Friday, December 24, 2021


Zhou Enlai at Bandung Conference in 1955

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken recently set out on a tour of Southeast Asia, visiting Indonesia and Malaysia before a COVID-19 scare prompted an emergency return to the U.S.  Blinken was seeking to bolster U.S. influence in a region that was sorely neglected during the Trump administration and remains neglected today.

The unspoken agenda of the diplomatic tour was to rally Southeast Asian countries to curry favor for good of Uncle Sam and not cede the field to the rising dragon of China which has obtained growing clout in direct proportion to U.S. decline in the region.

Although Indonesia is far from China and has a long history of disputes with the same, Blinken’s warm welcome in Jakarta was marred by the simultaneous arrival of Sergei Lavrov, his counterpart from Russia. Blinken went ahead with his planned schedule, meeting President Joko Widodo and giving a speech at a local university, but the contemporaneous presence of Russia’s top diplomat at a time when Russia and China appear to be increasingly aligned in opposing U.S. hegemony, was a spoiler for the trip.

Not surprisingly, Blinken’s speech was all about containing China, partly expressed in code, partly put in blunt terms. Indeed, he suggested the U.S. counter Chinese influence by all means necessary, or as he put it, by creating a strategy that weaves together “all our instruments of national power -- diplomacy, military, and intelligence.”

Blinken’s aborted trip to Thailand means that the perceived tilt of Thailand away from the U.S. and towards China will have to be addressed long-distance for now, and given that Washington, DC is rife with domestic political distractions, not much is likely to get done in the interim.

But Thailand remains a frontline country in the battle for hearts and minds and economic influence between the U.S. and China. Despite a long head start—the U.S. highway building program in Thailand took dramatic shape in the 1950’s when dollars started to pour in and airports and highways were built. The strategic Friendship Highway which runs from Bangkok to the Lao border on the Mekong River was in some ways akin to China’s railway diplomacy today.

In recent decades, however, the U.S. has started to lag behind China in the push to improve bilateral relations with Bangkok, complicated by human rights problems under Thailand’s thinly-veiled military rule. Sometimes concern for human rights gets in the way of fostering investment and developing infrastructure to facilitate trade, sometimes it’s just inattention and neglect.

China just celebrated the opening of a six-billion dollar high speed rail project connecting Kunming to Vientiane, and it has been active in seeking to extend its fast rail prowess into Thailand as well. For better or worse, Thai political quibbling and sporadic opposition to the idea of directly connecting China with Thailand has left uncertain the future of the Thai segment of China’s ambitious rail project, but even the Lao segment of the fast train is a potential game-changer.

China can now flood Thailand with cheap, quality products, and import the raw materials it seeks, from Thailand, which is just a bridge away, since the terminus of the Lao rail project is located right across the river from the Thai city of Nongkhai, which is known as the “gateway to Vientiane.”

During his curtailed visit to Malaysia, Blinken focused on the thorny problem of Myanmar. Blinken urged Malaysia, and by extension, all members of ASEAN to reconsider their long held policy preference for neutrality and the historic stance on non-interference.

China proclaims the principle of non-interference, and this ideal—rarely met in practice—has deep Southeast Asian roots going back to the core principles espoused at the influential Bandung Conference held in West Java in 1955.  

At that time, China’s Zhou Enlai met with conference host Sukarno, India’s Jawaharlal Nehru, Burma’s U Nu and Egypt’s Gamal Nasser among other leaders to counter Western influence and to promote Third World unity. The ideological thrust, the so-called “spirit of Bandung,” became a lasting project that informed foreign policy planks and eventually took form as the non-aligned movement (NAM) in 1961.

“I understand that we celebrate the principles of non-interference,” Blinken told his hosts, but then added: “ASEAN should also look at the principle of non-indifference because what happens in Myanmar is already getting out of Myanmar.”

Indeed Myanmar’s neighbors on all sides—China, Bangladesh, Thailand and Malaysia–have been rocked by refugees and belligerent acts of war near their borders. Malaysia alone is host to nearly 200,000 Rohingya refugees and Bangladesh has been reeling from the forced migration of the Rohinga escaping military abuse in west Myanmar. Thailand has reported spillovers of fighting along the border.

Blinken’s artful turn of phrase, which in a single breath acknowledges the history of “non-interference” but suggests that “non-indifference” is a more appropriate stance for the current age, has direct implications for China.

China is as wary of unrest in Myanmar as any country because the two nations share a long, difficult-to-patrol border, and illegal border-crossings, while once common, are increasingly considered an existential threat during this time of worldwide pandemic. Emergency fences have been erected and normally thriving Sino-Burma border towns have gone silent.

But China and Myanmar recently struck a deal to conduct trade in RMB instead of dollars and Beijing remains reluctant to criticize the regime in Naypyitaw. This is in keeping with a stated preference for non-interference, and perhaps a reflection of the hurt that China has historically experienced as the target of denunciation by the West.

But there’s self-interest at stake, too, because China has invested a great deal in Myanmar and has vital infrastructure projects in play. Beijing’s seemingly callous disregard for the social breakdown in Burma may comport well with the idea of “non-interference” but it fails the test of “non-indifference.”

Will a newly-strong, newly-confident China have the courage to care about what happens in the countries it does big business with, or is it business as usual under the fig-leaf of “non-interference?”


 (China-US Focus) December 24, 2021 Philip Cunningham Independent Scholar

Wednesday, December 22, 2021


How the Indo-Pacific became the new arena for US-China rivalry

  • As Washington ups its interest in Southeast Asia, it has made ‘Indo-Pacific’ its preferred term for the vast region that stretches from India to Australia
  • The name is an attempt to align geographic and political categories as the US competes with China for influence

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks at the University of Indonesia, in Jakarta, on December 14, as part of US attempts to boost engagement in Southeast Asia. Photo: Reuters
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks at the University of Indonesia, in Jakarta, on December 14, as part of US attempts to boost engagement in Southeast Asia. Photo: Reuters

During his recent visit to Southeast Asia, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken found just the right diplomatic note to describe the sudden uptick of US interest in a region long neglected in Washington’s corridors of power.

“It’s not about a contest between a US-centric region or a China-centric region – the Indo-Pacific is its own region,” he said.

Diplomatic niceties aside, the competition between the US and China for the hearts and minds of Southeast Asia is heating up. It is a contest, and Washington and Beijing are keen to outdo one another in spreading influence in the region.

As for the Indo-Pacific being “its own region”, that anodyne phrase is also up for debate. Every region is its own region, but when boundaries are conjured up with little basis in reality or fact, purely for political purposes, is it even meaningful to think of it as a region?

The term “Indo-Pacific” remains controversial. Outside marine biology, it is close to meaningless. Historically, it was used between the two world wars in Berlin, where policymakers envisioned a German alliance with India and China. Nowadays, the only reason it is being bandied about is because the United States is changing the terminology of the game as it goes along.

It’s a linguistic sleight of hand that lets the US include India in its China encirclement strategy.

And it’s not the first time Washington has adjusted the political map to bolster its agenda. The Asia-Pacific Economic Forum (Apec) is a prime example. The term Asia-Pacific, or Apac for short, is a grand geographical sweep that has gained credibility as a region since the 1989 founding of the forum.

In fact, Apac is so broad a category that it constitutes more than half the planet, with only Europe and Africa excluded by definition. Still, this expansive term gained currency during the heyday of globalism when the annual Apec summits were among the most significant convocations of global power.

As US-China tensions began to rise, however, and the US strategy for containing China took on a more confrontational edge, any grouping that excluded India was problematic. That’s not only because India’s rapid development and population rise in recent years is such that it is seen as the “new” China, but because India has always been a natural counterweight to China.

The US thus roped India, which is not a Pacific country, into the “OK Corral” by popularising the hybrid term, Indo-Pacific.

This broad-brush category was further refined with the founding of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or Quad. Composed of the US, India, Japan and Australia, the Quad is scattershot in its geography, but it functions as a US-led political posse of like-minded democracies designed to check Chinese influence.

Blinken’s much-touted trip to shore up alliances in the Indo-Pacific was cut short when a member of his team tested positive for Covid-19 while the entourage was in Malaysia. The rest of the tour was cancelled, a setback for US-Thai relations since Thailand is a frontline country in the battle for influence between the US and China.

The December grand opening of the US$6 billion Kunming-Vientiane Railway connecting China to Laos by high-speed train has the US worried that Laos has become a de facto satellite state, and Thailand is just next door.

The opening of the Laos-China railway in December has sparked fears in Washington that Beijing will extend its sway in neighbouring Thailand, a key state in the US-China battle for influence in Southeast Asia. Photo: Xinhua
The opening of the Laos-China railway in December has sparked fears in Washington that Beijing will extend its sway in neighbouring Thailand, a key state in the US-China battle for influence in Southeast Asia. Photo: Xinhua

There is unease in Thailand about China’s newly improved reach, and it is significant that the proposed Thai portion of the railway is still subject to debate. The Laos connection alone allows low-cost Chinese goods to flood into Thailand from the China-built railway terminus, just a Mekong River bridge away from the Thai hinterland region of Isan.

As other regions have learned to their short-term delight and long-term detriment, quality goods produced efficiently due to China’s economies of scale and state coddling may be a boon to consumers but a nightmare for local competitors.

Opening the spigots of trade with China, for which the new rail link is the key pipeline, will benefit select exporters in Thailand and beyond, but will pose a serious threat to local manufacturers and farm businesses unable to compete at scale on Chinese terms. Thai industries that produce intermediate goods for export are likely to be among the biggest losers.

Australia is an object lesson for the region about how exports to China can halt abruptly if Beijing becomes displeased for political reasons. On the other hand, Australia’s role in the Quad, like that of Japan, looks increasingly like a proxy for the US position on China.

If there is any doubt that “Indo-Pacific” and its core grouping known as the Quad are shorthand for China containment, consider this CNN headline: “Blinken says the Indo-Pacific will shape the trajectory of the 21st century as counterweight to China’s aggressive actions”.

During his December 14 speech in Indonesia, Blinken said China was the “biggest geopolitical test of the 21st century” and its “aggressive actions” threaten US$3 trillion of commerce annually.

Declaring that China’s behaviour had to change, Blinken said: “We’ll adopt a strategy that more closely weaves together all our instruments of national power – diplomacy, military, intelligence – with those of our allies and partners.”

Philip J. Cunningham has been a regular visitor to China since 1983, working variously as a tour guide, TV producer, freelance writer, independent scholar and teacher

Monday, December 20, 2021


It’s too early to say if the Biden administration’s decision to boycott the Beijing Olympics at the governmental level is a case of having your cake and eating it too, or biting off more than you can chew. 

“This is just an indication that it cannot be business as usual,” said White House spokesperson Jan Psaki, who then indicated that business will go on as usual, adding, “The athletes on Team USA have our full support. We will be behind them 100% as we cheer them on from home." 

 Deft diplomacy or daft equivocating? 

On the one hand, Biden needs to keep channels of communication open with China. On the other hand, he has to answer to anti-China sentiments of members of his own party and the pressure from the political opposition to be ruthless on China.

Perhaps indicative of the built-in hedge, so far he has let subordinates do most of the talking. "We have a fundamental commitment to promoting human rights,” Psaki added. “And we feel strongly in our position and we will continue to take actions to advance human rights in China and beyond." Secretary of State Antony Blinken stressed the importance of a “shared approach.”

But punishing Beijing in a small symbolic way does not satisfy the big hunger of the red-meat crowd.

“A diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Olympics is a joke,” Trump nominated diplomat Nikki Haley tweeted, “China doesn’t care if Biden and Team show up. They want our athletes.” Former State Department head Mike Pompeo added to the furor: “The United States must rally its allies and partners to fully boycott the upcoming Olympic games in Beijing.” 

Even the U.S. Holocaust Museum jumped into the fray: "Today, the White House announced a diplomatic boycott of the Olympics due to crimes committed against the Uyghurs. History has shown us how the Olympics can be used for propaganda.”

The U.S. has made its power play. How will China react? 

Early indications suggest it will not react well. Various tropes are being floated by official spokesman and pro-government voices. How do those politicians who have not been invited have the nerve to talk of boycotts? And there’s the usual what-about-ism. What about the U.S. genocide of Native Americans? What about the brutal enslavement of Africans, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? 

This is a tough moment for China in public relations terms. Officials are irked, but if they strike out too aggressively, they may only worsen the situation. There has been so much childish tit-for-tat between the U.S. and China ever since Trump took office that it has engendered a dynamic that limits the ability of both sides to roll up their sleeves and sort out their ongoing relational challenges. 

Indeed, there is danger that a few well-placed shots could start an avalanche that buries the Beijing Olympics altogether. Biden’s bifurcated call might not seem a powerful hit, but as it comes from a respected leader in a high office, it could set off a series of other impromptu and opportunistic calls for a boycott, like we have already seen with Australia, the U.K., and Canada. Although Beijing-bashing is one of the few cross-the-aisle issues that Democrats and Republicans find themselves in agreement on, motivations vary. 

And while the timing is coincidental, the boycott of tennis matches in China by the World Tennis Association in response to the ongoing Peng Shuai case has also created a concatenation of doubts about China. The tennis story gets an inordinate amount of attention because it has been orchestrated and amplified by a U.S. media machine looking for a story that their "me, too" readers can relate to. 

The endless trickle of sober reports from Xinjiang make for depressing reading, but international outrage has been muted. The narrative as framed to date fails the attention test both due to compassion fatigue and specious claims of genocide which undermine alleged claims of genuine abuse. 

 Public opinion is as fickle as a bouncing ball, and the commercial media has seized on this, because it profits most when it tells a story its audience is primed for and ready to hear. Even stories that purport to speak to truth and justice get repackaged and spun to please and incite, speaking to pre-existing inclinations and prejudices. 

Biden may have lobbed an easy shot, but it would be a tactical mistake for China to respond with a hard slam, as the U.S. has been spinning its serves to China for some time now.

Thursday, December 9, 2021


A traditional ceremony is held at the Vientiane railway station in Laos on December 2, 2021. The opening of the China-Laos railway has been heavily promoted by the two countries. Photo: XinhuaA traditional ceremony is held at the Vientiane railway station in Laos on December 2, 2021. The opening of the China-Laos railway has been heavily promoted by the two countries. Photo: Xinhua
Published: 9 December 2021

As China brings Laos into its fold, will the US seek to reset relations to counter Beijing?

  • The China-Laos railway may have all but sealed Laos’ fate as a satellite state, but the resurgence of Cold War rivalry could tempt Washington to compete for influence
  • Laos could benefit from the added competition, as its economy remains fragile and burdened by debt

China’s US$6 billion high-speed railway in Laos has just opened for business. Promotional videos in both Lao and Chinese feature shots of a slick new train gliding through tunnels. Lao songs use the Chinese phrase yidai yilu, praising the Belt and Road Initiative. Uniformed train attendants press their hands together in greeting, promising a journey that is as smooth as silk.

It remains to be seen, however, just how much business there is in Laos, a poor country where annual GDP is around US$18 billion and where few citizens can afford to travel on the fancy new train, or would indeed want to, given it is not possible at present to go beyond Botan, a border town best known for its now-defunct casino.

The link to Kunming runs over 1000km, and will certainly be a boon to moving cargo to and from China, reducing the need for back-road trucking. But cynics will point to its penetration of the Laotian heartland as a strategic vulnerability.

The railway is not necessary infrastructure, nor is it market-driven economic investment, and it won’t be much of a political win-win scenario until Laos discharges its mounting debt, which is partially backed by making five potash mines available to China.

Cyclists ride through a cultural heritage village in Central Laos. The Laotian economy remains fragile, with Chinese investment so far only adding to its debt burden. Photo: Avalon/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Cyclists ride through a cultural heritage village in Central Laos. The Laotian economy remains fragile, with Chinese investment so far only adding to its debt burden. Photo: Avalon/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

It’s easy to be sceptical about anything that increases the reach of a powerful country of 1.3 billion people into a precarious state of just 7 million, but the need for Laos to bend to outside influences is not new.

Laos has been used as a stamping ground before, first by the French who colonised it as part of their Indochina project and then by the Americans, who bombed it back to the Stone Age during the Vietnam war.

When Hanoi-backed forces decisively won that war, Vietnam became the new bully on the block, infiltrating Laos as only a “fraternal” communist country could.

Beijing, Bangkok and Hanoi are Vientiane’s three biggest trading partners. Thailand shares a long border and a long history with Laos, and unlike Vietnam, has intimate linguistic and cultural links with its neighbour across the Mekong.

What Thailand does not have, though, is the technical prowess, political will and deep pockets that have allowed China to dominate the fragile Laotian economy.

The US, with exports valued at less than US$25 million, does not have significant trade with Laos. Its greatest feat of outreach in recent years was a promise of funds to get rid of the unexploded ordinance left from the 2.5 million tons of bombs it dropped.

A team from the charity Mines Advisory Group inspects an unexploded shell in Laos’ northern Xiangkhoang province on April 3, 2008. Laos became the world’s most bombed country in history during the Vietnam war, resulting in a complex relationship with the US today. Photo: AFP
A team from the charity Mines Advisory Group inspects an unexploded shell in Laos’ northern Xiangkhoang province on April 3, 2008. Laos became the world’s most bombed country in history during the Vietnam war, resulting in a complex relationship with the US today. Photo: AFP

Daniel Runde, a vice-president at the Washington-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies, recently argued that the US should “reset” relations with Laos even though it has already been written off as a satellite state of China. Smart investments in things like solar power would stand in contrast to the Chinese dams which pose a threat to the environment and have added to Laos’ debt burden.

Runde is onto something important. Relations are marked by a pointed lack of US interest, despite its long chequered history of intervention in Laos.

Vang Vieng, one of the 10 stops on the new railway, was home to a US military outpost for training Lao to kill their pro-communist countrymen. But as Laos sinks deeper into China’s embrace, it may wish to increase it options and its ability to say no, in which case shoring up ties with its old adversary may be a shrewd move. 

The recent uptick in Cold-War-style rivalry could change that; the desire to defeat a nominally communist regime by proxy may yet lead Washington to compete for the hearts and minds of the Laotian people again.

This time, the US needs a defter, more gentle hand. Laos will be the loser if it allows itself to become a battleground in a new cold war that turns hot. However, if the battle of wills between Washington and Beijing remains cool, and money is pouring in from both sides, it might turn out to be win-win after all – at least for a while.

Philip J. Cunningham has been a regular visitor to China since 1983, working variously as a tour guide, TV producer, freelance writer, independent scholar and teacher

Philip J. Cunningham

Philip J. Cunningham

Philip J. Cunningham has been a regular visitor to China since 1983, working variously as a tour guide, TV producer, freelance writer, independent scholar and teacher. He has conducted media research in China as a Knight Fellow and Fulbright Scholar and was the recipient of a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard. He is the author of Tiananmen Moon, a first-hand account of the 1989 protests in Beijing.

Friday, December 3, 2021


“The sky is falling,” cried Chicken Little. “The sky is falling!” 

The fable of Chicken Little teaches children that doomsayers are not always right. One needs to keep a cool head and judge things for oneself. 

Adults reading Western news reports hyping the China threat would be wise to keep this elementary lesson in mind. 

The breathless and sensationalist China-slamming reports produced by British and American media these days have let loose a flock of clucking successors to Chicken Little. It’s not just deplorable journalism to hype doom and gloom to enhance ratings and clicks, because in the worst-case scenario, a media campaign, even one based on spurious reports, can inculcate fear and create a knee-jerk consensus for action. 

We saw this happen in the run-up to the war in Iraq, in which the media call to arms was clouded by undocumented claims of chemical weapons. 

The lesson? Beware of political opportunism and profiteering when a media outlet starts banging the drums for war. 

An October 16, 2021, “scoop” on China's missile capabilities in the Financial Times by Demetri Sevastopulo, in Washington, and Kathrin Hille, in Taipei, is a case in point:

“China tests new space capability with hypersonic missile: Launch in August of nuclear-capable rocket that circled the globe took US intelligence by surprise.”

Sevastopulo goes on to quote Michael Gallagher, a Republican member of the House Armed Services Committee, who says the test should “serve as a call to action.” 

“A Sputnik moment” declared Politico managing editor Blake Hounshell. Soon echoes of the FT finding were amplified on Fox News, where Texas Senator Michael McCaul invoked Sputnik and hypersonics to lament that the new Cold War was being fought with stolen technology.  

If FT’s “scoop,” and the attendant call to arms and action, is in any way comparable to the Soviet Union’s epoch-defining strategic leap when they launched the first satellite into space, then we are in trouble. 

To declare a “Sputnik moment” at a time like this is to double-down on isolating China and to incite the U.S. military industrial complex to churn out newer weapons and launch capabilities, endowing the defense business, and the business of defense, with tons of money at taxpayer expense. 

The Wall Street Journal editorial board joined the drum-banging on Oct. 18, 2021:

“China’s Hypersonic Wake-Up Call: A missile test shows the next war won’t be anything like the last one.” 

Then scientists began to speak out against the hype, and the New York Times, despite its penchant for negative China news, helped put a stop to the media contagion: 

“If China Tested a New Orbital Weapon, It’s Not Much of a Surprise: Experts report that similar technologies were developed by Russia and the United States starting more than a half century ago.” 

It was the Times’ science writer William Broad who questioned the validity of the incessant drum-banging. His no-nonsense piece about FT’s self-declared “scoop” quotes Harvard astronomer Jonathan McDowell as saying, “Every aspect of this story has question marks.” 

Sometimes question marks are a good thing. 

Even FT reporter Demetri Sevastopulo backstepped a bit, with a self-deprecating joke on Twitter: Ever have one of those days where you wish you had a PhD in astrophysics? Asking for a friend. 

The way news is dished out these days, fast and furious, and often in keeping with the prejudices of the moment, the misinformation piles up until the truth is obscured. 

Even the most reputable sources can at times produce polished, fact-checked reports that turn out to be wrong. Sometimes reports are unduly one-sided, at other times incomplete or poorly sourced. Sometimes the political agenda of the owners influences the better judgement of the staff. 

The “hair-raising” FT article revealed that China could launch a rocket that would take it in orbit almost all the way around the planet—via the South Pole no less—and deliver a drone-type strike on a target in the Western hemisphere. 

Carnegie Fellow and nuclear policy researcher Ankit Panda mocked the media hype, suggesting that the “Sputnik” moment means to "get nuked, but slower than normal, from the other side." 

Slow or not, any nuclear bombing capability is troubling. Nor will any good come from  jump-starting a costly and dangerous arms race. Both the United States and the Soviet Union have had the capacity to do devastating things to one another since the 1960s. That China can now do so, and is expected in the near future to show an enhanced capability to do more such things in slightly novel and previously untested ways testifies to mankind’s paradoxical ability to up the capability for self-destruction. 

So why is China even testing such things? And why is the U.S. doing likewise? 

The recent in-depth virtual talks between Biden and Xi are a welcome development. At a time of hyped-up military posturing, it takes cooperation, and cool heads at the top, to keep in check hardcore elements who want to go the Dr. Strangelove route of ensuring mutually assured destruction. 

A nuclear winter might slow the rate of global warming, but there won’t be many people left to enjoy it. The November 16 announcement that Biden and Xi are willing to look into arms control talks is a step in the right direction. Such talks helped the U.S. and USSR dial down dangerous tensions and reduce arsenals that could have destroyed the world many times over. 

This is as good a time as any for the U.S. and China do the same.

Wednesday, December 1, 2021





Xi-Biden talks: Virtual Summits Have Come of Age

Nov 30, 2021  CHINA-US FOCUS

The November 15 virtual summit between Xi Jinping and Joe Biden represents a step forward in a new kind of diplomacy. 

In contrast to the recently concluded COP26 global meet in Glasgow, which did not meet the high expectations many held, the success of the virtual talks comes as an encouraging surprise. 

Although Glasgow drew an incredible 100-plus heads of state, thousands of experts, and forty thousand delegates—impressive numbers for any summit by any reckoning—not a whole lot was accomplished. 

Although activists around the world are understandably eager to engage in-person, the carbon footprint of feeding and housing so many guests, the traffic control of so many motorcades, the fumes of so many idling cars, and the environmental cost of so many jets ferrying delegates back and forth is not trivial. In fact, by appealing to global leaders with the promise of luxurious “first-class” arrangements, the fancy meet has made a mockery of curbing human energy expenditures. 

In contrast, the virtual meeting conducted via videolink between U.S. President Joe Biden and China’s Xi Jinping consumed relatively little energy, and involved not a single jet or traffic jam, but produced promising results, setting in motion a bilateral agenda for climate agreements, trade issues, territorial issues and arms control. 

Although Xi Jinping was roundly criticized for not attending the Glasgow summit in person, did the already-jam-packed venue really need a few more jumbo jets and a supporting delegation numbering in the hundreds for a few photo ops? 

Face-to-face meetings retain a rightful pride of place in our global political culture, but in recent years at least, summits too often become bloated with massive security bubbles, lavish food and beverage requirements and first class hotel service, the net sum of which is a boon to no one, except perhaps the host city and a few airlines, livery services, hotels and caterers. 

And in the case of Biden and Xi in particular, the media trumped-up imperative of having an in-person meet, because that’s how “real” leaders meet, is substantially reduced by the fact that they have met in person already, and many times at that. 

With so many urgent problems and so little time, dialing it in is a reasonably effective way of bolstering international cooperation. 

"We've spent an awful lot of time talking to one another, and I hope we can have a candid conversation tonight as well," Biden said at the outset of the virtual summit, beaming his message to China with state-of-the-art-equipment, camera work and lighting from the comfort of the Roosevelt Room of the White House. 

"Although it's not as good as a face-to-face meeting," Xi said, speaking from the equally comfortable Great Hall of the People, "I'm very happy to see my old friend." 

The two leaders spoke for three and a half hours, which was longer than planned, and perhaps longer than either would have been comfortable with in person. They could exchange messages in the relative comfort of their own private offices without having the distractions of jetlag, a huge entourage, hotel arrangements, security bubbles, bodyguards, not to mention the inconvenient demands for social distancing and observation of quarantine rules. 

As they spoke, Biden and Xi compared notes on previous travels and made reference to previous in-person meets, touching on the need to keep lines of communication open. They breached numerous topics, ranging from human rights in Xinjiang and Tibet to sensitivities regarding Taiwan, and of course trade issues. 

 A few concessions were made before the talks even began, with each side agreeing to relax restrictions on the exchange of journalists and media workers. 

Joe Biden is a gregarious politician who has spent half a century pressing the flesh, posing for photos, holding babies, doing meets and greets with constituents, and duking it out with colleagues in Congress, so he can be considered a master of the in-person game. As such, he was reportedly skeptical at first about the November 15 virtual summit. 

Likewise, Xi Jinping is said to prefer in-person meetings. This is demonstrably the case when the world comes to Beijing. As a leader with a growing personality cult and authoritarian leanings, great benefit accrues to Xi in terms of political symbolism if he can host a well-choreographed brimming with pomp and circumstance on his own terms on his home turf. 

In contrast, foreign travel is not as conducive to Xi’s media needs, especially when meetings are held in an over-crowded venue outside China, such as Glasgow. For an image-conscious leader, foreign travel necessarily involves complex security logistics, chance happenings and the inconvenience of unscripted narratives. 

So both leaders, each for reasons and inclinations of their own, are not natural candidates for television-link summitry. But they both rose to the occasion this month and hopefully will build on that to keep the conversation going. By staging such a meet, they demonstrated that virtual summitry is of value. In the midst of global disappointment with Glasgow, it was encouraging to see two major leaders willing to adapt to the necessary contingencies of the age. The pandemic has sorely disrupted traditional statecraft, but productive talks and real negotiations can go forward via electronic link in the meantime. This way, the world doesn’t have to wait until everything goes back to “normal” again to address urgent issues at this tender junction in human history.





Thursday, November 11, 2021



Why Joe Biden’s criticism of Xi Jinping’s no-show is out of line

  • Given the pandemic, it’s reasonable for leaders to think carefully about international travel
  • More importantly, summits such as the UN climate event, which require thousands of people to fly in, are hardly environmentally friendly


Philip J. Cunningham

Published: November, 12, 2021


One of the few silver linings to the Covid-19 cloud is the discovery that a great deal of business travel is unnecessary, as is the daily commute for many workers. The sight of world leaders jetting around the globe to stay at top-end resorts with huge delegations in tow was once considered normal, but is it really necessary?


 That’s not to say face-to-face talks don’t have a role to play, but shouldn’t they be kept to a minimum, if not for the pandemic, then in the spirit of stemming climate change?


This year’s United Nations’ Conference of the Parties, better known as COP26 is being held in Glasgow, featuring some 21,000 attendees, including thousands of diplomats and over a 100 national leaders.


Do the energy-hungry logistics of the event bring the world any closer to keeping the rise in average temperatures to less than 1.5 degrees Celsius?


Consider, for example, US President Joe Biden's motorcade, consisting of over 20 vehicles. These were not energy efficient models, but old-fashioned luxury limousines and gas-guzzling SUVs.


This extraordinary motorcade, put in place to move one man from Air Force One to various venues and back, was pared down from the president’s 85-vehicle motorcade when he visited Pope Francis in the Vatican.


Yet Biden took exception to Chinese President Xi Jinping not being at the conference. “It is a gigantic issue and they just walked away,” he said, adding, “How do you do that and claim to have any leadership mantle?”


But it seems neither fair nor in keeping with the scientific goals of climate mitigation for the US president to wag his finger at the leader of the country whose engagement in stemming global warming is crucial. Covid-19 also complicates the decision to travel.


Despite Biden’s claim, China did not walk away – its climate envoy, Xie Zhenhua, met America’s climate tsar John Kerry, and China did send a delegation, though it restricted its official list to 50 people. “When we go back, we will have to isolate for 21 days,” explained Wang Yi, a senior adviser to China’s delegation.


While quarantine protocol varies by country, Wang raises a good point. Why are so many people being enjoined to gather in a small, crowded venue as the pandemic rages on?


What’s more, the work of climate change doesn’t begin and end in Glasgow.


One suspects that Biden attended this particular meeting because it dovetailed nicely with a larger European tour, but that doesn’t mean only those in attendance showed “leadership”.


Biden, like many competent leaders, is good at delegating. He’s missed plenty of meetings, but is skilled at finding subordinates to do the nitty-gritty work and attend meetings on his behalf, so who’s he to say that showing up in person is a necessary quality of leadership?


Instead of showing an understanding of how politics works, he chose to grandstand, hinting that he alone was a “real” leader due to the absence of Russia’s Vladimir Putin and China’s Xi.


The Centre for Biological Diversity has taken Biden to task for the “whiplash of his rhetoric”. “First he asks Opec to pump more oil, then describes his worry about the horrors of climate change,” a representative of the centre told The Guardian.


Indeed, Biden often contradicts himself, so his aides are well-versed in damage control. An unsettling example was his recent off-the-cuff claim that the US is committed to protecting Taiwan in case of conflict.


That’s technically in violation of the spirit of the Shanghai Communique which has helped keep US-China relations on track since 1972.


Biden’s comment on Xi’s non-attendance at COP26 is reminiscent of how his predecessor Donald Trump and his supporters goaded Biden during the 2020 presidential election campaign.


Trump was forever flying here and there, whipping up crowds and giving stump speeches while Biden stayed mostly out of sight. The few video calls he made from his home led to taunts that Biden should get out of his basement and campaign like a man.


Biden wisely did not rise to the provocation. Yet he is now taunting Xi on a similar issue – whether you can phone it in or must show up in person.


There’s good reason to believe that summitry will not return to pre-pandemic levels of excess. Few of these expensive gatherings – the G20, Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum or Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit, the annual gathering of the world’s rich at Davos, or even a well-meaning climate conference – are necessary or substantive.


And singling out Xi, who was willing to take part via video link, but was denied such access by the British hosts of COP26 for poorly-explained reasons, sets a bad example.


Given the pandemic, why shouldn’t the leader of the world’s second-largest economy whose participation weighs more heavily on the future of climate change than any other except perhaps for the US, be able to phone it in?


Indeed, there’s something to be said for a leader skipping the motorcades, banquets, grandstanding and handshaking inside elaborate security bubbles, not to mention the environmentally damaging flights, especially if it’s just for show.


Climate change is serious business, but it is diminished by politicians who use it to score political points.



Philip J. Cunningham has been a regular visitor to China since 1983, working variously as a tour guide, TV producer, freelance writer, independent scholar and teacher