Biden's China Visit: Supplicant to Beijing?

What was the point of Vice-President Joseph Biden’s just ended visit to China? It is surely not enough to point vaguely to the supposed goodwill generated by formulaic visits between leaders.

Given the number of such exercises in superficial global bonhomie, one would expect the world to be in a better shape than it is. It is one thing from a US perspective to have high-profile state visits such as President Obama’s to China or to have working visits by officials such Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner. But the Biden visit appears to have had only the vaguest of agendas and if anything put US weakness on display at a time when China is boasting its global importance.

Ostensibly Biden was on a “get to know you” visit, in particular to “build a relationship” with fellow vice-president Xi Jinping, who is expected to succeed Hu Jintao as president and party boss next year. Biden was lyrical: “Foreign policy is more than just formal visits; it’s establishing personal relationships and trust. And it is my fond hope that our personal relationship will continue to grow”.

Even in the west, the importance of personal rapport between leaders is often exaggerated. For a western leader to imagine that Chinese policies, the product of a highly structured political system, are susceptible to such personal relationships is an illusion.

Of course there may have been some especially important information that Biden carried to Beijing and as yet remains a secret. But judging by the public display and official reports the US appeared mostly as a supplicant playing to China’s sense of self-importance. Biden overloaded his speeches with references to China’s present as well as past achievements and its importance to the whole world today, using language which seemed over the top even for ceremonial occasions. Do US vice-presidents use similar language when visiting other major nations?

There is also something troubling in the way some have been playing up the ethnicity of the new US ambassador to Beijing, Gary Locke, who took up the post just days before Biden arrived. Locke has excellent credentials but ethnicity should not be one of them – much though it appeals to ethnically conscious Chinese.

The US appearing as supplicant is not good diplomacy. As the International Herald Tribune headlined it: “Biden asks for Beijing’s help on economy” – this just a few days after the US was being repeatedly bashed by Beijing for its budget deficits and accused by the head of China’s own rating agency, Dagong, of already having defaulted on its debt by depreciating its currency.

For sure, Beijing has for now toned down its comments and Biden has asked China to do more to balance the global economy by further currency appreciation and stoking domestic demand. But those have been US themes for almost a decade and had only limited impact. Buying US debt to maintain its own competitiveness by keeping the Yuan undervalued remains a cornerstone of China’s policies.

Meanwhile for Chinese consumption the US has been playing up the recent deficit deal reached by Congress even though the administration – and the Federal Reserve too – believe it will have negative consequences for the US economy. Indeed the whole tenor of the visit as seen in much of the US media as well has been the need for the US to reassure China, its main creditor. This is illogical. If the US wants to see the yuan appreciate it should welcome China ceasing to buy Treasury bonds. The image of the US as supplicant increases China’s pride and makes it more likely to take a firm stand on other issues Biden discussed: Taiwan arms sales, North Korea and Iran.

The US appears already to have given in to Beijing on arms sales. Taiwan sources say that their request to buy 66 new F-16s has been denied and they will only be offered an upgrade of old planes. If so, it is unclear what Washington received in return beyond more, probably empty, promises of pressure on Pyongyang. Recent US willingness to strengthen its Asian alliances in the face of China’s military might and forward policies in the South and East China seas has been well received in most of the region. But the Taiwan decision, if confirmed, coinciding with the tenor of Biden’s visit scarcely indicates that the US has the self-confidence in dealing with China that its Asian allies would like to see. Score another for Beijing.