BY BRAHMA CHELLANEY, The Hill
In a defiant speech on Aug. 31, President Biden claimed that his precipitous exit from Afghanistan, which facilitated the terrorist takeover of that country, would allow the United States to focus on its “serious competition with China.” But there are now growing signs that Biden’s Afghan blunder has weakened his hand against China and opened greater strategic space for America’s main rival.
Illustrating his weakened position, the president has just capitulated to China’s hostage-taking tactics. In a deal Biden finalized with Chinese President Xi Jinping, the U.S. dropped its extradition case against Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou, allowing her to return home from Canada, in exchange for China’s release of Canadian hostages Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig, who spent 1,019 days in Chinese prisons on trumped-up charges.
The hostages-for-Meng swap is the latest example of Biden’s efforts to ease tensions with China by propitiating Xi. By rewarding Xi’s use of rogue tactics, the deal sends a chilling message to foreigners working in China.
Earlier, Biden bowed to another Chinese demand — that the U.S. stop tracing the origins of the COVID-19 virus, even though the world has a right to know if China caused the worst disaster of our time, which has already killed more than 4.7 million people. Twelve days after Kabul’s fall, Biden announced on Aug. 27 that the intelligence inquiry he initiated had ended, even though it failed to uncover the genesis of the pandemic.
Xi’s regime, involved in one of the greatest cover-ups ever seen, doesn’t want the truth to come out. After all, if China’s negligence or complicity spawned the world’s worst public-health catastrophe in more than a century, it would constitute a crime against humanity.
Biden should have ordered the U.S. intelligence community to keep searching for the true origins of the virus until it reached a definitive conclusion. By not extending the inquiry’s 90-day deadline, Biden met an important Chinese demand.
Since the Afghan debacle, Biden has gone to extraordinary lengths to alleviate tensions with China. Last week began with the president’s China-conciliatory address at the United Nations and ended with Meng’s return home to a hero’s welcome.
During a recent 90-minute phone conversation with Xi, 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. In fact, during the call, Xi spurned Biden’s face-to-face summit offer, demanding that the U.S. first soften its China policy and tamp down rhetoric.
As if heeding Xi’s demand, Biden in his UN address never uttered the word “China,” even as he called out Iran and North Korea. The address stood in stark contrast with then-President Trump’s 2020 UN speech, which demanded the world “hold China accountable” for unleashing the “China virus.” Biden’s speech defensively stated, “We’re not seeking – say it again, we are not seeking – a new Cold War or a world divided into rigid blocs.”
Such fecklessness appears out of step with reality, given that an ambitious and expansionist China is actively working to supplant the U.S. as the world’s preeminent power while waging a cold war against it. Since Biden assumed the presidency, the U.S. has initiated most moves for high-level talks with China, including the latest phone call.
The White House’s dropping of fraud charges against Meng, the daughter of the man who founded the military-linked Huawei, is a real shot in the arm for Xi, whose increasing appetite for taking major risks poses an international challenge. In a striking paradox, Meng departed for home from Canada on the day Biden hosted the first face-to-face leaders’ meeting of the Quad, a U.S.-India-Japan-Australia grouping catalyzed by China’s muscular foreign policy and rogue behavior.
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, President Obama in 2014 freed five Taliban leaders from Guantánamo Bay. The release of the five – “the hardest of the hardcore,” as the late Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said then – proved costly.
An emboldened Taliban sharply escalated its attacks in Afghanistan, bringing Afghan and U.S.-NATO forces under increasing pressure. This eventually led to Trump’s one-sided withdrawal deal with the Taliban in February 2020 and then to Biden’s recent handover of Afghanistan to that Pakistan-backed terrorist militia. Today, the five former Guantánamo inmates are senior officials of the new Afghan regime, made up of a who’s who of international terrorism.
The Biden-arranged swap is likely to prove detrimental to the free world. The deal may have unwittingly vindicated Chinese propaganda that the 2018 Canadian arrest of Meng on a U.S. warrant was politically driven and that the U.S. and Canadian judicial systems do not operate independent of political interests.
Indeed, the White House has shamed the rule of law by terminating a legal case through a political deal with a hostage-holding regime, thereby setting a terrible precedent in international relations.
The deal will inspire other hostage-takers, including the Taliban. To press for sanctions relief and other demands, the Taliban is already obstructing the evacuation of the remaining stranded foreigners from Afghanistan, including Afghans with Western passports.
More ominously, America’s yielding to China’s thuggish diplomacy of hostage-taking will encourage greater Chinese defiance of international rules and norms. Xi’s regime doesn’t care about the costs to the country’s image, which explains why, despite unfavorable views of China rising to near historic highs, it is busy corrupting, coercing or co-opting other states.
In pursuing a more conciliatory approach toward China, Biden has given respectability to the rogue-state tactic of taking hostages, making it virtually certain that the two freed Canadians will not be the last foreigners seized by Beijing as bargaining chips.
Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author of nine books, including the award-winning “Water: Asia’s New Battleground” (Georgetown University Press).