Hemant Adlakha, Associate Professor, Jawaharlal Nehru University, and Honorary Fellow, Institute of Chinese Studies
For more than seven decades Russia, China and Iran have successfully denied being reduced to becoming the US vassalage. During the US-Soviet Union Cold War years, the geostrategic coming together of Washington and Beijing, isolated and weakened Moscow. However, under the prevailing new Cold War conditions the US must induct the “barbarians” into neoliberal global financialization orbit. Or else, the recent Blinken-Lavrov smiling images from Reykjavik may just end up as only good optics and to Beijing’s great relief.
On 20 May, the Moscow Times (MT) website carried one photograph and one news headline, both must have caused huge anxiety if not concern among Beijing’s foreign ministry mandarins responsible for China-Russia relations. While the headline read as “US, Russia seek to ease tensions in first meeting under Biden”, the accompanying picture of the two countries’ foreign minister was perhaps the best ‘smiling’ image since the Obama days, to say the least. The MT further quoted the Russian foreign minister saying, perhaps causing more discomfort in Beijing, that he was ready to “plough through the rubble left behind by previous US administration.” The next day, Russia Today television news website rt.com in an op-ed commented: “Despite recent rock-bottom relations and growing tensions, Russia is willing to end hostilities and strive for better relations with the West, its top diplomat Lavrov announced after meeting with his US counterpart.”
Strangely, or perhaps expectedly, China’s usually “bellicose” foreign ministry spokespersons maintained an uncharacteristic low tone on the issue. Likewise, Beijing’s generally proactive strategic and security affairs commentariat too was found wanting and hiding. However, it is quite obvious to anyone who closely follows Beijing’s statements and actions, what is concealed behind the “indifferent” pretense is “disbelief” and “worries” caused by the sudden Biden administration “expediency” to “bear hug” Russia and Putin. Did China’s IR experts and specialists on US-Russia relations err by failing to gauge Biden’s initiative to reset US-Russia ties? Perhaps yes. Or is it that Beijing took for granted that Biden’s “America is back” diplomacy is only aimed at winning back the US allies? Maybe true.
Biden alone cannot stop China
Last Friday, China’s widely read and influential online platform specializing in international politics and diplomacy, huayuzhiku.com carried an exclusive commentary entitled “US hand-shake with Russia aimed at Beijing.” The commentary observed: “Under Trump presidency, American diplomacy was regarded by the world as ‘unreliable’ and ‘unpredictable.’ Since the change of guard in the White House this January, Biden administration has been vigorously amending Trumpian foreign policy by trying to win over traditional allies and declared ‘America is back’. In its treatment of Russia, it seems Biden is continuing to endure the previous administration’s legacy. It is not difficult for anyone to see the Trumpian ghost guiding the White House.” (Emphasis added)
It is indeed puzzling as a quick Google search on the internet did not show up in the top ten pages a single news story on the two foreign ministers’ meeting from the English language media outlets in the PRC. Every other Asian news channel or media website reported the important event but not the Xinhua or CGTN or China Daily or not even the Global Times. Though not surprisingly, a week prior to the Reykjavik tête-à-tête, China’s English and Mandarin language media extensively reported the scheduled meeting along with editorial comments. On May 13, China’s official Xinhua news agency carried a report headlined “Lavrov, Blinken discuss upcoming Russia-US summit over phone.” The next day, global.chinadaily.com.cn published a similar report filed by its Moscow correspondent highlighting that the proposed foreign minister’s meeting was being held “amid the biggest crisis in ties between Russia and the United States in years.”
Chinese Media underreports Reykjavik Meet
On the other hand, the semi-official media in China, especially in Chinese and English languages, has published op-ed articles and commentaries following the Reykjavik meeting between Lavrov and Blinken. The English language Shanghai Daily was the first to report the Lavrov-Blinken meeting held at the famous Harpa Concert Hall in the Iceland capital. The newspaper showed conspicuous urgency and without waiting for China’s official media went ahead and relied on foreign news agencies’ reports. But in contrast with the positive sounding Russian and global media headlines, Shanghai Daily was quite circumspect in its title: “Lavrov, Blinken spar politely in their first face-to-face meeting.”
Within twenty-four hours of the meeting, an opinion piece on the haiwainet.cn website, which essentially caters to the Mandarin speakers in North America and is an important arm of the party’s official newspaper Renmin Ribao or People’s Daily, described the meeting as the result of “temptation to meet” on both sides. Lavrov-Blinken met in order to “confirm to each other to carry on with their mutual friction short of a full-scale fighting in the face of hosts of hostilities and contradictions,” the website stated. The website further cited Li Yonghui, a senior researcher with the Centre for Russian, Eastern Europe and Eurasian Studies of Beijing-based China Academy of Social Sciences as saying “Given many deep-rooted contradictions and complexities between the two countries, there is not much room for a turnaround in the Russia-US relations.”
Interestingly, while most Chinese commentaries focused on highlighting the outstanding issues between the two countries, there have been few and far between writings so far which look at the implications for China should the Reykjavik meeting become a thaw in the frozen ties between Washington and Moscow. A key element absent in the Chinese op-ed columns so far has been “no reaction” on the timing and on the venue for the Reykjavik diplomatic rendezvous between the two foreign ministers. As according to Nikolas K. Gvosdev, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, “the Arctic is one of the few remaining issues where Washington and Moscow do tend collaborate and share interest in beating back any efforts by states like China to insist that a category of ‘near-Arctic’ states should also have a say in the regional infrastructure of governance.”
Biden Eager to Meet Putin: Deal within Deal
Now, as already mentioned, since the state-controlled mainstream media in China has been “censored” from commenting on the Reykjavik meet, a few select party-backed “leftist” and the state-sponsored foreign policy online platforms have more than revealed the mood in Beijing on the possible implications of the two foreign ministers’ in-person elbow bumping each other. Based on the commentaries, the early reactions in Beijing may be broadly summed up as follows: first, temporary breathing space. Some commentators see the sudden US move to “kiss and make up” with Moscow as a temporary step in order to 铺垫 Pūdiàn (literally meaning to “make bed”) for Biden-Putin meeting scheduled to be held in Geneva next month.
The second reason is the quick short-term diplomatic gain. Following the confirmation last Monday both in Washington and in Moscow that the maiden in-person Biden-Putin summit will be held during Biden’s first foreign trip to Europe as president, several opinion write ups referred back to the Biden-Putin first post-inauguration telephone call held in mid-April, in which Biden reportedly expressed his desire for an early meeting with the Russian counterpart. It is pertinent to recall that the Chinese commentators did not miss to notice that Biden had proposed to meet with Putin amid heavy Russian military building up at the Ukrainian border. At least one Chinese scholar also pointed out Biden was in tearing hurry to meet Putin and “hinted that resolution of the continuing differences between the two military superpowers is not a prerequisite for the summit.”
Third, last but not least, deal within deal. An unsigned commentary on the Xinhua news agency blog last Wednesday, entitled “Shocking how for petty gains Biden can’t wait meeting Putin” claimed to have deconstructed the raison d’être for why Biden is eager to meet Putin. Referring to the secretary of state Antony Blinken’s 19 May announcement of lifting of sanctions on the companies involved in the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project, the commentary termed it as the first of the two deals towards realizing the goal of a summit meeting with Putin. Five days later, the meeting in Geneva between the NSA Jake Sullivan and his Russian counterpart Nikolai Patrushev was described by the Xinhua blog post as specifically called to strike a deal for the early Biden-Putin summit.
Biden will do anything to not let China ‘ride the tiger’
To conclude, it is beyond doubt that Beijing is convinced China is the reason why Washington is more than desperate to “humor” Putin. Since taking office Biden and his foreign policy team has been relentlessly subjecting China under mounting pressure to “give in” but in vain as China continues骑虎难下 Qíhǔnánxià or in English “to ride the tiger”. Explaining further, a Chinese scholar said: “Maybe, the Biden administration is softening its policy towards Russia. This is because in recent years the focus of US foreign policy has been shifting from Europe and the Middle East towards Indo-Pacific. There the main target is not Russia but China. In order to defeat China, Biden coerced and lured Western allies to join together. However, due to the difficult situation of fighting China and Russia on the two fronts, it is showing unsustainable fatigue. Besides, the EU too is unwilling to get involved against both Russia and China at the same time.”
Just like Beijing miserably failed in concealing its worries with regards to the recent US success in forging together Quad alliance, the Chinese experts must be in a quandary and under great pressure in telling the party leadership to relax even as reports from Moscow suggest Putin is equally eager, if not more, in shaking hands with Biden instead of a mere elbow bump!
This article was earlier published in under the same title in Modern Diplomacy on 1 June 2021.