Hi, China Watchers. Barring an overnight surge of monkeypox across the Washington, D.C. area, Antony Blinken will unveil the administration’s long-awaited China strategy this morning. We’ll look at how the secretary of State will connect the dots between that strategy and the administration’s month of Asia outreach and talk to the State Department’s lead negotiator in renewing U.S. alliances in the Pacific islands. We’ll pay respects to the secular patron saint of the Shanghai lockdown and profile a searing memoir that dissects the genocidal nature of China’s policies toward its Uyghur Muslim population.
Let’s get to it. — Phelim
President Joe Biden’s month of intense Asia-focused diplomacy climaxes this morning when Secretary of State ANTONY BLINKEN unveils details of the administration’s long-awaited China strategy in a speech at George Washington University.
People briefed on the strategy say it aligns with the administration’s initiatives to create and solidify regional allies and partnerships to offset China’s growing influence. These include the launch of the Indo-Pacific strategy and the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, as well as Biden’s reinvigoration of the Quad, an informal geopolitical grouping that consists of the U.S., India, Australia and Japan.
“[The speech] offers a public encapsulation of the approach the administration has pursued over the last 15 months … in a way that leverages our extraordinary strength in common cause with our unmatched network of allies and partners,” a senior administration official told reporters Wednesday.
Biden’s China strategy positions the U.S. and its allies as critical in tempering the global ambitions of China’s increasingly powerful authoritarian one-party state. “China is a country that has the intention as well as the economic, technological, military and diplomatic means to advance a different vision of international order,” the senior administration official said. “We are competing with China over the trajectory of international order in the 21st century.”
Pushback on critics. Blinken looks to squash speculation that the administration’s China policy is unformed, in disarray or merely an extension of Trump-era initiatives. Such suggestions have raised administration hackles in recent weeks.
“Your assumption that our China strategy is yet to be unveiled is wrong. Over the last year, the Biden administration has implemented a comprehensive, whole-of-government strategy to compete responsibly with the PRC while advancing our shared affirmative vision with allies and partners,” a State Department spokesperson told China Watcher earlier this month.
Biden’s Asia trip — which followed his May 12-13 U.S.-ASEAN Special Summit — tested his vision of a U.S.-led regional alliance to counterbalance China’s rising power.
If unity in messaging among key Asian allies was a metric of its success, he can claim victory. In his bilateral meetings in Seoul and Tokyo and in the gathering of the leaders of the Quad nations, Biden found strong support for the key plank of his Indo-Pacific strategy: a commitment to a “free and open Indo-Pacific.”
South Korean President YOON SUK YEOL on Saturday channeled Blinken by advocating for a “rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific.” Japanese Prime Minister FUMIO KISHIDA backed that — with an implicit nod to China’s threats against Taiwan — by warning on Monday against any “unilateral attempt to change the status quo by force” in the region.
The Tuesday meeting of leaders of the Quad produced a ringing endorsement of a regional alliance based on an “international rules-based order where countries are free from all forms of military, economic and political coercion.” Although Biden didn’t convince Indian Prime Minister NARENDRA MODI to disavow the invasion of Ukraine by India’s main arms supplier Russia, Biden won India’s commitment to “expanding cooperation in new defense domains.”
Biden’s trip wasn’t gaffe free. His assertion Monday that the U.S. will militarily defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese invasion incensed Beijing and sparked concerns it may push China closer to a military confrontation with the self-ruled island.
But on Capitol Hill, Biden’s comments evoked rare bipartisan praise and rallied Democratic lawmakers to urge a formal declaration of U.S. military support for Taiwan. If Biden’s Taiwan comments aimed to spook Beijing, he scored a direct hit. The Foreign Ministry’s WANG WENBIN warned Tuesday that “the US will have to pay [an] unbearable price” if it disregards bilateral agreements on Taiwan.
Biden can also point to the dozen countries that agreed to negotiate IPEF membership — including complicated trading partners like India, Indonesia and Vietnam — as regional appetite for an alternative to the China-dominated Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, which includes the 10 ASEAN countries, as well as Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and South Korea. Biden said Monday that the IPEF is about “writing the new rules for the 21st century economy.”
Beijing clearly dislikes the rival trade grouping. “The IPEF is designed to advance US geopolitical strategy … [and] seeks to exclude certain countries, establish US-led trade rules, restructure the system of industrial chains, and decouple regional countries with the Chinese economy,” Wang said.
Blinken’s speech will evoke fresh rounds of rancor from Beijing.
“The Secretary will also speak about our profound concerns over the PRC’s human rights practices, including genocide and crimes against humanity in Xinjiang,” the senior administration official said. “The central point that we have been making and that the secretary will make [today] is we’re not going to be compromising our principles for the sake of cooperation.”
The U.S.-China Battle for the Pacific
Chinese Foreign Minister WANG YI starts a 10-day, eight-country diplomatic sweep of the Pacific Islands today in a Chinese counter-offensive to Biden’s two weeks of Asia-focused diplomacy.
Wang will visit Solomon Islands — where China has sealed a controversial security pact — as well as Kiribati, Samoa, Fiji, Tonga, Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea and Timor Leste and will convene a video visit to the Federated States of Micronesia. Wang’s trip will peak with the second China-Pacific Island Countries Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in Fiji, which may include the signing of joint agreements on “traditional and non-traditional security” cooperation and expanded law enforcement collaboration with China.
Wang’s engagement with Micronesia — which has a historically close relationship with the U.S. — underscores China’s efforts to displace the U.S. and Australia as the region’s strategic allies of choice.
The U.S. is negotiating extensions of soon-to-expire treaties with Micronesia, Palau and the Marshall Islands that give the U.S. the right to deny outsider access to those countries’ waters, airspace and land. The treaties, called Compacts of Free Association, obligate the U.S. to provide the three countries financial assistance and rights of visa-free migration. The COFAs for Micronesia and Marshall Islands expire in 2023, while Palau’s expires in 2024. Micronesia’s President DAVID PANUELO urged the administration in February to accelerate those negotiations, prompting DANIEL KRITENBRINK, assistant secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, to declare them “a top priority.”
Enter Ambassador JOSEPH YUN, appointed in March as the State Department’s special presidential envoy for compact negotiations. Yun sat down with China Watcher to discuss his efforts to seal those COFA deals. Key elements of the interview are below, edited for length and clarity.
What is the value of these COFAs to the U.S.?
If you look at a map, these countries stretch from near Hawaii, all the way to quite near to the Philippines north of the equator. So part of the [COFA] agreement was that defense-related issues, including military access to the air and to the seas, would be protected by the United States. And so, the benefit to the U.S. is … making sure these Pacific islands remain strategically close to the United States.
How is China’s growing influence in the region spurring discussions about changing, amending or expanding these COFAs?
These negotiations aren’t taking place in a vacuum. We started doing the first [COFAs] in the mid-’80s … and at that point the Soviet Union was certainly a factor. Now China is certainly a factor as well. We are competing with China in many different fields, and the Pacific is one of them, but it would be a mistake to think that China was the only factor or even that it is the dominant factor. These islands have been part of what I call the U.S. community and alliance for a long time. Has [renewing COFAs] become more urgent? I’m not sure it’s become more urgent, but the United States wants to continue this closest of relationships with these countries.
What is the U.S. government’s value-added that China lacks in securing alliances with these three Pacific island countries?
COFA gives all citizens of these three countries the right to come live and work in the United States. Right now, I would say maybe a third of citizens of these countries live and work in the United States. U.S. economic assistance accounts for 20-30 percent of government budgets of these countries. And obviously, their sense of security to have nearby U.S. Indo-Pacific Command [and] to have their air and the ocean space protected by the United States from things like illegal fisheries as well as military incursion or military threats from other countries.
When will you conclude negotiations to extend the COFAs?
It’s only been six weeks [since my appointment]. But the response from our COFA partners has been very positive, with all three presidents stating quite clearly that they, too, want to conclude negotiations without any interruptions. I am optimistic we can get there.
— LAWMAKERS WANT RETIREMENT FUNDS CHINA-PROOFED: A bipartisan and bicameral coalition of lawmakers demanded Tuesday that the Federal Retirement Thrift Investment Board’s acting chair, DAVID JONES, halt a plan that could expose federal employee retirement savings to investments in mutual funds linked to Chinese firms connected to human rights abuses or national security threats. The coalition, led by Sen. MARCO RUBIO (R-Fla.) and Rep. GREG MURPHY (R-N.C.), directed Jones “to cancel, or, at minimum, postpone” a plan that would expose billions of dollars in federal retirement savings to unvetted mutual funds that include “Chinese companies, including ones currently sanctioned or otherwise blacklisted for the threat they pose to U.S. national security.”
— STATE BLASTS U.N. ‘SILENCE’ ON XINJIANG: State Department spokesperson NED PRICE last week slammed the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, MICHELLE BACHELET, for “continued silence in the face of indisputable evidence of atrocities in Xinjiang and other human rights violations and abuses throughout the PRC.” Price was referencing Bachelet’s refusal to release a long-delayed report about abuses in Xinjiang. Bachelet began a six-day visit to China on Monday warning her visit wouldn’t be an “investigation.” That prompted criticism from Human Rights Watch that she was reneging on a commitment to make her China trip conditional on “unfettered access” to areas including Xinjiang.
Sens. MITT ROMNEY (R-Utah) and JEFF MERKLEY (D-Ore.) on Saturday pressed China to allow Bachelet to investigate rights violations targeting “Uyghurs and other ethnic and religious minorities.” Beijing dismissed that demand. “All they want is to whip up the so-called Xinjiang issue and discredit China with the High Commissioner’s visit,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said Tuesday. China reaped an early propaganda victory from Bachelet’s trip with the Chinese Foreign Ministry readout of her video meeting with Chinese President XI JINPING. The readout doesn’t mention Xinjiang or Uyghurs, but includes her alleged praise for “China’s efforts and achievements in … protecting human rights and realizing economic and social development.”
— HK ACTIVISTS FLAME SECURITY LAW BOOSTER: A partner at the U.S. law firm Davis, Polk & Wardwell regrets his RSVP for a May 28 event in Hong Kong to “commemorate the second anniversary” of the territory’s draconian National Security Law. Hong Kong pro-democracy activists condemned the firm’s Asia chair, MARTIN ROGERS, for agreeing to attend the event. That prompted Rogers to announce on Saturday that he had “[withdrawn] from speaking” at the event. “Mass repression is never the sole work of the regime — it requires outside enablers,” SAMUEL CHU, president of the nonprofit The Campaign for Hong Kong, told China Watcher. “Davis Polk … was willing to endorse and defend unjust actions and a law universally condemned by legal and right experts — all in the name of billable hours.”
— WHA DENIES TAIWAN’S OBSERVER STATUS BID: The World Health Assembly on Monday declined to consider Taiwan’s request for observer status at its annual meeting this week in Geneva. That’s because of Beijing’s hostility to the self-governing island’s participation in international fora, including the World Health Organization and its decision-making body, the WHA. Taiwan’s bid for a WHA seat reaped both congressional support and Blinken’s backing. Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs responded with a statement declaring that it “rejects China’s false claims that it has made proper arrangements for Taiwan’s participation in global health affairs.” Beijing dismissed Taiwan’s WHA bid as “egregious in nature.”
— CANADA’S MIXED MESSAGING ON CHINA TIES: Canada’s Foreign Minister MÉLANIE JOLY told POLITICO’s ANDY BLATCHFORD on Thursday that Canada was “moving on” from the rancor created by the Chinese government’s three-year detention of Canadians MICHAEL SPAVOR and MICHAEL KOVRIG on specious espionage charges. “My goal is to make sure that we reestablish ties,” Joly said. Also on Thursday, Canada’s Public Safety Minister MARCO MENDICINO imposed a ban on Chinese telecom firms Huawei and ZTE from Canada’s fifth-generation wireless network over national security concerns. Wang at the Foreign Ministry said Friday that Mendicino’s allegations lacked “solid evidence.”
— SHANGHAI LOCKDOWN’S PATRON SAINT: Two years since his death, Dr. LI WENLIANG has an afterlife as a source of spiritual solace for Chinese people inspired by his sacrifice. Li was a medical whistleblower who incurred the wrath of Chinese authorities by challenging Beijing’s initial upbeat narrative of the Covid-19 outbreak in Wuhan in December 2019. Li paid the price for that candor when Wuhan police briefly detained him and compelled him to confess to “spreading false rumors” for posting an online warning about the coronavirus. He achieved tragic hero status after succumbing to Covid several weeks later.
Popular perceptions of Li’s integrity have made the comments section of his final Weibo post a digital pilgrimage site. “A repository for the hopes, dreams, worries, and opinions of countless Chinese citizens,” China Digital Times reported Monday. And in recent weeks, Shanghai residents have made Li their online confessor of choice about their fears and frustrations regarding the city’s near-nine week “zero-Covid” lockdown. Here’s a sampling of some of those recent comments that CDT has archived and translated:
“Dr. Li, I’ve been locked down in Shanghai for 48 days now, and my patience with this pandemic is wearing thin. The stress of making payments on my mortgage, car loan, and all the rest is so overwhelming I can hardly breathe. It has also really shaken my faith. There are people around here profiteering [from the zero-COVID policy], and I have to wonder: what kind of people are we protecting? I’m really confused. I hope you’re doing well in heaven.”
“Dr. Li, why have our eyes been blindfolded, our mouths covered? Why can’t we see the suffering of others, why can’t we speak?”
“Some nights, when I’m missing my mother, I come here to visit you.”
New York Times: “‘The Last Generation’: The Disillusionment of Young Chinese”
Deutsche Welle: “Are European academics helping China’s military?”
— SULLIVAN HINTS AT UPCOMING BIDEN-XI CALL: Get set to mark your calendar. “I wouldn’t be surprised if, in the coming weeks, President Biden and President Xi speak again,” national security adviser JAKE SULLIVAN said last week.
The Book: No Escape: The True Story of China’s Genocide of the Uyghurs
The Author:NURY TURKEL is a U.S.-educated Uyghur-American lawyer, human rights advocate and a member of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.
What is the most important takeaway from your book?
The gravity of the current situation and the possible new world order that will emerge should we fail to stop China’s genocidal regime. The international community swore “Never Again” after the Holocaust. Still, it is happening again, right this minute, and the new form that this modern genocide has taken has sinister implications for vulnerable ethnic and religious groups the world over.
What was the most surprising thing you learned while researching and writing this book?
The similarities between the CCP and Nazi mindset, including collective punishment based on religion and ethnicity, a roundup of social elites and thought leaders, violence against women and children, and dehumanization of an entire population. There are still massive failures in the early detection and prevention of atrocity crimes. We as an international community have failed to learn the lessons of history. [Government] leaders, corporations, and other figures are seeking to appease authoritarian figures like Xi and Russian President [VLADIMIR] PUTIN, feigning ignorance due to their own greed and self-interest.
What does your book tell us about the trajectory and future of U.S.-China relations?
China has repeatedly demonstrated over the past few decades that it is not a responsible regime, let alone a reliable “partner.” Unfortunately, with China’s backing of Putin as he invades Ukraine, the international community will only continue to have rude awakenings on this issue.
Got a book to recommend? Tell me about it at [email protected].
Thanks to: Ben Pauker, Matt Kaminski, digital producer Raymond Rapada, Andy Blatchford, Andrew Desiderio, Steven Overly and editor John Yearwood.
Do you have tips? Chinese-language stories we might have missed? Would you like to contribute to China Watcher or comment on this week’s items? Email us at [email protected].