#45 - Diplomatic Body Blows
外交 - Wai4 Jiao1 - Diplomacy
Since the US-China trade war began, Beijing has sustained a series of diplomatic setbacks on a scale it has not endured since the 1989 condemnation of the Tiananmen Massacre. The difference is that China now has the capability to respond, and it has done so. We will review how the US has outmaneuvered China on the diplomatic front and how China has launched its counter-attack.
US & Allied Efforts
The tectonic plates shifting beneath US security arrangements in the Indo-Pacific have finally begun moving towards Washington’s favor in the past few years. The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QSD, but commonly called the Quad) is a Bush administration-era security consultation dialogue mechanism (with a significant interoperability exercise attached) that was dormant for years. Resurrected in 2017, Quad members India, Australia, Japan, and the United States have reaffirmed their commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific as well as a rules-based maritime order in the East and South China Seas. These are objectives of the US quite familiar to the US Indo-Pacific Combatant Command.
Following on the heels of the Quad, AUKUS was announced in 2021. AUKUS focuses on Australia, the UK, and the US building and sharing military capabilities for deployment to the Indo-Pacific. Specific military capabilities include nuclear submarines (both a new Australian sub and the purchase of Virginia-class subs), hypersonic cruise missiles, increased bomber basing, and Tomahawk missiles.
In a surprise move last week, New Zealand Defence Minister Andrew Little publicly declared that Wellington would be willing to explore cooperation in AUKUS’ non-nuclear aspect. New Zealand has been the softest on China of the FIVE EYES intelligence-sharing alliance, and is possibly the most Beijing-friendly of any of Washington’s major allies. The fact that New Zealand would even consider such a move is a big win for the US and a big loss for China.
Piling on the pressure, Japan committed to an unprecedented new security strategy in December 2022 calling for the construction of an offensive military force. Of course, the last time Japan fielded such a military, it was deeply involved in the invasion and dismemberment of China. This is arguably the biggest strategic loss for China in the past 5 years. Dealing with a pacifist and mostly disarmed Japan had always been a huge gift, but now Beijing’s military planners must chart a course back to reality.
Both sides are attempting to talk through their problems, but the currently on-going Sino-Japanese diplomatic talks are filled with tension and largely barren of success. Additionally, Japan and South Korea have been making amends, in an astounding turn around of relations between two key US allies. In 2019, mutual recrimination was common and South Korea withdrew from a key intelligence-sharing pact with Japan in response to Japan delisting South Korea as a preferred trading partner. From this low point, the two countries conducted their first bilateral leadership summit in 12 years in March of 2023. Each side promised to repair the intelligence-sharing pact and their wider relationship.
Continuing the diplomatic homeruns, the US also recently negotiated with the Philippines to open four new base locations for US forces. Three of the locations are close to Taiwan, and one location is close to China’s Spratly Island South China Sea bases. This is a major win for US force posture throughout the First Island Chain, which already features a significant US presence.
Finally, China’s decision to jointly announce a friendship without limits with Russia has not appeared to disrupt, deter, or even affect NATO cohesion against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Time will tell after Macron’s visit to Beijing, but cracks in the alliance appear unlikely to form before the planned Ukrainian spring offensive.
Building on significant efforts started in the Bush and Trump administrations, the current Biden administration has been able to display the true power of American diplomacy. The extremely deep relationships the US enjoys across the globe and the continuing high attraction value of American ideas about world order represent serious strengths.
The above tour-de force has resulted in a diplomatic counterattack the likes of which the US has not seen since the height of the Cold War. Beijing has initiated diplomatic efforts in areas of the world where China previously had no significant pull or influence. In March 2023, Beijing hosted Saudi Arabian and Iranian officials for diplomatic discussions which resulted in Riyadh and Tehran re-establishing diplomatic ties for the first time since 2016. The US was left completely on the sideline as Beijing, Washington’s greatest global adversary, brokered a peace deal between a major American partner and a major American regional adversary.
To add insult to injury, Saudi Arabia’s cabinet approved a decision to join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) as a dialogue partner this week. The SCO is a forum for cooperation on security and economic issues mostly between China, Russia, India, and other states in their periphery. While not similar to NATO yet, the SCO has the potential in the coming decades to transform into a China-led charge against the US-led world order. The fact that Saudi Arabia is currently a dialogue partner and not a full partner shows a glimmer of light between Riyadh and Beijing, something that Washington can aim for in future negotiations.
In another targeted measure against a US partner, Beijing convinced Brazil to drop US dollar payments in Sino-Brazilian trade. Under the agreement, China and Brazil could conduct trade utilizing only yuan and reais exchanged directly instead of payments first being converted to US dollars. While this agreement will likely lead to short term savings and long term pain for Brazil, it allows China to attempt undercutting US economic strength.
Lastly, Mexican President Obrador’s anti-US comments cannot be taken lightly by such a close neighbor and during such a time of geopolitical rivalry.
Consequences for Strategic Competition:
What began as rapid and mutual military distrust between Beijing and Washington over the past decade bloomed into a Sino-American trade war that shows no signs of slowing down. On the heels of continued economic delinkage, this diplomatic power struggle is a true shot across the bow of those Americans and Chinese that have not been paying attention to the solidifying Cold War. It is likely that the competition will expand to new areas soon, including culture, ideas, and politics.
The Middle East is a tempestuous and chaotic region in terms of geopolitics. The US has enjoyed a dominant hand in the region for decades owing to deft statesmanship, Türkiye’s NATO membership, the fall of the Soviet Union, close allies like Israel and Egypt, and massive attention and resources due to the wars in Syria and Iraq (and on-going support for Baghdad). Still, it is a region where such influence can only resource temporary pushes in Washington’s favor. Beijing is displaying to the world that it can enter the Middle East and broker complex deals to create similar temporary pushes in Beijing’s favor.