the real world today

Biden remarks on Xi were a boast, not a gaffe

The big story of the week was the failure of American diplomacy with China, which is not a good story for the world.

Secretary of State Blinken visited Beijing, the first high level US official visit to China in five years. Until recently, Chinese diplomats reportedly refused to take his call. Blinken said little during the visit, and mainly listened. There is even an image of him taking notes during his meeting with Xi Jinping. The US diplomat’s remarks that reiterated the long standing official US position on Taiwan, however, provoked a furious reaction in American domestic politics. Blinken “grovelled” and “kowtowed” before the Chinese, the nationalist and imperialist press declared. But at least he left the meeting with the appearance of wanting to rebuild diplomacy, and to establish a working group with the unstated aim to facilitate a meeting of the leaders of China and the USA. There was also agreement to increase people-to-people exchanges that represented some basic progress.

The following day President Biden made remarks to a private donors function in California, and his remarks were then widely promoted in the media, presumably at his advisers’ instigation, and published on the Whitehouse website. The most widely publicised remark was that Xi JinPing was a ‘dictator.’ The Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson commented in Western news sources that the remarks infringed China’s political dignity and diplomatic protocols. The Wall Street Journal reported that China summoned and reprimanded the US Ambassador to China, Nicholas Burns, who has been in the role but months and with much controversy.

It appeared as if Biden had made another gaffe, perhaps through inattention, maybe out of anger and frustration. Another explanation was that Biden was merely playing to the domestic political audience in America who are unhinged about China. All the reports were that Biden had undone mistakenly, forgetfully or emotionally the good work of repairing communication lines and beginning a ‘thaw’ in relations between the USA and China.

It may be inadvertent, but I am inclined to think this event was carefully orchestrated as a demonstration of US dominance and Biden’s mastery of diplomacy, at least in the deranged minds of American strategists.

There were more remarks from Biden than a single insult about Xi Jinping, which is, in any case, consistent with American rhetoric about the great crusade of Democracy against Autocracy. The transcript of “Remarks by President Biden at a Campaign Reception” includes these comments early in his remarks:

You know, I’ve met a lot of world leaders.  And I — I come at this reelection thinking about what I was as- — I was asked by Xi Jinping — I’ve spent a lot of hours with him over the last 12 years.  I mean, in over — they keep mec- — meticulous records — 82 hours’ worth just he and I, 60-some of it in person. 

And we were in the Tibetan Plateau, and he said, “Can you define America for me?”  And I said, “Yes, I can.  In one word…” — the Gov has heard me say this before — “In one word: possibilities.  Possibilities.” 

One of the reasons why we’re always referred to, Mr.  President, by others as “the ugly Americans”: We think we can do anything.  And we can do anything we set our mind to.  But we just haven’t focused much — very much in the last four or five years in terms of focusing on what we need to do. 

I’m convinced if we work together, there’s not a damn thing we can’t get done.

In other words, Biden is reasserting American exceptionalism, and reanimating Karl Rove’s old illusion that America can make its own reality. Following some talk on the economy, Biden then claimed he has drawn the world more tightly into the American military alliance, and persuaded laggard allies, like Europe and Japan, to pay more to the American military industrial complex. He started with Japan:

And as I said, with regard to Europe, when I told people that we were going to bring — I thought we could bring Japan along.  You know, Japan hasn’t increased its military budget for a long, long time.  But guess what?  I met with the chairman — the president — the vice — excuse me, the leader of Japan for, I guess, on three different occasions, including in Hiroshima.  And he convinced — I convinced him and he convinced himself that he had to do something different. Japan has increased its military budget exponentially. 

So, he said “Don’t worry about China.” It is here that he dropped the dictator word about Xi Jinping, but it was in a broader context.

China is real — has real economic difficulties.  And the reason why Xi Jinping got very upset in terms of when I shot that balloon down with two boxcars full of spy equipment in it is he didn’t know it was there.  No, I’m serious.  That’s what’s a great embarrassment for dictators, when they didn’t know what happened.  That wasn’t supposed to be going where it was.  It was blown off course up through Alaska and then down through the United States.  And he didn’t know about it.  When it got shot down, he was very embarrassed.  He denied it was even there. 

But the fo- — did — the very important point is he’s in a situation now where he wants to have a relationship again.  Tony Blinken just went over there — our Secretary of State; did a good job.  And it’s going to take time. 

But what he was really upset about was that I insisted that we — we reunite the Qu- —  so-called Quad.  He called me and told me not to do that because it was putting him in a bind.  I said, “All we’re doing — we’re not trying to surround you, we’re just trying to make sure the international rules with air and sea lanes remain open.  And we’re not going to yield to that — on that.” 

So now we have India, Australia, Japan, and the United States working hand in glove in the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean.

We have a situation where I’ve met with all 50 of the major maritime states in East Asia.  And — and they’re — they’re — I mean, I never thought, as a kid coming out of the Vietnam War era, that we would have Cambodia, Vietnam, and Laos wanting closer relationships with the United States of America. 

He misrepresented the spy ballon affair, since the balloon was only shot down after traversing the entire continent of the USA and much criticism of the impotence of Biden in allowing it to happen. He stated his awareness of Blinken’s mission within his grand strategy, but claimed it was China that wanted desperately to “have a relationship again.” Then he drew critically India into the fold of these alliances, including the Quad, that are pointed like daggers at China’s coast.

These remarks were not blurted out. They were not fits of pique or absent-mindedness. They were boasts of a veteran political leader who believes himself to be the greatest strategist of the exceptional nation. He has drawn Europe, Japan, India and South-East Asia into the fight to knock off the challenger to the United States. And he has even fooled China, with his old friend Tony Blinken, by offering them baubles of relationships, when America wants dominance of the world.

Indeed, Biden repeated the same tired trope of the indispensable nation in his remarks.

My generic point is: There’s enormous opportunity.  Enormous opportunity.  And the world is looking to the United States.  I mean, they really are.  They’re looking to the United States.  Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was right when she said America is the essential nation.  Because who else will organize it?  Who else can lead it, any other nation in the world be able to do it by themselves? 

Biden’s remarks and Blinken’s meeting with Xi are a combined performance intended to project diplomatic dominance over China. Consider what is happening at the same time. The US Coast Guard sends a ship to sail provocatively through the Taiwan Strait, leading to protests from China. The Chinese Premier is visiting Europe, as a follow on to Macron’s earlier visit when the French President wistfully spoke of strategic autonomy. Not on Biden’s watch! Critically, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is visiting the US. Biden’s focus on the Quad working hand in glove in the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean was central to his remarks, and was frankly an implied threat to China. The USA and India have now issued an extensive statement on the occasion of the leaders meeting. It contains much more subtlety and detail than the US President’s remarks, and rather less concentration on military cooperation towards American objectives of dominance.

However, I do wonder if President Biden believes he has performed his “Nixon goes to China” moment. He recently remarked “I think I know as much about American foreign policy as anybody living, including Dr. Kissinger.” Biden probably believes he has put spine into Europe, and made them dependent on US energy. He has rallied the world to democracy by sending the soldiers of Ukraine to their deaths. He still dreams of weakening and looting Russia. And now he has brought Russia’s strategic partner and China’s rival, India, tightly into the American Indo-Pacific strategy to contain China. Modi had to go to Washington to do it, because Joe might have trouble with the flights; but America can do anything, don’t you see? It is still the exceptional nation.

So Biden’s remarks were not a gaffe, not a slip. They are not words of petty anger, even if they are the simmering resentment of Captain Ahab’s obsessive revenge. Biden’s remarks are more boastful than angry, though they have that edge too. Biden is angrily defending his inflated image of his own prowess as political leader and foreign policy leader, and indeed the infinite ‘possibilities’ of America. His boastfulness makes him blind to how his and US power is slipping away, and angry at the people who claim they are. Biden’s remarks express perfectly the flight from reality of American foreign policy. The truly scary thing is so many American elites share these convictions.

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