Biden’s China visit: Supplicant to Beijing?
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Biden’s China visit: Supplicant to Beijing?

Vague agendas, US weakness on display, writes Asia Sentinel’s Philip Bowring

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.

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U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden, left, talks to Chinese Ambassador to the U.S. Zhang Yesui at right as U.S. Ambassador to China Gary Locke looks on at center. Pic: AP.

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.

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