If you are going to San Francisco … pragmatism rules

‘Major obstacles stand in the way of true diplomatic breakthroughs’ in expected talks between Biden and Xi 

Welcome to the 22nd edition of Between The Lines. This week we look at the talks leading up to the expected talks between US President Joe Biden and China’s Xi Jinping. Is it just hot air? Also, we focus on Beijing’s massive shipbuilding program and why Gallup has poll-vaulted out of the country. Let’s get started.

There has been incessant talk about expected talks that has grown louder by the day. Next week, US President Joe Biden looks certain to host a tête-à-tête with China’s paramount leader Xi Jinping at the APEC Summit in San Francisco. 

Flowers in the hair are not obligatory for all those Sixties hippy fans out there. So, what can we expect? Well, “military-to-military communications” appear to be back on the table amid rising tension in the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait.

But apart from that, “major obstacles stand in the way of true diplomatic breakthroughs,” according to the Axios China newsletter. Cue Orville Schell, the director of the Center on US-China Relations at the Asia Society in New York:

Xi is now engaged in a charm offensive, but still equates reciprocity and compromise as hallmarks of weakness rather than as essential tools of diplomacy.

“[It is] difficult for him to be flexible enough to change the fundamentally antagonistic nature he’s incubated in the US-China relationship that killed ‘engagement’ as a viable bipartisan policy in Washington,” Schell told Axios

As for Biden, he “will not want to do anything that can be seen as weak,” Joshua Kurlantzick at the Council on Foreign Relations pointed out. Stalemate in other words.

China’s PLA Navy in the South China Sea. Photo: PLA Navy

How China now rules the waves

Size appears to matter to President Xi Jinping and his Communist Party cronies. In a breakneck building boom, China now rules the waves after churning out warships and commercial vessels at “an eye-watering pace.”

It has been a decade in the making and not even the United States can match the sheer scale of construction at China’s shipyards. As Newsweek reported earlier this week:

The People’s Liberation Army Navy is now the biggest in the world by hull count – it launched 30 ships last year [alone]. According to the Pentagon, the Chinese Navy has 370 ships, compared to the US fleet size of 291 major surface combatants, submarines, aircraft carriers, and other vessel types.

“Over the last decade, the PLA Navy has outbuilt the US Navy by about 25%, putting down tonnage of over one million tons versus around 800,000 tons in the US, according to Tom Shugart at the Center for a New American Security think tank,” Newsweek stated.

China also has the largest coast guard fleet of 150 vessels and has used it to assert its illegal territorial claims in the East and South China Seas. Be prepared for choppy waters ahead.

Research Group Gallup has signaled it will leave China. Photo: File

Gallup-ing off into the polling sunset

Gallup is pulling out of China. The consulting group has “long faced difficulties conducting public polls” in the world’s second-largest economy amid “rising scrutiny of Western” research companies, the Financial Times reported last week:

The nationalist state-owned tabloid Global Times this year claimed that the group’s polls ‘serve as a tool to contain China and maintain US dominance’ after one survey in March showed the proportion of Americans who viewed China favorably had declined to 15%, a record low.

Amazingly, the decision came just days before a poll from Morning Consult showed “attitudes in China have become friendlier to the US this year amid a slowdown in the economy,” according to Axios

“In April 2022, more than 80% of Chinese respondents said they viewed the US as an enemy. But by October 2023, that number had fallen to less than 50%,” the survey revealed. Now, how will the Global Times spin those numbers?  

And finally …

Is this the end of Panda Diplomacy? Earlier this week, the three pandas at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo in Washington were loaded onto a plane for their trip back to China. It was the end of an era for Mei Xiang, Tian Tian and their cub Xiao Qi Ji, severing “a symbol” of Sino-American ties. Check out the ramifications on The New York Times link.