Hi, China Watchers. Don’t miss our Twitter Spaces event today at 10:30 a.m. EDT on the promise and pitfalls of President Joe Biden’s big Asia policy month. This link will take you straight to the event and we invite questions for our panelists! Meanwhile, Biden’s Friday-Tuesday Asia trip is getting early results — we’ll take a look at Beijing’s apparent panic. We’ll also examine the U.S. push to get Taiwan a World Health Assembly seat, probe a dead dictator’s sensitivities and profile a book that unpacks how autocrats weaponize historical narratives to maintain power.
Let’s get to it. — Phelim
President JOE BIDEN has scored an early victory in his efforts to rally Asian allies against China’s rising influence before he even boards Air Force One on Friday for his visit to the region — Beijing is panicking.
China’s Foreign Ministry has launched a desperation-tinged campaign to warn key regional U.S. allies against joining the effort, signaling that Beijing feels threatened by the administration’s Asia pivot.
Spooking Beijing is the easy part. Biden’s challenge is convincing Japan, South Korea, India and Australia that his vision of a revitalized economic and security coalition is more compelling than watching China’s rise to regional dominance.
“This trip is going to put on full display President Biden’s Indo-Pacific Strategy, and that it will show in living color that the United States can at once lead the free world in responding to Russia’s war in Ukraine, and at the same time chart a course for effective, principled American leadership and engagement in a region that will define much of the future of the 21st century,” national security adviser JAKE SULLIVAN said Wednesday.
The Chinese government clearly senses a threat as the administration sharpens its focus on Asia.
“China opposes the creation of block-antagonism or separatist confrontation in the Asia-Pacific region,” LIU PENGYU, spokesperson for the Chinese embassy in Washington, D.C., told China Watcher. Chinese Foreign Minister WANG YI made a similar pitch to South Korean Foreign Minister PARK JIN on Monday, urging him in a phone call to “prevent the risk of a new Cold War, and to oppose confrontation between the two camps.”
Wang took a tougher line Wednesday in a phone call with Japanese Foreign Minister YOSHIMASA HAYASHI. “What is of concern and vigilance is that the so-called Japan-US joint effort to confront China has been rampant before the U.S. leader has made the trip,” a Chinese Foreign Ministry statement said.
Also Wednesday, YANG JIECHI, China’s top diplomat, phoned Sullivan to complain that “the U.S. side has taken a series of wrong words and actions to interfere in China’s internal affairs and harm China’s interests.” Yang warned that “China will take firm action to safeguard its sovereignty and security interests,” Chinese state news agency Xinhua reported.
Biden’s border buds. Biden aims to foster closer cooperation between China’s neighbors, Japan and South Korea, despite territorial disputes and historical grievances that have complicated bilateral relations.
Newly minted South Korean President YOON SUK YEOL and Hayashi pledged last week to repair the relationship. But a quick fix is unlikely.
“I’m not overly optimistic because I’ve been watching this relationship for decades and when things get tough from a domestic standpoint, politically it is often easy to revive these tensions as a means to unify political will within a given country,” Sen. BILL HAGERTY (R-Tenn.), former U.S. ambassador to Japan, told China Watcher.
Countering North Korea’s nukes. Biden’s South Korea stop will likely result in a U.S. commitment to fortify Seoul’s anti-missile defenses. Yoon will press Biden to place tactical nuclear weapons under U.S. command in South Korea, a plank of his campaign platform that Washington has so far dismissed.
The U.S. positioned tactical nuclear weapons on the Korean Peninsula for decades before withdrawing them in 1991 as an incentive to North Korea to abandon its then-nascent nuclear weapons program. Pyongyang has tested 14 potentially nuclear-capable ballistic missiles so far this year.
And more tests are imminent. “Our intelligence does reflect the genuine possibility that there will be either a further missile test including a long range missile test, or a nuclear test or frankly both in the days leading into or after the president’s trip to the region,” Sullivan said.
Biden is unlikely to redeploy tactical nuclear weapons to the Korean peninsula barring a dramatic uptick in North Korean threats. Instead, Biden will seek to placate Yoon’s concerns by approving his request for additional Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD, anti-missile systems to counter North Korea’s missile threat, a move certain to enrage both Pyongyang and Beijing.
Quinting the Quad. Biden’s trip will climax with a meeting of the leaders of the Quad — an informal geopolitical grouping that includes the U.S., India, Australia and Japan focused on countering China’s rising economic, diplomatic and military power in the Indo-Pacific. Yoon will try to reach agreement on one of his China-related electoral promises: a move toward South Korean membership in the Quad.
South Korean engagement with the Quad — even if it falls short of full membership — will boost Biden’s objective of edging Tokyo and Seoul closer together.
“We have an interest in improving relations [between Japan and] South Korea … and getting South Korea more involved in the Quad will, by itself, start to do that,” said JAMES A. KELLY, former assistant secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs.
Economic sweetener. Commerce Secretary GINA RAIMONDO confirmed this week that Biden will formally launch the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, his signature regional trade initiative, while in Tokyo.
The framework is Biden’s response to competing trade pacts in the region, none of which his administration is keen to join.
“These two weeks of Asia meetings is a great signal to an important part of the world that we haven’t forgotten about them, but progress on economic matters is what’s going to really count,” Kelly said. “The economic behemoth China has become is very important, but it also has that wolf warrior diplomacy, and it kicks the hell out of the shins of any middle-sized nation that antagonizes it, so there is an important [U.S.] role in both security and economics in the Indo-Pacific.”
Wooing India. Biden has made deepening engagement with India one of the 10 “core lines of effort” in the Indo-Pacific Strategy.
That’s a challenge given India’s decadeslong alignment with Russia, hinged on Moscow’s role as New Delhi’s largest weapons supplier. The Biden administration is seeking to displace that Russian influence with an arms sale to India valued up to $500 million, Bloomberg reported Tuesday. Another irritant is Prime Minister NARENDRA MODI’s unwillingness to criticize Russia’s Ukraine invasion.
Biden’s advantage is that India’s relations with China have soured since a festering border dispute erupted in hand-to-hand combat in the disputed Galwan Valley that killed 20 Indian troops in 2020. India’s Foreign Minister SUBRAHMANYAM JAISHANKAR told his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi in March that a “normal relationship” is impossible until China withdraws troops from the border region.
“For India … [the] Quad is essentially ‘political deterrence’ against China, but not a ‘tactical weapon,’” said RAJIV RANJAN, associate professor of international politics at Shanghai University’s College of Liberal Arts. “However, it will not be far-fetched if New Delhi begins to see it as tactical if India-China frictions intensify in the region and border clashes heighten.”
— PELOSI: HK ARRESTS EXPOSE BEIJING’S ‘DESPERATION’: House Speaker NANCY PELOSI decried the arrests last week of Hong Kong’s Catholic Cardinal JOSEPH ZEN ZE-KIUN, activist singer DENISE HO WAN-SZE and former opposition lawmaker MARGARET NG NGOI-YEE on charges of “colluding with foreign forces.” The arrests signal “Beijing’s growing desperation and fear that it is losing this fight” to strip Hong Kong of its freedom, Pelosi said in a Washington Post op-ed Friday. “The US politician’s remarks constitute malicious denigration of Hong Kong’s rule of law,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson ZHAO LIJIAN responded Monday.
— BIDEN PRICES ‘ASEAN CENTRALITY’ AT $150M: Biden capped last week’s U.S.-ASEAN Special Summit by pledging $150 million to “deepen U.S.-ASEAN relations, strengthen ASEAN centrality, and expand our common capacity to achieve our shared objectives.” Biden signaled that ASEAN could expect “billions more in private financing,” but the modest headline figure sparked social media scorn. “This is the price of a downmarket superyacht for a third-tier oligarch,” noted MIKE FORSYTHE, a longtime China hand and New York Times reporter.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry rubbed salt in the wound by trotting out some humbling comparative data when asked about that $150 million. “China is ready to provide ASEAN with … another $1.5 billion of development assistance in the next three years to support ASEAN countries’ fight against COVID-19 and economic recovery,” spokesperson Zhao said Friday.
— BIDEN SIGNS TAIWAN WHA PARTICIPATION BILL: Biden on Friday signed bill S.812 which requires the secretary of State “to establish a strategy for, and to report annually to Congress on efforts to secure observer status for Taiwan at the [upcoming World Health Assembly].” The Chinese government’s hostility to the self-governing island bars Taipei from most international forums, including the World Health Organization and its decision-making body, the WHA.
“China’s unreasonable suppression and marginalization of Taiwan’s international participation is not only a deprivation of the right of Taiwanese people to have access to global resources, it’s also depriving the world of the expertise and resources of Taiwan,” HSIAO BI-KHIM, Taiwan’s official representative to the U.S., told China Watcher. “You can put a political boundary around [Taiwan], but you can’t put a political boundary around viruses — we can suffer and therefore we should be part of the solution.”
The State Department agrees. “Inviting Taiwan to attend the WHA as an observer would exemplify the WHO’s commitment to an inclusive approach to international health cooperation and ‘health for all,’” Secretary of State ANTONY BLINKEN said Wednesday.
Beijing is not amused. “We advise the U.S. to stop exploiting the WHA to play up Taiwan-related issues,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson WANG WENBIN said Wednesday.
— EU, JAPAN WARN ON DISPUTED ISLANDS: European Council President CHARLES MICHEL and European Commission President URSULA VON DER LEYEN joined Japan Prime Minister FUMIO KISHIDA in expressing concern Friday about rising China-Japan tensions over a disputed island chain. “[We] remain seriously concerned about the situation in the East China Sea, including in the waters surrounding the Senkaku Islands and in the South China Sea,” a joint EU-Japan statement said. China claims sovereignty over the Senkaku, which it calls the Diaoyu islands, and has backed those claims with an increasingly more assertive naval presence in recent years. “Japan and the EU hyped up China-related issues at the meeting to smear and denigrate China,” the Foreign Ministry’s Zhao said Friday.
— G-7 HAMMERS CHINA ON TAIWAN, UKRAINE: Foreign ministers from the Group of Seven on Saturday criticized China’s threats against Taiwan and Beijing’s alignment with Russia’s Ukraine invasion. “We remind China of the need to uphold the principle of the UN Charter on peaceful settlement of disputes and to abstain from threats, coercion, intimidation measures or use of force,” a G-7 statement said, implicitly referencing intensifying Chinese military intimidation against the self-governing island. “We call on China not to assist Russia in its war of aggression against Ukraine … and to desist from engaging in information manipulation, disinformation and other means to legitimise Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine.” Zhao at the Foreign Ministry responded Monday by demanding the G-7 “stop fabricating and spreading lies and rumors about China.”
— HOW NOT TO OFFEND A DICTATOR: Monday marked the 56th anniversary of the “May 16 Notification,” which launched Chairman MAO ZEDONG’s catastrophic 10-year “Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution.” That set in motion a decade of chaos that upended Chinese society, killed more than 1.5 million people and rendered China an economic basket case by the time it ended in 1976. Mao also masterminded the disastrous 1958-1961 Great Leap Forward that killed up to 45 million people, making him the worst mass murderer of the 20th century.
Chinese President XI JINPING has made “historical nihilism” — which includes any public challenge to a sunny CCP historical narrative — a criminal offense. British lawmaker JIM SHANNON has suggested that Netflix has a similar aversion to the sensitivities of the Chinese Communist Party by omitting mention of Mao in the documentary, “How to Become a Tyrant.” The documentary instead profiles HITLER, STALIN, SADDAM HUSSEIN, Uganda’s IDI AMIN, Libya’s MUAMMAR GADHAFI and North Korea’s KIM IL-SUNG.
“Chairman Mao had a campaign of genocide against his own nation, against his people, against anyone who stood in his way,” Shannon, the human rights spokesperson of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, told the Belfast News Letter newspaper on Sunday. “Netflix needs to be more historically factually correct. It’s almost like trying to change the views of history and sweep something under the carpet.” Shannon didn’t respond to China Watcher’s query about how he wants Netflix to address his perception of the company’s Mao-coddling.
Netflix doesn’t operate in China and inside the country its content is only available through VPNs that circumvent China’s “Great Firewall.” But there is evidence that Beijing’s censorship regime is prompting the global filmmaking industry to pull its punches on China-related content to ingratiate themselves with the Chinese government. Netflix didn’t respond to a China Watcher request for comment.
Foreign Affairs: “What Is China Learning From Russia’s War in Ukraine?
— SHANGHAI LOCKDOWN EASES IN JUNE: Chinese authorities will start to lift a more than nine week “zero-Covid” lockdown of Shanghai on June 1. Expect official declarations of victory, state media interviews with grateful citizens praising China’s Covid controls and lurid contrasts between China’s Covid death toll of under 15,000 and the one million U.S. fatalities. Shanghai residents wanting to celebrate with an overseas holiday are out of luck. The Chinese government announced last week that it will “Strictly Restrict the Non-essential Foreign Travel of Chinese citizens” in order to “prevent importation” of the coronavirus.
The Book: “Dancing on Bones: History and Power in China, Russia, and North Korea”
The Author:KATIE STALLARD is a senior editor at the New Statesman magazine covering China and global affairs, and a non-resident global fellow at the Wilson Center.
What is the most important takeaway from your book?
History is a powerful political tool and while the impulse to manipulate the past to serve the present is by no means limited to autocrats, the leaders of these three countries — which are often listed among the top threats to U.S. and European security — have taken this tactic to extraordinary lengths, exploiting the history of past wars to rally support for their regimes and justify efforts to build up their military strength. As Putin is currently demonstrating in Ukraine, these national myths can also be harnessed to start new wars and shore up support for his actions at home.
What was the most surprising thing you learned while researching and writing this book?
The extent to which these stories have changed over the decades as different leaders have adapted the history of these wars to suit their contemporary needs. In Russia it is easy to imagine that the current bombastic celebrations around Victory Day have been an annual tradition since the end of the war, but in fact Stalin canceled the holiday and it took decades for the official commemorations to resume. It took even longer for the history of World War II to return to prominence in China, where it was only after Mao’s death that the CCP revised the story of the war to acknowledge the KMT’s role, and some of those previously designated heroes and villains changed sides.
What does your book tell us about the trajectory and future of U.S.-China relations?
The book examines the version of history you would learn if you grew up in China and how the CCP draws on that history to frame the current rivalry with the U.S. It tells us that the Chinese leadership has prepared the ground for a long and intensifying contest in the years ahead.
Got a book to recommend? Tell me about it at [email protected].
Thanks to: Ben Pauker, Matt Kaminski, digital producer Raymond Rapada, 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].