Last week, it became public that Beijing officials informed their Manila counterparts in February that China would not take part in a UN-mediated arbitration process to settle a territorial dispute in the South China Sea. This decision gives Party leaders the dishonorable distinction of making China the first country to refuse to participate in the process created under the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. Beijing’s flat refusal to submit to an independent authority it has already recognized (through its ratification of the UN convention) is a troubling development that should raise serious questions for other countries seeking mutual respect in their dealings with the Chinese leadership.
In a second recent development, back in Beijing, authorities are demonstrating open contempt for international journalists, who had already long been on tenuous footing in China, by threatening to deny visa renewals for a number of foreign journalists. Whether they follow through on the threat or not, the message of intimidation sent to foreign reporters has been clear. Officials have already demonstrated their willingness to expel or deny reentry for reporters who treat journalism as a vehicle for critical inquiry (see here, here, here, here, and here). Those journalists who remain, just like their domestic Chinese counterparts, must walk a fine line on sensitive issues, including Tibet, where they can rarely gain access without the accompaniment of government minders, leaving only the most intrepid reporters to evade authorities and sneak into the region. While in Beijing to discuss the dispute over the air defense zone, Vice President Biden pointedly raised the issue of visas for journalists. Even though the possibility of a mass expulsion remains, it is significant that Biden stated his “profound disagreements” with the Party leadership over the issue, describing it as having implications for “universal human rights.”
The Vice President’s time in China is noteworthy not only for the issues that prompted his trip, but also because Biden’s forthright approach in Beijing has been exceedingly rare among visiting dignitaries. As the oft-told story goes, China’s economic growth has propelled it up the ranks of the international order. To help facilitate this, Beijing has sought to ease anxieties over its ascendance, while expanding its diplomatic clout, largely through the exercise of soft power, much of which was initiated under former leader, Hu Jintao. This exercise has included funding development projects abroad, as well as “educational initiatives.” At one point, prior to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, this exercise of soft power even included promising greater freedoms for foreign press based in China. In turn, international leaders have by and large embraced China for the investment and trade opportunities it presents. David Cameron’s recent visit stands as the latest among a number of trips by foreign leaders seeking to ingratiate themselves with Beijing in return for favorable economic deals.
Diplomatic intransigence from Beijing is not new, however the current leadership, headed by Party Secretary and President Xi Jinping, appears far more confident in aggressively pursuing what is deemed to be in the Party’s interests, and less amenable to international cooperation. As the diplomatic tactics adopted by the Chinese leadership transform, it remains to be seen if those of the international community do so as well.
In substance and in form, Cameron’s visit was standard fare for a foreign dignitary visiting China. Yet, this latest trip was roundly criticized, even by Chinese state-media, and seen as desperate. The criticism should cause UK officials to call into question Cameron’s decision to ‘turn a page’ on the UK’s support for the Dalai Lama, after Beijing intimated that Cameron would not be welcomed to China until he made proper amends for meeting the Tibetan spiritual leader in 2012.
In contrast, Biden’s recent diplomatic interaction with Beijing, in what might be considered a manifestation of the Obama Administration’s ‘Asia Pivot,’ could potentially pave the way for a different approach to dealings with the Party leadership. Biden’s outspoken support for foreign journalists in Beijing could create momentum for those seeking a more robust response from US officials. These calls include visa reciprocity and including the issue in US-China bilateral trade talks.
While advocates have long called for countries such as the US to prioritize human rights in their dealings with China, the issue of freedom of the press, with its third rail-like status in the US, could prove forceful enough to push US officials forward in strongly pursuing a principled stand with China on a non-economic issue.
While it is unclear how much Biden’s rhetoric regarding the journalists was bolstered by US concerns over the East China Sea air defense zone, it remains that unless leaders in the international community learn to engage with Party officials over their intransigence on issues such as territorial disputes, journalist visas, and Tibet, Party leaders will continue to undermine mechanisms for international cooperation whenever the Party’s goals are not assured of a desired outcome.