Biden rewards Xi’s hostage diplomacy

BRAHMA CHELLANEY, The Globe and Mail

There is an old Chinese idiom: “Kill the chicken to scare the monkey.” And in the political crossfire between Washington and Beijing over the 2018 Canadian arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou on a U.S. warrant, it is clear that for China, Canada has been the chicken to the U.S.’s monkey.

The relief in Canada over the return of Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig from almost three years of arbitrary detention in China should not obscure the larger implications of the U.S.-arranged deal. It represents a triumph of China’s scofflaw tactics, and a real shot in the arm for President Xi Jinping, whose expansionist policies already pose a growing international challenge.

In recent weeks, U.S. President Joe Biden has gone to extraordinary lengths to ease tensions with China, as if to underscore that the humiliating U.S. defeat in Afghanistan has weakened his hand against his country’s principal rival. During a recent 90-minute phone conversation, Mr. Xi spurned Mr. Biden’s offer of a face-to-face summit, demanding that the U.S. first soften its China policy and tamp down its rhetoric.

As if heeding Mr. Xi’s demand, Mr. Biden did not utter the word “China” in his address at the United Nations last week, even as he called out Iran and North Korea. “We’re not seeking – I’ll say it again, we are not seeking – a new Cold War or a world divided into rigid blocs,” he said defensively. Contrast that with then-president Donald Trump’s 2020 UN speech, in which he declared that the world must “hold China accountable” for the COVID-19 pandemic. And indeed, during his phone call with Mr. Xi, Mr. Biden sought to explain U.S. actions toward China “in a way that [is] not misinterpreted as … somehow trying to sort of undermine Beijing in particular ways,” according to the readout from a senior U.S. official.

Such fecklessness appears out of step with reality, given that China has been actively working to displace the U.S. as the world’s pre-eminent power. Yet, since Mr. Biden assumed office, it is the U.S. that has initiated most of the moves for high-level talks with China, including the latest phone call.

The Biden administration’s dropping of fraud charges against Ms. Meng came just after Canada completed its federal election. But, in a striking paradox, Ms. Meng departed for home from Canada on the day Mr. Biden hosted the first face-to-face leaders’ meeting of the Quad, a U.S.-India-Japan-Australia coalition catalyzed by China’s aggressive foreign policy and rogue behaviour.

By terminating a legal case through a political deal, Washington may have unwittingly vindicated Chinese propaganda – that Ms. Meng’s arrest was politically driven and that the U.S. and Canadian judicial systems were not free from political influence. The deal will encourage China to further defy international rules and norms and coerce other states, as it seeks to establish a 21st-century version of the imperial tributary system.

The White House, unfortunately, has ignored the lesson that deals with hostage takers usually boomerang. For example, to secure the release of Bowe Bergdahl, a captured U.S. Army sergeant who had deserted his unit in Afghanistan, U.S. President Barack Obama freed five Taliban leaders – “the hardest of the hardcore,” as the late senator John McCain called them at the time – from Guantánamo Bay in 2014. An emboldened Taliban then sharply escalated its attacks in Afghanistan, bringing Afghan and U.S.-NATO forces under increasing pressure. This led eventually to Mr. Trump’s one-sided withdrawal deal in February, 2020, whose precipitous implementation by Mr. Biden facilitated the Taliban’s sweep into power in August. Today, the five former Guantanamo inmates are senior officials of the Taliban regime, which is stacked with cabinet ministers who are on UN and U.S. terrorism-related sanctions lists.

Mr. Biden’s deal is also likely to prove broadly detrimental to Western interests. By striking a deal with a hostage-holding government, the White House has advertised weakness. The fact that China has gotten its way will inspire other hostage-takers, including the Taliban. In fact, to press for sanctions relief and other demands, the Taliban are already obstructing the evacuation of the remaining Western citizens from Afghanistan, including Afghans who hold U.S. passports or green cards.

Thanks to the U.S.’s deal, Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor will surely not be the last foreigners seized by Beijing as bargaining chips. By rewarding China’s hostage diplomacy, the White House has given respectability to a rogue-state tactic that Mr. Xi is sure to now employ again.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author of nine books, including the award-winning Water: Asia’s New Battleground.