purely theatrical standpoint, they won this first round. Yan Jiechi made the most out of his minutes behind the microphone.
Frederic J. Brown / Pool via AFP / Getty Images.
The visuals gave a considerable space in between the tables. In this age of covid, theme that was mentioned obliquely, the attendees wore masks so their expressions could not be seen, probably there were no smiles. These main four men removed them when addressing the room and the world behind the microphones and the cameras. It is fair speculation that both delegations had their respective countries as main interlocutors, but there is always a world dimension too, particularly the two superpowers are concerned. Who pays attention to the meetings among the small countries? The Chinese representatives played their hand well knowing full well that the coverage of such events is generally tilted towards the American side. Theirs is the perspective behind the headlines, the general one-liner, the opening salvo, the first fire shot, and bet your money that there will be a general chorus line of allies in agreement with the “liberal West.” The English press echoed the American headlines, including the Guardian (“Very public spat bodes ill for China management” by Emma Graham-Harrison, 20 March 2021, the title says it all). I was in general disappointed by the general poverty of international coverage, even in relation to such dramatic encounter, first of a kind. It is as though the more “global” the event, the more parochial and provincial, the less perspectival the coverage that affirmed the Blinken position. The American official or agent typically gets the limelight with no good close-reading of the prose. I still think it was good to see something of a push-back to what is otherwise the universalising American tendency that speaks ever so easily of world order behind the general invocation of allies, some named. Let us remember the use of “coalition forces” in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Let us think of the generally appalling generality of the “modern languages” in the Anglo Zone. Let us underline the “liberal West.” There is something of a stalking horse of the singularity “hiding” behind a plurality to push and corral, symbolically speaking, the “world’s greatest geopolitical test” (https://www.nbcnews.com/news/world/china-poses-biggest-geopolitical-test-u-s-says-secretary-state-n1259489). The unmistakable message: “I am with others against you.”
Millenarian civilisation, China, meets the permanently modern, or postmodern and perhaps even postcolonial, the ever young and proud nation of more recent memory, the “new world” of the United States, Blinken is 59, Sullivan, 45 on one side, Jiechi, 71 and Yi, 68. Is youth a permanent virtue also in foreign relations? Diachronicity and synchronicity in our accelerated times should not make us forget greater densities and multiple actors and locations. International Relations (IR) and Foreign Affairs circles chase down the latest 5-10 years, say, rarely looking back beyond the last 75 years of the Cold War. We should, generally speaking, have wider ambition and infinitely more languages, literatures and cultures, reaching up, for example, to comparisons among civilisations and empires before and after the U.S. Proportionality is important: the nation of 330 million and the mega-nation of 1.4 billion people. The North America Union with Canada and Mexico take the former population to about 477 million, comparable to the European Union (447 million), even with the loss of the UK (67 million). Where is the sheer bulk? Bring other factors (GDP, weapons of mass destruction and military power, mass-media focus, global cultural influence…).
@ Frederic J. Brown / AP.
In essence, the Biden / Blinken administration is using G. John Ikenberry’s rhetoric. Let us see for how long in the balance of talking tough and theoretical human-rights advocacy. And we will see what happens to both in this story. There is a lengthy conversation of the noted foreign-relations expert with me about his latest book A World Safe for Democracy: Liberal Internationalism and the Crises of Global Order (Yale UP, Sept. 2020) (https://www.fernandogherrero.com/single-post/no-plan-b-for-the-neo-liberal-internationalism-of-the-anglo-american-tradition-now-admittedly). Let us pay close attention to all the nouns in the title (world, order, crises, democracy, internationalism) also in relation to the Anchorage meeting. It is significant because it is the first meeting of the Biden administration era with their Chinese counterparts after the Trump presidency. I thought there would be a big coverage after the sessions. But I was wrong. The following weekend had no evaluative, extensive coverage, at least on the British side. I wanted to see some keen insights. There were not immediately forthcoming. Only some think tanks making passing references. Aljazeera provided live coverage of portions of this first meeting. I obtained the transcript of these remarks. I have read the release of the American Embassy of the comments by Blinken. Official statements have followed in essence repeating the things said.
This is the gist as I see it. The Chinese officials relativize the universalist claims made by the American delegation. The uncharacteristically blunt language justifies the Alaska location, midway between Washington and Beijing. Who will give in and how and when and where, that is the question in the following decades. Is this going to be mid-way or the highway or better yet the waters of the South Asian China Sea and the Indo-Pacific? We all consult atlases and try to become familiar with distant geographies that are emerging to global consciousness. Thrillers are already fantasising about World War III conflicts there. So this Anchorage-Alaska meeting may serve as something of a preamble: your so-called “rules-based international world order” versus the “international world of the United Nations.”
Yang Jiechi (right), director of the Central Foreign Affairs Commission Office for China, and Wang Yi, China's state councillor and foreign minister, arrive for a meeting with their U.S. counterparts at the opening session of U.S.-China talks in Anchorage, Alaska, on Thursday. | POOL / VIA REUTERS (via Japan Times).
Blinken was ab initio blunt in a typical American sort of way, i.e. asserting that “our administration is committed to leading with diplomacy.” Diplomacy may be pillow but the angularity (leading) is undeniable even if to conventional American ears, leadership is good, whilst hegemony and empire are not what they are up to. The apple is not rotten at the core, there are probably a few at the bottom of the barrel, but the pirate’s hand will not pick them or the listening kid in Stevenson’s wonderful Treasure Island. No act of contrition, but affirmation of self-belief, that is what Blinken and Sullivan delivered after the lengthier Chinese interventions that put them in an awkward place (namely, you are not the self-appointed representatives of universal values). For all the affected sermo humilis of the Secretary of State, Blinken’s introductory words asserted “to advance the interests of the “United States and to strengthen the rules-based international order.” There is identity on both sides of the copula, apparently. The invocation is for “everyone [to follow] the same rules.” The quick follow-up is of “deep concern” about how China is doing. They are engaging in “actions” in Xinjiang, Hong Kong, cyber attacks on the U.S. and “economic coercion” towards “our allies.” He mentioned he had met previously with Japan and South Korea who shared those concerns. Blinken closes sticking a trident: competitive, collaborative and adversarial in the relations with China. Now, you tell me if this is friendly opening salvo to the geopolitical dialogue. It is more like a reprimand by the teacher to the pupil who has been summoned to her office.
Sullivan follows Blinken like a faithful echo the initial thunder. Initial self-praise of a boyish nature: Americans are like Alaska, big-hearted, resilient, intrepid. Pride on display, pride flying high. His boss and he are proud of the “efforts to control the pandemic.” They affirm “the strength and staying power of our democracy.” You continue saying strength to see if osmosis ensues. Your talk to them is pep-talk to your administration and by extension your nation. He is not going to say otherwise. Self-affirming circularity that begins and ends with the speaker in question about the country he represents in the eyes of the Chinese and the world. The allies referred: the Quad [U.S., India, Japan and Australia], and how that is good “for our peoples.” The Europeans and the British are conspicuously absent in explicit reference. What is the immediate neighbourhood of focus? Alaska? The vision: a “free and open Indo-Pacific,” and there are areas of concern and assaults on “our basic values.” The concerns spread generously “from around the world, allies and partners.” The superpower summons a plurality of nations they have consulted, Sullivan says, in the last two months (since Biden’s inauguration at the end of January). Enlightened self-interest as the expression has it (it is not going to be stupid altruism): “our approach in the world and our approach to China benefits the American people and protects the interests of our allies and partners.” Word order in the sentence is order of general preference: the rest of the world and [the colossal dimension of] China in it, America first and allies and partners too, but second. What nation would not subscribe to this side of the bargain, except probably without this type of passive-aggressive modality? In point of fact, the whole rhetoric of Blinken and Sullivan is passive-aggressive in a way I did not find the Chinese response to be. Both sides affirm themselves. And the Americans affirm what they appear to deny: “we do not seek conflict, but we welcome stiff competition and we will always stand up for our principles, for our people and for our friends.” Basic diplomatic tic is not to name the “foes,” who are painted as such across the tables in Anchorage. Affirmation of competition by the hosts and the surrounding decoration is not festive, to say the least. Would you feel warmly welcome by this pair (Blinken and Sullivan) who may meet you in Alaska, but are strategically thinking about the Indo-Pacific? The engineers of the Monroe Doctrine do not like hearing the “Asia for Asians.” They see it as a provocation.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Source AP via www.voanews.com, March 14, 2021)
How surprising this Blinken-Sullivan salvo might have been to the Chinese is uncertain. Would you let this go? Truth of the matter is that the Chinese representatives took their time in addressing in Mandarin the claims of the Americans. I can only say, well done. If the hope is for a sincere and candid dialogue, there has got to be a presumption of equality, if only formal. Blinked and Sullivan broke this unilaterally from the very beginning. Director Yang starts by mentioning the Chinese plans for full modernisation passing through 2035 and reaching the end of 2050, thirty years ahead. China is said to have completed “decisive achievements and important strategic gains.” Covid-19 is mentioned first. No numbers to embarrass the U.S., with the worst record in the world. “Full victory” in ending “absolute poverty” goes second. China’s GDP is only one fifth of the U.S., Jiechi does not hide it, but it is this horizon of poverty erasure that is presented to all the nations of the world. Yang Jiechi speaks of the current achievement of “moderate prosperity,” far away from any bombast. He defends that China’s values “are the same as the common values of humanity.” And he lists them (peace, development, fairness, justice, freedom, democracy). The Chinese people are “wholly rallying around the Communist Party of China.” So, two competing universalist claims made by the Americans and the Chinese as they sit apart and masked at Anchorage. I did not see the standard photo of the leading representatives at the end of the meeting.
@ Frederic J. Brown / Pool via Reuters
Director Yang (as the transcript has it, is it customary to use the first name in Chinese?) insists on the following crucial point: “what China and the international community follow or uphold is the United Nations-centred international system and the international order underpinned by international law, not what is advocated by a small number of countries of the so-called “rules-based” (sic in quotation marks in the transcript) international order.” Your universalism and mine. Yang Jiechi decouples U.S. and world interests and detotalizes Blinken’s claims. The relativisation operation is direct and clear, open, unmistakable, unassailable.Your democracy and our democracy. “It is not up to the American people, but also the people of the world to evaluate how the United States has done in advancing its own democracy.” China follows the “principles of the UN Charter.” She is committed to peace and the development of the world. Neither side mentioned the word “capitalism.” Communism is mentioned in exclusive relation to the Communist Chinese Party. It is then “development” and those conversant with Chinese will make fruitful connections. War is launched by others. The principle of Chinese foreign policy is “the path of peaceful development.” China, like a big civilizational creature moving through the world of smaller cultures, does not believe in the use of force or in the massacre of the people of other countries. Peace and development oppose turmoil and instability benefitting no one, the U.S. included. So, who has been causing trouble of late? Who is the trouble-maker?
If that was not enough, there is more: “it is important for the U.S. to change its own image and to stop advancing its own democracy to the rest of the world.” Introspection and self-interrogation are encouraged, and this is probably not to be done in front of the microphones in Alaska. Doubts about American democracy are world-wide and also internal, the top Chinese representative says. Hence, the Americans should not lecture or preach to others what they are not practising at home. Again, you have your democracy, that is not living its best moments, and we have ours and the Chinese support for the Communist Party of China is solid, even according to some studies made by you in the U.S. (the language of techno and technocratic democracies is used in some quarters in opposition to the ideologically charged “liberal democracies”).The history lesson continues with the reference to 1952, starting the five-year planning. So, the beginning of the Chinese Lunar Year coincides with the first year of the 14th five year development planning. If the speech was improvised, this is remarkable Chinese long-term vision in contrast to the more ad hoc, short-term reaction of the Americans changing from one bad administration (Trump) to perhaps another (Biden; we should recall the famous photograph of the situation room during the Obama administration apropos the elimination of Osama Bin Laden on May 1st, 2011 with Biden, Hilary Clinton and a 49-year-old Blinken in the back of the room).
Photo AFP, Source South China Morning Post (https://www.scmp.com/comment/opinion/article/3126299/despite-sniping-alaska-talks-show-china-and-us-do-seek-more, access date 1 April 2021).
There are no embarrassing references in the vicinity of this projection of the Chinese planning and three-decade growth projection. There is no triumphalism and not perceptible superpower ego. The strong identity claim: China’s development contributes to the development of the world in the 21st century.There is no reference to the Belt and Road initiative, scheduled to be completed by 2049 and including 70 countries, but we can add it. The U.S. has nothing comparable. The entire language about infrastructure is about inward-looking and a sense of decline. The U.S. is invited as a big country to share responsibility towards peace, stability, “development of the world” in areas such as climate change. The encouragement is to “abandon the Cold-War mentality and the zero-sum game approach.” Rhetoric links up to the big vision of “united together: a shared future for mankind.” It may sound old-fashioned but there is no missing bit in the “global” cultural translation. So, a new type of international relations is needed ensuring “fairness, justice and mutual respect.” Blinken’s introductory remarks failed the mark of the latter, quintessentially American in the sense of not wanting to contemplate the possibility of “not leading,” of being second best, and better focus on the many problems at home. Its mono-perspectivism speaks on behalf of the universal good of “their” world order admitting to no blunders past, present and future. Blinken’s discourse is of constant reinvention. This “liberalism,” never neo-liberalism, taboo theme for this officialdom, is secularism of this providentialist belief that will die hard: the Americans are the chosen few in charge of the salvation of the history of the world against the competitors and appointed enemies.
Yang Jiechi puts the mirror in front of the U.S., its “long-arm jurisdiction and suppression (sic) and overstretched national security through the use of force or financial hegemony.” This is what has created obstacles for “normal trade activities.” It is the U.S. who “has been persuading some countries to launch attacks on China.” Moving the carpet from under the Secretary of State’s feet, “Japan and the ROK [South Korea] / ASEAN countries are now China’s largest trading partner, overtaking the U.S. and E.U.” The encouragement is for the U.S. to develop relations with all countries in the Asia-Pacific. This is the “right way forward” in the new century. Be my guest.
Antony Blinken, US secretary of state, left, and Jake Sullivan, national security adviser, who said: ‘We were clear-eyed coming in, we’re clear-eyed coming out’ © Reuters (via The Financial Times).
There is more. The presidents already talked on the phone “on the eve of the Chinese Lunar New Year” (11 February). So, there is already some sort of agreement between them initially brokered then. What else is for the state officials to do? Xinjiang, Tibet and Taiwan are “inalienable part of China’s territory.” China opposes U.S. interference in China’s internal affairs and they will take firm action in response. Can we imagine for a moment the other way round the proclamation of freedom of navigation in the Caribbean waters, the protests about Guantanamo Bay and Puerto Rico, the solidarity with the Red, Black and Brown peoples, the Black Lives Matter, the fracture of international treatises under Trump, the bad manners, loud proclamations of a looming Chinese century, etc.? The topic of “human rights” is picked up. Biden is not really going to be a repeat of Jimmy Carter’s “human-rights” focused administration. There are many problems about human rights within the U.S., Yang Jiechi says. And who would deny it? It is a failure to “use various means to topple so-called “authoritarian” (sic, with quotation marks in the transcript) states.” Another crucial point, squarely into the conventionally American trope of the dichotomous and Manichean liberal-authoritarian dyad (“we are always already the eternal liberal ideal, with occasional mistakes, and they are always already authoritarians out there.” Diverse adverbs do not change in essence the two substances, the good American and the bad Chinese, or bad Russian or bad Iranian, etc.). Xenophobia is typical, coarser frame of intelligibility of foreign relations, not only with the Chinese. The Rest of the World (RoW, and the rubric exists) is always already default position vis-a-vis the podium of America, with or without its problems then and now and tomorrow. Yan Jiechi exposes the American internationalism on the carpet (America never learns from the RoW, America imposes itself, or tries to, calls the kettle black, does not see the beam in its own eye, etc.). The undiplomatic exchange makes this point clear.
@ File Photo Xinhua / Source GT (Global Times)
Yang Jiechi continues: the problems of the human rights in the U.S. are “deep seated.” They do not start in the last four years (Trump is not mentioned by name but the reference is clear). The mention of “Black Lives Matter” is included to make the point, in case anyone might have imagined that America is not studied, by the Chinese too. Who has a better vision of each other’s society? The proposed solution: to attend to our own problems and not to “deflect blame on somebody else in this world.” Unassailable. The champion of cyber-attacks? The U.S. The economic aspect is the main area of competition and American businesses are already doing good business in China (“nobody has forced them to stay in China”). So the words are for cooperation, collaborative responses to frictions and to avoid confrontations of the past that benefit no one.
Internationalism is not be taken for granted. The final cherry on top: The U.S. and the Western world do not represent international public opinion. The comparative frame is the “population scale” and the “trend of the world.” The blindness of empire about the “RoW:” Yang Jiechi returns to the conventional arrogation of universalist claims by the U.S. government (idem with Ikenberry’s aforementioned book that finds no knowledge whatsoever in the RoW outside his choice of a narrow Anglo Zone, “liberal” internationalism is force multiplier of American expansionism and little else). How often do you see this type of rebuke that reminds monoperspectivism that there is multi-perspectivism? The U.S. is not the total or perhaps even the most inspiring and unavoidable democratic nation in the world, but one important part of the larger world dimension. And this “cultural-relativity operation” is executed by high-ranking state officials of a colossal nation? The U.S. does what others: pursue their interests, no more no less. No need for global clothes: “I do not think that the overwhelming majority of countries in the world would recognise that the universal values advocated by the U.S. or that the opinion of the U.S. could represent international public opinion, and those countries would not recognise that the rules made by a small number of people would serve as the basis for the international order.” Councillor Wang’s brief intervention sharpened some of the same points already made. The international order is the big game and official American rhetoric is never the only game in the town of Anchorage, Alaska or anywhere else. This Anchorage meeting is symptomatic of the geopolitics, (in-)visible, (in-)audible, open and secretive, of the United States and China in the interregnum.
Vast transformations are taking place at this moment and I am highlighting the U.S. in the end: “we Americans, we masters of the world, are in something of that very position [as Hegel’s Master and Slave dialectics]. The view from the top is epistemologically crippling, and reduces its subjects to the illusions of a host of fragmented subjectivities, to the poverty of the individual experience of isolated monads, to dying individual bodies without collective pasts or futures bereft of any possibility of grasping a social totality. This placeless individuality, this structural idealism which affords us the luxury of the Sartrean blink, offers a welcome escape from the “nightmare of history,” but at the same time it condemns our culture to psychologism and the “projections” of private subjectivity… [F]or us, such accustomed exposure to reality, or to the collective totality, is often intolerable” (Fredric Jameson, Allegory and Ideology (Verso, 2019 (2020); p. 186).
Yang Jiechi, Member of Political Bureau of CPC
Central Committee (Source Xinhua, Editor ZD).
These four state officials have not told us anything we did not already know for a long time. Yet, it is good to see the relativity operation of the Chinese representatives for the whole wide world to see. Where have civilisations and cultures gone at this juncture of global capitalism undergoing upheavals and convulsions in what is already called the “covid decade”? Perhaps the colossal dimension of China will revive some old languages, ambitious history and (continental-size) philosophy too, so that foreign affairs and international relations do not walk all alone, like meninas to their big states, giving us shrivelled up (neo-)liberal visions of a mono-perspectival and miserable world, typically in nationalist or jingo modes. Never falling for methodological nationalism of International Relations (IR), internationalism is here brought to the table as something that is not obvious. And it just might be that the construction of the “national allegory” hits now “home,” almost boomerang-like from behind, in the gradual decline of the U.S., its third-world implosions of late capitalism mixing with racial and ethnic tensions, its white and non-white imaginaries, the messy tangle of universalising and externalising tendencies and de-universalising entrenchments. “Literatures” will exist under the wings of foreign relations, more bad than good, and perhaps these will turn out to be more unpredictable, surprising and exciting, going in several directions there.
Warwick, 31st March 2021.
Anchorage, Alaska, panoramic view (source audleytravel.com)