‘Sports diplomacy lives!” raved a former national security official traveling with the Georgetown University basketball team on a visit to China timed to coincide with Vice President Joe Biden’s trip. That was before a brawl ended the Hoyas’ game against a professional Chinese team tied to the Chinese military.
Americans love sports metaphors. So perhaps the less-than-pacific end to the contest with the Bayi Rockets may begin to erode the lingering nostalgia, at least in official circles, for the 1970s, when “ping-pong diplomacy” advanced ties with the People’s Republic. Then, America was confident of its ability to set up Beijing as a counterweight to Moscow — and Beijing was a mostly willing partner in the task. But those days are long gone. They’ve been replaced by an ongoing rivalry for influence in Asia and the world.
Recently, American officials have displayed an unseemly eagerness to please Chinese leaders. Indeed, the vice president’s trip risked having the unfortunate feel of a “tribute” visit to the Middle Kingdom.
“You are our national affairs,” Biden gushed to Xi Jinping, the presumed next general secretary.
Biden made more sense last May, when he told a senior Chinese delegation visiting Washington that “no relationship that’s real can be built on a false foundation.” Then, Biden spoke of human rights and the rule of law. The “foundation” imagery is especially apt, considering that Biden continues his China trip with a planned visit to Sichuan province. In 2008, the Sichuan earthquake killed tens of thousands of Chinese, including many children crushed in schools that collapsed due to corrupt and shoddy construction. At the time, the government harassed and coerced grieving and protesting parents to sign releases of liability.
These days, the Chinese Communist party is repeating the fiasco in Wenzhou, where officials literally tried to bury evidence of a deadly crash of high-speed trains in July.
Biden’s loquaciousness is legendary. But a gaffe can sometimes contain an important truth, such as when the vice president mentioned Russia’s economic and demographic decline in 2009. Perhaps Biden will commit a similar diplomatic faux pas by speaking unapologetically about the differences between the United States and China and the superiority of American democracy. Otherwise, how will the Chinese people who take the time and trouble to elude the Great Firewall of the Internet know the basis of our “national affairs” — and how can they feel encouraged in their effort to improve their own?
Ellen Bork is a program director at the Foreign Policy Initiative. This article appeared in The Weekly Standard.