Did Lavrov-Blinken tête-à-tête in Reykjavik Stir the Pot between Beijing and Moscow?

Hemant Adlakha, Associate Professor, Jawaharlal Nehru University, and Honorary Fellow, Institute of Chinese Studies

Image: Lavrov-Blinken summit: A test of US-Russia ties ahead
Source: gulftoday.ae

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 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.

Following RCEP “victory,” China’s CPTPP challenge to Biden

Hemant Adlakha, Honorary Fellow, ICS and Associate Professor, JNU

Straight from celebrating the signing of the world’s largest trade pact, the 15-nation Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), Chinese President Xi Jinping surprised everyone when he announced at the virtual Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit five days later that China will actively consider joining the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) trade agreement.

Why is Beijing suddenly interested in joining a trade bloc that was initially pitched as anti-China? China’s state-controlled media has been very candid in stating that Beijing’s desire to join the CPTPP is strategically timed and aimed at a possible reconciliation with the United States under President-elect Biden. In a commentary released just a day after Xi made the announcement, the state-owned CCTV’s English language news and current affairs channel, CGTN, said: “With the incoming Biden administration now on the horizon, China has decided the ‘strategic time’ is now right to actively consider joining the CPTPP.”

CGTN acknowledged that the agreement, first orchestrated as the Trans-Pacific Partnership four years ago under the Obama administration, was framed as a trade counterweight to China. Now, however, CGTN pronounced the biggest takeaway from Xi’s interest in the CPTPP is that China is serious about expanding multilateral free trade and that, ultimately, does not view the trading system as a zero-sum game, as it has been depicted by the Trump administration.

On the other hand, a report on November 21 in the “hawkish” pro-establishment Global Times was far more forthcoming on the political motives. The Global Times’ story, entitled “China’s interest in CPTPP membership seen as a chance to ease Sino-U.S. tensions,” posited that Beijing is gauging the headwinds in Washington by signaling to the incoming Biden administration that China is ready to evolve away from the tense standoffs of the Trump era. Citing Wang Huiyao, the pro-U.S. and influential president of the Beijing-based Centre for China and Globalization, the Global Times article emphasized that unlike RCEP, the “CPTPP represents the world’s highest-level free trade agreement, and China’s interest in joining it shows the country’s desire and determination for deeper, higher-level opening up.”

Xi’s comments were not the first time China’s top leadership has expressed a desire to join the 11-country trade pact. In May of this year, Premier Li Keqiang became the first top-ranking Chinese leader to publicly confirm China’s interest in the CPTPP. At a press conference at the end of the 13th National People’s Congress, in reply to a specific question by the Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun as to whether China had a plan to join, the Chinese premier said: “China has a positive and open attitude toward joining CPTPP.”

Although Li’s remark was widely picked up by the international press, official Chinese media, including the Global Times, were conspicuously silent about the premier’s reply. However, the semi-official authoritative financial Caixin prominently headlined Li’s statement as “Premier Sends ‘Powerful’ Signal for China to Join Asia-Pacific’s Largest Trade Pact.”

Interestingly, the second influential Chinese figure to publicly advocate for China to join the CPTPP trade pact was none other than the senior financial commentator Hu Shuli, who is also the chief editor of Caixin. Charles Finny, an international trade expert and a senior official in New Zealand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, cited Hu’s comment in an article he wrote for the Auckland-based Asia Media Centre in July.

But not everyone outside China is willing to yet take at face value what CGTN and the Global Times would want us to believe – that China’s keenness in joining the Asia Pacific trade pact “is a kind of ‘Chinese vow’ on promoting Asia-Pacific cooperation and globalization.” Earlier on, when Li first indicated in his low-key tone some interest in joining the CPTPP, skeptics outside of China had read Li’s remark as a slap in the face for the U.S., as both the Trump administration and the Democrats were generally opposed to Washington (re-)joining the trade pact. That was made apparent from the headline of one article published within days of Li’s remarks: “Trumping the U.S.; China could join CPTPP.” The author claimed that China’s membership in the CPTPP would also underline its growing position as the pre-eminent superpower in the West Pacific.

As the “repository” nation among the CPTPP members, New Zealand has denied receiving from China a formal expression of interest in joining the pact. This indicates that, riding on the success of the recent signing of RCEP, China is fully aware of the potential opponents to its entry among the CPTPP’s 11 member nations. For example, even if true that Japan’s newly elected Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide has clearly indicated interest in expanding CPTPP membership next year, when it is Japan’s turn to host the CPTPP leaders’ summit, it is not hidden from anyone that Japan is highly suspicious on trade matters. Remember, Japan has been negotiating a three-way free trade agreement with South Korea and China since 2002.

Besides, most of the Japanese business and political elite is convinced that China will never join the CPTPP, at least not in the near future. Miyake Kuni, in a recent article in Japan Today, argued that by announcing China’s willingness to consider joining the CPTPP, Xi is indulging in pure propaganda. Miyake is a former career diplomat and currently serves as special adviser to Suga’s Cabinet. Miyake, critical of Beijing’s role in negotiating RCEP, feels that the leaders of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) might have been emboldened after RCEP to believe that China can join, change, and remake the rules of regional trade under a new TPP. “Based on my experience as Japan’s chief negotiator for trade in services at the World Trade Organization from 1994 to 1996, I don’t expect China to abide by the ordinary rules or regulations for joining the free trade agreement,” Miyaki opined.

Digging deeper into China’s real purpose behind indicating a desire to join CPTPP, a recent commentary in the Chinese-language version of the Financial Times claims that pushing for more globalization is Beijing’s latest mantra to tackle the U.S.-led China containment strategy. Written by Beijing-based scholar Cao Xin, secretary general of the International Opinion Research Center, Charhar Institute – an influential “liberal” think tank in Beijing – the article tried to explain China’s sudden interest in joining CPTPP, almost like a twin declaration following the RCEP, as exclusively aimed at the U.S. “China very well knows that developing closer economic and trade relations with other countries in the world is the most effective way to hit back at the ‘contain China’ policy being carried out by the United States and its allies,” Cao wrote.

Finally, in the two months before Biden the oath of office as U.S. president, China is going to be more and more aggressive in forging as many as multilateral and bilateral economic and trade agreements as possible. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi recently visited Seoul after spending two days in Tokyo, trying to expedite the signing of the China-Japan-South Korea FTA. Recently, Chinese Ambassador to Germany Wu Ken assured business leaders and political elites that Germany and the EU stand to gain momentum from China’s “dual circulation” policy as China pushes an end-of-year goal for the China-EU bilateral investment pact.

But even Cao’s special column in FT Chinese notes the reconciliatory mood toward Washington that is currently prevalent in Beijing. With the prospect of Biden moving into the White House next month, the CCP leadership, it seems, is working out a two-pronged strategy. On the one hand, Beijing will seek to put the new U.S. administration under pressure from the very start by openly extending an olive branch. On the other hand, it will look to “encircle” the U.S. by developing economic and trade relationships with more and more countries that are American partners and allies.

Originally published as With RCEP Complete, China Eyes CTPTT in The Diplomat on December 1, 2020

North Korea’s Strategic Significance to China

Pritish Gupta, Research Intern, ICS

The Chinese saying ‘if the lips are gone, the teeth will be cold’ has often underscored the relationship between China and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. The standard perception that China has been North Korea’s natural ally and strategic asset never lost resonance. Geographical proximity and ideological similarities also played a significant role in the bilateral relationship. However, as Kim Jong-un came to power in December 2011 and North Korea’s nuclear ambitions began to be purposefully pursued, China’s North Korea policy evolved with a strategic orientation.

Under President Xi Jinping, as Beijing began to increasingly identify itself as a great power, it adopted a more pragmatic approach towards the Korean peninsula. With a sharp strategic competition with the United States over the years, North Korea has become an important vector in China’s evolving foreign policy in pursuit of Xi’s Chinese dream.

The 2017-18 crisis on the Korean peninsula sparked a debate in Beijing’s questioning its continued support to Pyongyang, though Beijing continued with its North Korea policy, which is based on the geopolitical calculus.

The question of stability on the Korean Peninsula

In terms of China’s interests in the Korean peninsula, North Korea acts as a variable in regional competition with the United States. It maintains cordial relations with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) while maintaining its strategic influence in the region. Beijing is apprehensive about any conflict in its backyard as it may jeopardize its strategic advantage on the Korean peninsula. In case of an imminent threat to its regime, North Korea may resort to a conflict with South Korea, which would lead to instability and uncertainty in the region. Clearly, Beijing prioritizes a peaceful and stable Korean peninsula over the denuclearization of the DPRK. The collapse of the regime may invite all the stakeholders, the United States, South Korea, and China, to intervene militarily to stabilize the peninsula, which might prove to be detrimental to the Chinese interests.

Beijing opposes Pyongyang’s nuclear program but prefers peace and stability over a full-blown conflict. Beijing fears that a direct intervention from the United States and South Korea over DPRK’s nuclear program may result in a unified Korean peninsula. The challenges of a unified peninsula could also pose concerns for Beijing. China has stuck to its principle of ‘no war, no instability, and no nukes’ to avoid any conflict on its borders. North Korea acts as a buffer state for China against South Korea as well as the presence of US troops. It plays well for Beijing that the North Korean regime remains intact where it acts as leverage on the backdrop of US rebalancing to Asia.

Avoiding a refugee crisis

One of the main concerns for China will be dealing with a refugee crisis if there is a potential conflict across the China-North Korea border. Both countries share an 880-mile border. Given any escalation of economic stress in North Korea, there would be a significant number of North Koreans seeking refuge in China, which could result in a humanitarian crisis. It would be a herculean task for the People’s Liberation Army to prevent North Koreans from crossing the border. China’s northeast provinces would always remain vulnerable with the development of any future events on the Korean peninsula.

Economic Aid

Beijing’s potential leverage over Pyongyang is also important for the survival of the North Korean regime. China has been the source of continued assistance to the hermit kingdom. Beijing has always found ways to skirt the sanctions imposed by the United States in the wake of the nuclear program. China has been cautious in dealing with North Korea over denuclearization, which might instigate instability. It understands that any response from Pyongyang may have an adverse effect on the bilateral relationship, Chinese interests and may diminish Beijing’s influence.

US-China equation

The Korean peninsula is a strategic theatre for great power competition between the United States and China. China’s strategic priority has been to contain the US influence in the region. Talks between the United States and North Korea have stalled after the failure of the Hanoi summit between President Trump and Kim Jong-un. The Biden administration would vary in the fact that its foreign policy approach should push for normalizing relations with North Korea. The withering of the US’s multilateral trade framework in Asia favors China’s interests. North Korean leader Kim Jong-un visited China twice before the proposed US-North Korea summits, which strengthened Beijing’s position with respect to the negotiations between both the countries. Also, the possibility of a trilateral alliance between the United States, Japan, and South Korea against China is never ruled out.

Way forward

The global pandemic and fraught relations between the United States and China may impede the prospects of a resolution of the crisis on the peninsula. Though, China has expressed its willingness to play a productive role in the political solution of the issue along with other stakeholders. The targeted sanctions on North Korea have done little to contain its nuclear program. The resumption of the Six-Party Talks could lead to a breakthrough in the negotiations. The new US administration would have its hands full after taking charge with the issue of the Korean peninsula still unresolved and US-China relations at an all-time low. The coronavirus pandemic has led to North Korea being more dependent on Beijing as well. The normalization of relations would give an opening to the American policymakers to work towards the reduction of troops in South Korea, thus reducing the tensions in the region, but if denuclearization of North Korea continues to be a precondition by the Biden administration for normalization of relations and easing of crippling economic sanctions on North Korea, then chances of any forward movement towards peace are rather slim. Though, it is understandable that Beijing’s support for Pyongyang would continue for the foreseeable future, and Beijing’s role would be central in the resolution of the crisis.

India’s Place in Chinese Foreign Policy: South Asia Bound

Jabin T. Jacob, Assistant Director and Fellow, Institute of Chinese Studies.

Originally published as ‘Boxing It In: China’s Approach to India’, The Quint, 13 August 2016.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s visit to New Delhi in mid-August was ostensibly in preparation for the G-20 summit in Hangzhou in September for which Prime Minister Narendra Modi will visit China and the BRICS Summit  in Goa for which Chinese President Xi Jinping will visit India in October. However, high-level meetings no longer impact matters significantly as they used to. Nor even do they help maintain matters on even keel if the incursions during Li Keqiang’s and Xi’s visits to India in 2013 and 2014 respectively or China’s objection to India’s NSG entry despite Modi’s personal intervention with Xi are anything to go by.

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