China and Russia try to skewer Biden's attempt to restore leader-of-the-free-world role

The authoritarians struck back this week at U.S. President Joe Biden, who has promised to renew traditional democratic alliances that have frayed in recent years. China and Russia set out to prove the world has changed — and to diminish Biden, his country and its democracy.

U.S. president vows to embrace traditional U.S. foreign policy. China and Russia argue those days are over

In a long tirade against the U.S., during which he insisted journalists be present to record it, Chinese official Yang Jiechi belittled the country as a fading democratic power. (Frederic J. Brown/Reuters)

Joe Biden promised to restore a more familiar mentality in American foreign policy after his predecessor spent four years deriding the U.S.'s traditional democratic allies as trade cheats and deadbeats.

Biden's proposed approach involved renewing a leader-of-the-free-world ethos from the last century to rally democratic friends against this century's authoritarians.

This week, the authoritarians hit back.

On successive days, the U.S.'s two biggest geopolitical rivals, China and Russia, lashed out at Biden and the country he leads.

Some analysts view it as an effort from those countries to establish terms for the relationship during Biden's four-year mandate.

"When you are dealing with a new partner, you want to test them out, first and foremost," said Lynette Ong, a China expert at the University of Toronto.

"Secondly, you want to show your strength."

The Chinese government cast its broadside in far wider terms than simply disparaging Biden — it belittled America's democratic self-identity.

It laid bare new challenges in being the unofficial leader of the free world. 

Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, seen here in 2011, has been accused of interfering in two U.S. elections. This week, U.S. President Joe Biden, left, called him a killer. Putin recalled his ambassador from the U.S. (Alexander Natruskin/Reuters)

At home and abroad, Biden confronts a vastly different world than the one that existed through his decades in Congress and even during his more recent vice-presidency.

Gone is the one-on-one rivalry with the Soviet Union in favour of multiple rival autocratic powers challenging the U.S.-led order. 

And American democracy faces historic threats at home, as witnessed by the fallout from the presidential election and attack on the U.S. Capitol.

Tit for tat 

This reality was rubbed in the administration's face this week.

Russia recalled its ambassador back to Moscow to assess the state of the U.S.-Russia relationship.

The spat started with a declassified intelligence report that said Russia interfered in the 2020 U.S. election, likely at Putin's behest, to help Donald Trump. 

Biden called Putin a killer. Putin replied with a put-down reminiscent of a playground taunt: "He who said it, did it."

Then a memorable scene unfolded in Alaska where Biden administration officials met with their Chinese counterparts for the first time.

The world's older and newer superpowers engaged in an unusually trenchant airing of grievances in front of TV cameras.

A memorable moment for two superpowers

Depending on who you ask, the other guy started it. 

In the U.S. view, all it did was allude — in passing — to Beijing's enslavement of Uyghurs; bullying of smaller countries, including Canada; its hacking and intellectual property theft; and squashing of Hong Kong's freedoms.

The stage for a tense meeting had been set in the preceding days. 

The U.S. slapped sanctions on 24 Chinese officials over clampdowns on freedom in Hong Kong, subpoenaed multiple Chinese high-tech companies to see if they pose intelligence risks, and revoked licences from two Chinese telecom firms.

China had restricted the use of Tesla vehicles and held a trial Friday for Canadian Michael Spavor, barring diplomats from attending.

Chinese tensions with the West flared this week. Foreign diplomats were blocked from witnessing a trial for Canadian Michael Spavor in the Intermediate People's Court in Dandong, China, seen here. (Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters)

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken opened the meeting Thursday by mentioning the issues of concern, then stressed the need to find areas of co-operation. "[Our] relationship with China," he said, "will be competitive where it should be, collaborative where it can be, adversarial where it must be."

That apparently set off his Chinese interlocutors.

Veteran foreign affairs official Yang Jiechi proceeded with a lengthy denunciation of the United States — and insisted that journalists remain in the room to hear him unload while American press handlers tried in vain to escort them out.

Yang spoke of foreign wars started by the U.S. He also accused the U.S. of abusing its financial might to bend other countries to its will; of mistreating Black Americans; of being a hypocrite when it accuses other countries of cyberattacks; and of interfering in Chinese internal affairs in Xinjiang, Tibet and Taiwan.

Then, in an uppercut aimed at a particularly sensitive spot, Yang questioned the state of American democracy.

"The United States [should] change its own image and stop advancing its own democracy in the rest of the world," he said. "Many people within the United States actually have little confidence in the democracy of the United States."

He also said China hopes the U.S. "will do better on human rights."

Blinken interjected with one more defence of his country. 

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, right, seen here at the meeting this week in Alaska, defended his country after hearing the Chinese complaints. He said the U.S. admits its problems, discusses them openly, and that helps it improve. ( Frederic J. Brown/Reuters)

As imperfect as the United States is, he said, one thing it does right is to allow open and free discussion about its own flaws in an attempt to be better.

The uncomfortable point about U.S. democracy

But the point raised by Yang about democracy cuts to uncomfortable truths.

If the United States is to be an apostle of democracy, it's a less committed messenger preaching to a more skeptical global audience. 

Other countries' views of the state of American democracy have plunged.

Americans themselves have not only been losing trust in their own institutions, they may have minimal interest in promoting them abroad.

Last month a Pew Research poll of 2,596 U.S. respondents put promoting democracy as dead last among 20 priorities listed.

WATCH | Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Michael Spavor's closed trial in China: 

Trudeau says it's 'disappointing' that Michael Spavor's hearing was kept secret from Canadian officials

3 years ago
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Featured VideoPrime Minister Justin Trudeau says it's "disappointing" that Canadian officials could not attend the court hearing for Canadian Michael Spavor in China.

Geopolitical shifts could have tangible real-world effects. Already, for instance, the U.S. has tried, and so far failed, to persuade Germany to block a Russian gas pipeline it calls a strategic weapon — and is even threatening sanctions against companies involved. It's had mixed success in persuading countries to reject Chinese technology, like Huawei's 5G products, that it warns could undermine national security.  

Canadians need no reminder of the economic and human damage China can impose on American allies — as it did after Canadian authorities executed a U.S. extradition request for Meng Wanzhou, chief financial officer of Huawei, the Chinese telecom giant. 

One China-watcher suggests several dynamics were at play simultaneously at the Alaska meeting. 

Bill Bishop, author of the newsletter Sinocism, said Beijing may view Biden as weak and is testing him in a way it wouldn't with Trump.

He also said internal Chinese politics were at play, tweeting that Yang gets criticized at home as a dove and had to perform for his hawkish boss — President Xi Jinping.

That doesn't mean rivals can't work together. 

In fact, the U.S. and Russia have just renewed their nuclear non-proliferation treaty. And Biden has re-entered global institutions such as the World Health Organization and Paris climate accord, and promised a more collaborative approach at the World Trade Organization, where tensions with China threatened to pull it apart.

Co-operation still possible

One senior Asia official in the former Obama administration warns against reading too much into the events of this week.

Daniel Russel, the former assistant secretary of state and Asian affairs aide to Barack Obama, noted that Biden hasn't yet completed key foreign policy reviews.

"It was an unfortunate beginning," he said of the Alaska meeting.

"But I wouldn't overinterpret it either. It certainly doesn't mean that the United States and China can't communicate or are condemned to perpetual strategic rivalry."

Ian Johnson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning former China correspondent, wrote in the New York Times that there are easy ways for the U.S. to build goodwill, including by restoring suspended educational, diplomatic and journalistic visas.

But he said he fears the decay in U.S.-China relations is becoming dangerous.

Next week, the Chinese and Russian foreign ministers meet, with plans to bolster their own alliance, intended to counter what might, in another era, have been referred to as the free world, and its leader, Joe Biden.


Alexander Panetta is a Washington-based correspondent for CBC News who has covered American politics and Canada-U.S. issues since 2013. He previously worked in Ottawa, Quebec City and internationally, reporting on politics, conflict, disaster and the Montreal Expos.

With a file from Ellen Mauro