By Collins Chong Yew Keat
Blinken’s overtures to Beijing remain a double edged sword. The visit will give a huge moral and strategic win for Beijing, and further weakens Washington’s standing, being looked as weak and desperate.
The first top level meeting in Alaska in 2021 has played well into Beijing’s end goals of humiliating Washington in its own house,where the Chinese delegation has lectured the Americans at length.
Xi’s third term has created a new urgency for him to shore up his internal consolidation of power, and to break the America led Western containment intensity through a two-pronged approach. Firstly, to cement his legacy and strength at home by playing up a consistent nationalistic drive of the revival of the Chinese Dream and in protecting Taiwan. This is through distracting the local audience from the current internal socio-economic crisis by playing the victim card and pinning the blame on the West.
Secondly, by strengthening its own version of friendshoring and in enhancing its years-long self-sustaining economic independence in its own moves of decoupling and derisking processes. The Covid pandemic has jolted Beijing into moulding a new global economic framework that is centred on Beijing as the main economic nucleus in supply chain and critical resources. This gives a new overwhelming leverage for China in using that as the effective economic blackmail in weaponizing these tools in times of conflict against the West. It will lessen the fallout from the West’s current and future sanctions should it make a move on Taiwan, and in giving China bigger rooms in forcing Washington to play into its dictate and game.
The increasing number of countries and regions that are now beholden to the Chinese economic grip have given Beijing more room to be bolder in actions.
The military snub that has been ongoing for months highlighted this notion of Beijing’s increasing new power play. The Shangri-La Dialogue has given a clear intent of Beijing’s game to force Washington into a corner, and by making it look weak and desperate to appeal to Beijing. It is meant to test Washington’s responses and to force it to make mistakes and miscalculations, which would then be used as a pretext in justifying its greater responses and actions in hotspots in the region. By being cold to US overtures including setting guardrails and initiating more risk reduction mechanisms, Beijing can exert more pressure on Washington to make further concessions to Beijing’s advantage.
By going to China without a projection and position of strength, it will be a strategic mistake for the US. It will give Beijing the win on its immediate goal of forcing the US into a trap and securing Xi’s credentials at home.
Blinken’s visit can also be used to trap the US in a blame game and further solidifying Beijing’s narrative. It will send a message to existing Chinese satellite states and periphery that the US is no longer invincible and can now be desperate enough to go all the way in appealing China to restrain and to behave.
Beijing now has the full leverage to justify its new normal of intimidation and coercion of Taiwan in its continuation of daily harassment, using the West’s “provocations” and “disrespect for China’s internal affairs” as the ultimate pretext. The same bellicose actions in the South China Sea and the continuation of Beijing’s friendshoring from the Middle East to Latin America will further intensify to capitalise on this opening.
The peace brokering movements in the Middle East, the move to consolidate ties with both Riyadh and Tehran and the intensification of taking the game into America’s courtyard through escalating espionage activities are all intended as a message to both the West and the rest of the world.
Beijing’s continuous power projections and narrative building efforts in both soft and hard power overdrive from BRICS to the galvanisation of influence in the Global South, whether through de-dollarisation movements or a sustained pivot into China centric economic fulcrum and supply chain, have yielded considerable successes that further dwindled the impact of America’s disintegrated and slow counterresponse.
Macron’s cosying up to Xi and the continuing divide in Europe over the right approach to China, from the Huawei disagreement to trade policies especially in China satellite states in Eastern Europe, all give baby steps of confidence to Beijing in its global coalition build-up.
Playing the victim card and flipping the narrative on US sanctions and unfair embargos and containment efforts have also created a stronger soft power narration, along with persistent economic tools and espionage avenues in winning friends through official and hidden sway.
This pattern of growing confidence will not last long however. Xi realises he still faces the trap of time, and that Beijing will lose the power momentum to the US in the long run. The prospects of a Trump comeback in 2024 despite his current ordeals will render Xi’s dream and momentum to almost absolute futility, knowing how he will redouble efforts to change the power parity to Washington’s advantage.
The coming US presidential election will also see a joint target of China where consistent hawkish views by both parties on China will be exploited by Beijing to cement its narrative and to win the global audience. China’s peak power status now, as argued by some, will also mean a more dangerous pattern being unleashed by Xi, in facing a fast closing time frame for his rejuvenation drive and in cementing his own legacy, through more bold and assertive manouvres. If miscalculations happen, the blame will be pinned on Washington, and Beijing will again emerge as the winner in a lose-lose situation for Washington.
Beijing is now challenging the US in its own backyard and is no longer confined to the Indo Pacific. It appears to be more confident than ever to push Washington further, where Beijing will be ready to take the first punch from Washington in order to have the right pretext to push back further with an improved second strike capacity. Beijing will also win the moral judgment and justifications, in triumphing over the moral war against “US imperialism”. The sabre rattling and cat and mouse wait of who will take the first punch are thus crafted in Beijing’s favour.
Collins Chong Yew Keat has been serving in University of Malaya for more than 9 years. His areas of focus include strategic and security studies, America’s foreign policy and power projection, regional conflicts and power parity analysis and has published various publications on numerous platforms including books and chapter articles. He is also a regular contributor in providing op-eds and analytical articles for both the local and international media on various contemporary global issues and regional affairs since 2007.