The US and China are talking “candidly, pragmatically and constructively” about trade again.
That’s according to Beijing’s account of a call between Katherine Tai and Liu He. Take a moment to adjust. Your brain will need a second or two to process the absence of Bob Lighthizer and Steve Mnuchin.
Thursday’s chat was the first between America’s new trade representative and Liu since Joe Biden took office. As usual, China emphasized that the discussion was based on “equality and mutual respect.”
They needn’t bother with that previously obligatory language. Or at least not the “equality” part. Economically, China is nearly America’s equal in fact. Beijing doesn’t have to feign it anymore.
As far as the “respect” bit goes, I doubt either side “respects” the other. And if that’s true, both sides would be justified in harboring reservations.
The Party is presiding over genocide in Xinjiang, has removed the trappings of democracy in Hong Kong (the city banned the Tiananmen vigil for the second year in a row on Thursday and passed new measures that mandate the vetting of elected officials by a “review committee” which will determine whether candidates are “patriots”) and for all his high-minded allusions to the many merits of multilateralism, Xi seems bent on instituting Chinese hegemony.
On the other side, America has a mass shooting seemingly every day, its police murder minorities in cold blood, its legislature exists in a perpetual state of gridlock and its vaunted democratic institutions were just exposed as paper tigers by a reality TV show host.
So, both China and the US could quite plausibly ask the other: “What is there to ‘respect’?”
The White House said Tai “discussed the guiding principles of the Biden-Harris administration’s worker-centered trade policy and her ongoing review of the US-China trade relationship, while also raising issues of concern.” China said “the two sides believe that the development of bilateral trade is very important, and exchanged views on issues of mutual concern and agreed to continue to communicate.”
But those boilerplate statements aren’t worth the digital paper they were typed on. The truth was laid bare by Kurt Campbell, the National Security Council’s coordinator for Indo-Pacific affairs, who spoke Wednesday at a Stanford event. “The period that was described as engagement [with China] has come to an end,” Campbell said. America now has a “new set of strategic parameters,” for managing its relationship with Beijing. “The dominant paradigm is going to be competition.”
Campbell cited other examples of Xi’s “assertive” stance and deployment of “hard power” to achieve ends, both economic and military. Prior to her call with Liu, Tai described “very large challenges” to the Sino-US economic relationship.
This comes as the Biden administration conducts a new investigation into the origins of COVID-19. Spoiler alert: That investigation will almost surely be inconclusive.
The contentious “lab” explanation (that the virus escaped from the Wuhan Institute of Virology) has always been a semblance of plausible, but it’s struggled in the shadow of more nefarious conspiracy theories. In the simplest possible terms: Were it not for bad actors (and internet profiteers who run digital tabloids, some of which masquerade as “finance” portals) spreading misinformation, the “lab leak” theory probably would have been taken more seriously. Instead, it became inextricably bound up with far-fetched versions of itself, an entanglement Biden is apparently keen to sort out.
Beijing will stymie that effort. No matter how hard the US intelligence community tries, only a handful of top Chinese officials will ever know the truth.
And while there’s surely quite a bit the international community doesn’t know, there is one force in the world more powerful than the CCP. As one Vanderbilt epidemiologist put it Thursday, we may just be “underestimating Mother Nature here.”