An American message – made in China: Biden and media freedom

by Chris Zappone

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Is it just me or is Biden growing more confrontational in his approach to China?

The word from China was that there would be no budging on the air defense identification zone after five and a half hours of talks between Biden and Xi, which ran overtime. Although early reports also suggest there has been some face-saving de-escalation on both sides, too. Frankly, China can make a case for maintaining its ABIZ, as the US and other nation’s do.

What seems to bother the world about the ABIZ is:

1) China’s decision to include the disputed Diaoyu/Senkaku islands firmly in the map.
2) Moreso, the abruptness of the announcement. And here, China is either disingenuous to claim they had no idea other countries would care. It’s just as likely this is an example of China more or less addicted to surprise as a tactic.

Nonetheless, the zone likely took up considerable amounts of Biden’s time with Xi. And with the roll-out of the ABIZ and the inflexible attitude from Beijing has sent shudders through the region and beyond, arousing memories of past countries who asserted their will on their neighbors and looked for acommodation in response. Possibly the growing recognition from Biden that China, for all its talk of “peaceful rise” is a one-way train on issues like this, has begun to look for other levers to pull.

I can’t imagine the PRC being pleased by Biden’s decision to meet with US journalists who are about to get their work visas cancelled for unfavorable coverage of the government and Communist Party. Never a good look. But don’t expect CCTV and Xinhua to show pictures of Biden meeting with American journalists excluded from China. Nonetheless, it’s a powerful message, made in China, for external consumption.

And it’s another dividing line between China and US. It’s a barrier in an era of open borders.

If the outside would can’t prevail in getting China to abandon its policy of diplomacy by surprise and slow erosion of Japan’s place in the East China Sea, the US has little incentive to keep quiet about media freedom.

Rather, the US has more incentive to talk up the fundamental disagreement on media freedom in China. In fact, media freedom increasingly acts an issue with very little downside to the US, even as political masters in China (and Russia for that matter) cringe at its mention.

Based on the images of Biden, you could be forgiven for concluding the trip was a success, and a fun one at that.

But in this way, Biden is the classic American politician armed with an inscrutable smile – a grin not unlike Obama’s in St Petersburg days after cancelling the US-Russia summit amid the Snowden affair.

In the case of Biden, going mano-a-mano with Xi over the air defense while smiling broadly for all the cameras gives a hint of what kind of happy warrior he would likely be as president. Biden recognizes that China is a trade issue, a security issue, a civil society issue. It won’t be going away anytime soon, certainly not before the 2016 presidential campaign. So for now, he can only grin hard for the cameras and grapple with it.

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