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Joe Biden: The Bull in the China Shop

by Elizabeth C. Economy
December 5, 2013

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden (C) and U.S. ambassador to China Gary Locke (2nd L) meet visa applicants at the U.S. Embassy Consular Section in Beijing on December 4, 2013. (Ng Han Guan/Courtesy Reuters) U.S. Vice President Joe Biden (C) and U.S. ambassador to China Gary Locke (2nd L) meet visa applicants at the U.S. Embassy Consular Section in Beijing on December 4, 2013. (Ng Han Guan/Courtesy Reuters)


In the midst of an already diplomatically challenging trip to Japan, China, and South Korea, U.S. vice president Joe Biden managed to make life just that much more difficult for himself. The vice president had a number of thorny issues already on his agenda, such as advancing the cause of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, discussing how to make progress on North Korea, trying to get Japan and South Korea on the same page, and most importantly, trying to persuade Beijing to step back and renounce its establishment of an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) that overlapped with the pre-established ADIZs of South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan or at the very least, to avoid declaring any new ADIZs.

Despite this full plate of unenviable tasks, Vice President Biden couldn’t resist igniting a mini-media firestorm in Beijing when, in the name of creativity and innovation, he called on young Chinese seeking to visit the United States to “challenge the government, challenge your teachers, challenge religious leaders.” He went on to praise the importance of new immigrants to the United States in reinvigorating “the spirit of America” and reinforced that “stamped in the DNA of every American” is an “inherent rejection of orthodoxy.”

At first glance, his remarks seem at best impolitic, at worst downright harmful to the overall cause of furthering cooperation with China. Yet, upon further reflection—which the vice president may or may not have undertaken prior to uttering his call to arms—his comments signaled one of the most important policy thrusts of the entire visit.

As China cracks down politically at home and promulgates its own ideals abroad through its Confucius Institutes and state-run media, it matters that U.S. officials reiterate American political values. Not doing so in an effort to appease Chinese sensibilities not only is craven but also doesn’t win any favors from Beijing. This past week during his own visit to China, UK Prime Minister David Cameron showered nothing but praise upon his Chinese hosts; in return he earned a scathing editorial in the Global Times and was forced to stand by and watch as one of his journalist countrymen was barred from his press conference with Chinese President Xi Jinping. Similarly, when Bloomberg fired star reporter Michael Forsythe in November—apparently for leaking to the New York Times that Bloomberg was kowtowing to Chinese pressure by holding back on the publication of a politically sensitive piece—the news corporation was rewarded with nothing better than visits by Chinese police to their newsrooms in Beijing and Shanghai.

In fact, Vice President Biden took on the issue of Chinese treatment of U.S. journalists and media companies directly in his talks with Chinese president Xi Jinping. U.S. media companies have long been stymied in their efforts to report openly and critically on China for fear of reprisals from Beijing. As Mark Landler reported in the New York Times, nearly two dozen New York Times and Bloomberg journalists are awaiting accreditation from Beijing; without it they will be expelled, effectively shutting down their China bureaus. The question now is whether the U.S. government will take further steps to pressure China on this issue. Would Washington be willing to delay the visas of Chinese journalists? Is there an issue of market access that could be advanced through the World Trade Organization? It may seem foolish to risk the overall relationship with China for such issues: The ADIZ, for example, represents a more immediate threat to regional security than access to China for U.S. journalists. However, the political values the vice president is advancing—transparency, openness, and accountability—in the final analysis are reflected not only in the way that China does business at home but also in how it behaves abroad. Vice President Biden is right to hold China to account on both fronts.

Post a Comment 6 Comments

  • Posted by Jill

    China will never be held accountable for anything it does because American businesses are so desperate to sell things to 1.3 billion people. One day we’re going to realize that it’s pointless. How horrible is it that Hollywood is actually helping to fund Chinese propaganda with all these local language co-productions –

  • Posted by Yoshimichi Moriyama

    One knack to know China is its geocentrism that the world should rotate round Beijing. As a Japanese said, “should” is an objetive reality that exists out there independently of Chinese thinking; the Chinese see it as a reality lying outside of their mind.

    Geroge F. Kennan came to Japan in 1964. He said when he met with a small group of people from Kyoto University that the Chinese leaders were refined in speech and manners but that we should not allow ourselves to be deceived by that. A Japanese, T. Kuwabara, whose father was a famous Japanese sinologist. He said to Kennan, “The Chinese despise such flowers as daisies; you look down and see them. They admire flowers (blossoms) that come out on tall trees; you look up and see them.” We used to say, “Small is beautiful.” But in China gigantic is beautiful.

    China conducted trade with foreign countries in its histrory but those who wielded political power always took care that trade, commerce and industry would not undermine their power. Power is the source of wealth in China, not vice versa.

    It is economic liberalism that we engage in production where the cost is the least and sell our product where the profit is the largest. But what would be the sense in following the economics textbook theory when this exports employment, income, and wealth while adding to domestic unemployment, sending hundreds of thousands jobless and homeless at home? The liberal philosophy of economics takes on a different color and tone and is incompatible with national security when China is introduced in this international picture.

  • Posted by Bill Gilwood

    And to think our leaders have allowed the wholesale transfer of our manufacturing and technology just so their donors in the business community can profit. They say it’s to promote world peace, but I just watch the money going into their pockets. Sickening. Jill is right, China won’t be held accountable, and won’t change until they have to, by which time it may be too late for the US, though a few on top here will have raked in a pile.

  • Posted by Zailani Cassim

    China is today a super power due to the wealth the country has amassed thru global trade. The US was mainly instrumental in helping China lay this foundation. Inexpensive labor encouraged the US and other western countries to move their manufacturing plants and businesses to China. For all the benefits which China has reaped today, will China look back, or will the country be held accountable for its actions on the world stage? This is a question China’s leaders must answer.
    At the same time, the US and the west must act today, to let China’s leaders know that they have a responsibility, to its people and to the world. The objective to be a military super power and a financial super power, can both easily be diminished if there is no responsible accountability to the outside world.

  • Posted by d. chandra

    I wonder if some of the chickens are coming home to roost. These refer to how the US treated countries in the region. These include the unwise opening to China by the Nixon-Kissinger duo with so much gusto, instead of doing it, but in a low key affair, total and naked support to Pakistani genocide in Bangladesh soon afterwards, constantly needling India, and subjecting India to a massive barrage of psychological attacks, and probably real threats, sometimes in collusion with Indian liberals and leftists, who never met a mortal threat to India they did not like. India’s bungling and partly hypocritical leadership is partly to blame. Coming from a severely oppressed low caste group in India, and working in the US for all these years, being a loyal US citizen of Indian descent all these years, it is strange to observe how powerful Americans always push down Indians like me, and reward Indians coming from privileged classes, including of course stylish women, and Arabs who are so sociable, and Chinese who have an aura of strength, discipline and success.

  • Posted by Edward

    Well done to China and Xi Jinping for finally getting tough on this American bully. It’s time China started getting tough on American thuggery and imperialism. About time I’d say. For far too long a China has taken American BS just lying down and now China is starting to fire back in no uncertain terms. America is realising now that China can punch back too and go tit-for-tat. It’s very important China shows America the mirror. Excellent work by the new Chinese government.

    The following should be done by the CPC:

    1) Kick out all American NGOs including USAID. These are CIA sponsored terrorist organisations there to cause nothing but trouble.

    2) Kick out American media mouthpieces that spew anti-Chinese propaganda.

    3) Kick out any American company caught breaking Chinese laws and regulations. This means American companies taking part in NSA spying activities should be kicked out permanently.

    China should establish new ADIZ in the South China Sea and the Yellow Sea. If other countries don’t identify their aircraft in China’s ADIZ, then Chinese civilian and military aircraft should NOT be identifying themselves in their ADIZ’s. Tit-for-tat in no uncertain terms.

    China should also start to counter America by using the UNSC veto power alongside Russia to block any sanctions on any country and any UN-approved wars. Veto everything to make life hell for the US.

    The Chinese government should start to sell advanced weapons to other countries like Iran to help them counter American wars of aggression.

    Chinese leadership must put pressure on the US to improve America’s human rights record by urging the closing of concentration camps like Guantanamo Bay,
    stop the massacring of innocent children using drones, stop denying visas to lawyers of drone victims, stop using depleted uranium and white phosphorous in wars of aggression causing grotesque child births, stop supporting terrorists groups all over the world including the terrorists in Syria, stop arresting peaceful Occupy Wall Street protestors, stop arresting 3rd party candidates like Jill Stein and be a true democracy, stop giving mass murdering American soldiers a slap on the wrist after caught raping and massacring dozens of innocent civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan.

    It’s time China starts to act like a big power and partner with Russia to dismantle the American web of power globally.

    This is a start and let’s hope Xi Jinping kicks out anti-Chinese propaganda mouthpieces such as New York Times, Bloomberg Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, Reuters and Associated Press.

    Well done to the new Chinese leadership!

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