Part XIV: American Foreign Policy re China

My first wife was born in West China. Once, over a few years, I had been peripherally involved in Canadian Chinese community politics. I was on the founding board of the Yee Hong senior care organization, now the largest such service in Ontario, and was an honorary member of the founding board of the Canadian Chinese Congress. Yet of the very many countries in the world in which I have spent time, in spite of my fascination with Chinese culture and politics, I have never been to China – unless you call a 4-hour stopover at Hong Kong’s airport where, in 1982, on returning to Canada, I bought my one and only and favourite watch.

The preoccupation is not only with the enormous economic improvements in the country that I sketched in my last blog, and with the politics of dissent with the rise of Maoism and the Cultural Revolution in the sixties that I briefly discussed, it is not only with the rights of minorities – the Tibetans and the Uighurs – or the human and political rights of Hong Kongers – it is also with the humanity, the energy, the creativity of Chinese people. In my graduate class at Princeton University, 80% were Asian Chinese, one from mainland China as it was referred to then. I have a picture on my wall of most of that class that they gave me – it is entitled (by them) – “Howard’s Angels.”

The United States is not the only country with a long and complex involvement with Chinese affairs. China has always been an important focus for Canadian politicians. Currently, former diplomat, Michael Kovrig, and Businessman, Michael Spavor, have been in a Chinese prison for over two years. Kovrig was charged on suspicion of spying for state secrets and intelligence; Spavor was charged on suspicion of spying for a foreign entity and illegally providing state secrets. They are being held “on suspicion of endangering national security,” but have never been formally tried. They were arrested on 10 December 2018, a few days after Canada detained Huawei Technologies’ chief financial officer, Meng Wanzhou, who happens also to be the daughter of the founder of the Chinese telecommunications giant, Huawei. Meng, however, is not in prison. She is held under house arrest in a large mansion she owns in Vancouver. She is being held as the Canadian justice systems grinds on to determine whether she should be extradited to the United States to face charges there of traversing American sanctions against Iran – yes, Iran again – using a Hong Kong shell company.

Though Canadian diplomats have been in touch with Kovrig and Spavor, they have not been permitted to visit them. In fact, Canadian officials do not even know where they are imprisoned. It seems to be a case of tit-for-tat, but really TIT-for-tat. China does not practice international diplomacy in terms of proportionality but, instead, sends a clear message that if you dare to even lay a finger on one of “ours,” no matter how light a finger it is, we will respond with double action and quadruple force. The message is unmistakable. “Don’t you dare mess with us.” It is diplomacy raised to the high art of international bullying. Just in case Canadians do not get the message, two other Canadians were convicted of smuggling. They were sentenced to death and China banned the import of Canadian canola.

In the last blog, I referred to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s speech at the World Economic Forum held virtually in Davos a few days ago in which he, without any sense of obvious irony, insisted that “the strong should not bully the weak.” Both on the world stage and domestically with respect to the Uighurs, Tibetans and now the residents of Hong Kong, China is a super-bully. China flexes its muscles on the border with India, in disputed islands it occupies in the South China Sea and has fought skirmishes with Japan and wars with Vietnam and India. China is a constant threat to Taiwan. If that were not enough, China insists that its repressive laws against free speech have a global scope and apply to Chinese throughout the world.

Chinese behaviour has earned it the enmity of many members of the U.S. Congress. As Obama writes, China kept systematically “evading, bending, or breaking just about every agreed-upon rule of international commerce during its ‘peaceful rise’. For years, it had used state subsidies, as well as currency manipulation and trade dumping, to artificially depress the price of its exports and undercut manufacturing operations in the United States. Its disregard for labor and environmental standards accomplished the same thing. Meanwhile, China used nontariff barriers, like quotas and embargoes; it also engaged in the theft of U.S. intellectual property and placed constant pressure on US companies doing business in China to surrender key technologies to help speed China’s ascent up the global supply chain.” (474)

But there has been a widespread backlash, which became very vociferous and belligerent under the Trump administration, to threaten that supply chain, to “decouple the U.S. from China as a source of goods and, therefore, likely, as a country to which it can sell goods and services. It was precisely this fear of decoupling that Xi Jinping addressed on Monday at Davos. Yet the headline of the Wall Street Journal Opinion (25 January 2021), which reprinted the speech – or parts of it – read, “Xi Jinping Wows Them at Davos.”

The attendees evidently lauded his boosting of economic globalization as he spoke of “inclusive growth,” “green development,” “global governance,” and “consensus building.” Collaboration, not confrontation, was the hip word of the day. Yet just the previous two days, China flew fighter aircraft over Taiwanese air space demonstrating its muscular diplomacy. But, as Xi Jinping insisted, “we should stay committed to international law and international rules.”

What about the international agreement with Britain over Hong Kong and the guarantee to perpetuate the two systems-one country until at least 2047. The persecution of Hong Kong dissidents and the prevention of free speech and rights of assembly are merely early pin pricks for China ignoring of its treaty obligations to suppress the rights of the Hong Kong people. So much for Chinese guarantees of “autonomy.”

What about issues of global and not just inter-state concern? Climate policy was the major one. The problem was that Obama, went to Copenhagen in December 2009 to deal with the renewal of the Kyoto Protocol and extract some changes –Donald Trump withdrew from its successor, the Paris Agreement, altogether and Joe Biden just rejoined. In particular, Obama was exercised over the provision for “common but differentiated responsibilities.”

Now it is generally conceded – except perhaps by Trumpists – that Western prosperous countries have a disproportionate obligation to contribute to the costs of countering the challenges of climate change since:

  • In the process of almost two centuries of industrialization, those countries have contributed the most to the global carbon footprint
  • Poor countries had a limited ability to contribute
  • Changes in the policies of the rich countries would have the greatest impact on reducing the world carbon footprint.

However, “common but differentiated responsibilities” had been interpreted to allow quickly industrializing countries, like Brazil, China and India, from carrying their respective weights and responsibilities.  As Obama wrote, “in the middle of a brutal recession, with Americans already seething over the steady outsourcing of U.S. jobs, a treaty that placed environmental constraints on domestic factories without asking for parallel action from those operating in Shanghai or Bangalore just wasn’t going to fly. As it was, China had surpassed the United States in annual carbon dioxide emission in 2005.” (506)

What did Xi Jinping have to say about this in 2021? In addition to promoting:

  • macroeconomic policy coordination and joint promotion of strong, sustainable, balanced and inclusive growth of the world economy
  • abandoning ideological prejudice and jointly following a path of peaceful coexistence, mutual benefit and win-win cooperation
  • closing the divide between developed and developing countries and jointly bringing about growth and prosperity for all,

Xi Jinping advocated coming “together against global challenges (to) jointly create a better future for humanity,” in particular, in the fight against pandemics like COVID-19 through global public health governance, and also scaling “up efforts to address climate change and promote sustainable development” on which the future of humanity depends. “No global problem can be solved by any one country alone. There must be global action, global response and global cooperation.”

Stated like a true globalist.

Twelve years ago, Obama had proposed that “emerging Powers’ also put forward a “self-determined plan for greenhouse gas reduction” (507) depending on the country’s wealth, energy profile and stage of development with provisions for independent verification of claims to fulfill those plans. Obama offered billions of dollars for poorer countries to play their part. China opposed incorporating such provisions in a binding treaty. Further, given the then state of the American economy – as well as the political makeup in Congress (even though the Democrats then controlled both the House and the Senate) – Obama would also not go along with the European push for a treaty.

Obama in advance of his attendance, had authorized that the U.S. would commit to reducing its carbon footprint by 17% by 2020 and pledge $10 billion towards the international Green Climate Fund. ”to help poor countries with climate change mitigation and adaptation efforts.” (510)

What was the Chinese response to Obama’s proposed compromise between the push for a treaty by Europe and the position of the developing economies, particularly China, that self-policing was sufficient – for in Chinese terms, globalization depended on voluntarism on the part of China. Wen Jiabao, the Chinese premier, initially took an “inflexible and imperious” position, “refusing to agree that China would submit to any form of international review of their emissions.” (512)

In the most exciting bit of international diplomacy recorded in the book, Obama gave the account of how he and Hilary (and the usual huge American entourage) crashed the meeting of the Chinese, Indians and Brazilians who were planning to reject the European proposal and blame the Americans for the failure of the conference. Obama interrupted the meeting and bluntly addressed Wen.

“Mr. Premier, we’re running out of time, so let me cut to the chase. Before I walked into this room, I assume the plan was for all of you to leave here and announce that the U.S. was responsible for the failure to arrive at a new agreement. You think that if you hold out long enough, the Europeans will get desperate and sign another Kyoto style treaty.” The thing is, I’ve been very clear to them that I can’t get our Congress to ratify the treaty you want. And there is no guarantee Europe’s voters, or Canada’s voters, or Japan’s voters, are going to be willing to keep putting their industries at a comparative disadvantage and paying money to help poor countries deal with climate change when the world’s biggest emitters are sitting on the sidelines.

“Of course, I may be wrong. Maybe you can convince everyone that we’re to blame. But that won’t stop the planet from getting warmer. And remember, I’ve got my own megaphone and it’s pretty big. If I leave this room without an agreement, then my first step is the hall downstairs where all the international press is waiting for news. And I’m going to tell them that I was prepared to commit to a big reduction in our greenhouse gases and billions of dollars in new assistance, and that each of you decided it was better to do nothing. I’m going to say the same thing to all the poor countries that stood to benefit from the new money. And to all the people in your own countries that stand to suffer the most from climate change. And we’’ll see who to believe.” (514)

When I read that, I wished I had been at Copenhagen. I would have stood up and started to applaud. And I would keep clapping as the flustered Chinese environmental minister sputtered and protested in pretended rage. It is worth reading the whole volume just for that page. As it turned out, I was not needed. Wen silenced his minister and quickly conceded to Obama’s demands for a compromise agreement. As one of Obama’s staffers opined, “I gotta say, boss, that was some real gangster shit back there.” (515)

As Obama said, this had been the key to the breakthrough Paris Accord seven years later.

As it turned out, in spite of Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Treaty, U.S. greenhouse gas emissions between 2010 and 2019 fell 23%, 6% more than the target and 2% in 2019 alone. Further, primarily because of COVID-19 and the severe drop in land and air and water traffic, emissions fell 10% in 2020 alone. Leave it to a killer virus to get concerted action on climate change.

What about Chin? In spite of Xi’s impressive rhetoric, China still burns more coal, the greatest source of fossil fuel gas emissions that poison our planet, than the rest of the world combined. In the Paris Agreement, China agreed to reduce its emissions by 60-65%. In 2016, burning coal still represented almost 70% of the source of energy for China. That number remained relatively constant in 2018 in absolute terms. And, in that year, burning coal still represented 59% of the country’s total energy use.

Relatively speaking, as a native American in a Hollywood Western might say, “Chinse leaders speak with forked tongue.”

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