Hi, China Watchers. This week we examine China’s stealth role at the Summit of the Americas, check in on Taiwanese volunteers defending Ukraine and dissect Beijing’s dayslong invective targeting Secretary of State ANTONY BLINKEN’s China strategy speech. And with rival flag patches on TOM CRUISE’s bomber jacket in “Top Gun: Maverick” making the news, we profile a new book that goes behind the scenes of tense historical relationship between China and Hollywood.
Speaking of movies — what’s on your short list of best Chinese movies or Hollywood movies about China (or set in China or somehow China-related)? Please don’t say “Top Gun: Maverick.” Send me your ideas and we’ll authoritatively rank the top five in next week’s China Watcher.
Meanwhile, scroll down for the results of last week’s inaugural China Watcher quiz!
Let’s get to it. — Phelim
China’s not on the agenda at President JOE BIDEN’s Summit of the Americas this week. But Beijing’s growing influence in Latin America and the Caribbean is fueling the administration’s drive to bolster U.S. engagement in its backyard.
Biden’s summit plan echoes his Indo-Pacific strategy: rewarding and bolstering nominally democratic allies while marginalizing Chinese-aligned autocratic states.
The president’s message is that Latin American governments have much to gain by reinforcing ties with the U.S. and supporting the administration’s vision of the “rules-based international order” and plenty to lose by embracing Beijing.
But lawmakers, diplomats and regional analysts warn that the U.S. is playing catch-up to China as the region’s economic patron of choice.
“[China] is the elephant in the room — the U.S. is competing with China for influence in Latin America, but it has little to offer to put on the table,” said JORGE HEINE, former Chilean ambassador to China and research professor at Boston University’s Pardee School of Global Studies. “China is today the main trading partner of South America as a whole and for most individual South American countries … so in terms of sheer market power, China is very strong.”
Economic heavyweight. China’s bilateral trade with Latin America surpassed $400 billion in 2021, compared to $295 billion for the U.S. Beijing has also signed up 21 out of 24 Latin American and Caribbean countries for Belt and Road Initiative infrastructure investment projects. BRI financing has contributed to the $150 billion that China has funneled to Latin American countries for construction of roads, ports and railways between 2005-2019.
The Biden administration says the summit will offer a more compelling U.S. economic partnership than China can offer Latin American and Caribbean countries. “The best antidote to China’s inroads in the region is to ensure we are [offering] our own affirmative vision for the region economically,” a senior administration official said Wednesday. “I think in that [economic] vacuum is where China has made the recent inroads that it has.”
On the military front, the Pentagon sees a potential national security threat in China’s growing sway in the region. “The People’s Republic of China … continues its relentless march to expand economic, diplomatic, technological, informational, and military influence in Latin America and the Caribbean,” Gen. LAURA RICHARDSON, commander of U.S. Southern Command, warned in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee in March.
America’s AWOL. Latin American leaders say that China is outcompeting the U.S. in the region. “We have seen Chinese corporations come to Colombia to participate in infrastructure bids, and they have won some,” Colombian President IVÁN DUQUE MÁRQUEZ told Fox News on Friday. “We haven’t seen that much American companies participating. … They have to be more present, not only in Colombia but in the rest of Latin America.”
China has backed its economic heft with diplomatic engagement through the China-Community of Latin American and Caribbean States Forum, which it has used to align its members with Beijing’s foreign policy positions. The readout from the forum’s December foreign ministers’ meeting parroted China’s opposition to the “politicization” of a World Health Organization Covid origins probe and praised Chinese President XI JINPING’s Global Development initiative.
“There is a feeling in the Biden administration that a lot of ground was lost during the four years of the Trump administration, that policy toward the region other than Cuba and Venezuela was completely on autopilot … it created a vacuum that the Chinese could fill,” said ADAM ISACSON, defense oversight director at the nonprofit Washington Office on Latin America.
Summit sweeteners. The Summit of Americas aims to reinvigorate U.S. engagement through a flurry of initiatives, including an Economic and Health Dialogue, a Call to Action Roundtable with CEOs, and an injection of $1.9 billion in private sector funding “to create economic opportunity in northern Central America.”
Observers, skeptical about whether the proposals will lead to serious regional engagement, say the administration’s efforts might be too little, too late.
“Because it is so close, because there are no regional potential peer competitors and no nuclear states, and because there are some elite actors who do their best to paper over inequality and systemic corruption, the U.S. believes it can invest fewer political and economic resources in Latin America, assuming that it can always play catch-up, if necessary,” STEPHEN G. MCFARLAND, former U.S. ambassador to Guatemala, told China Watcher in a statement.
Mexican President ANDRÉS MANUEL LÓPEZ OBRADOR dashed Biden’s hopes for a projection of regional unity by boycotting the summit over his refusal to invite Nicaragua, Venezuela and Cuba to Los Angeles. “It shows that the US will not find support when it clings to the Monroe Doctrine and interferes in other countries’ affairs or create division in the name of democracy,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson ZHAO LIJIAN said Monday.
Congressional concern. Lawmakers see peril in U.S. disengagement from the region as it focuses on the war in Ukraine and countering China in Asia. In April 2021, Rep. STEPHANIE MURPHY (D-Fla.) introduced the Assessing China’s Presence and Influence in Latin America and the Caribbean Act. The bill passed in December as part of the FY22 National Defense Authorization Act and the Department of Defense will submit to Congress at the end of June an initial report the bill mandated.
“Not everything [China is] doing is malign, but we should have a good grasp on what exactly they’re doing in the region on a country-by-country basis,” Murphy told China Watcher.
Sens. MARCO RUBIO (R-Fla.) and BOB MENENDEZ (D-N.J.) introduced the Western Hemisphere Security Strategy Act in February to combat China and Russia’s “harmful and malign influence” in Latin America. Some lawmakers want China explicitly on the summit’s agenda.
“The [Chinese Communist Party] is the greatest generational threat to the U.S. and our hemispheric neighbors,” said Rep. MICHAEL MCCAUL (R-Texas), ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “There is no reasonable argument as to why the Biden administration does not plan to address this shared challenge at the Summit of the Americas.”
There are doubts whether the Biden administration’s reengagement push will have any measurable success in deepening pro-democratic political and economic stability.
“The U.S. ‘theory of success’ for the region — a self-reinforcing cycle of democratization, rule of law, and free trade, private sector-led economic growth — is now falling short,” McFarland said. “[That’s] leading to challenges by outsiders in some countries to upend the system, and to moves by insiders in some countries to rig the system for personal benefit.”
— BIDEN’S PACIFIC ENVOY MARSHALL ISLANDS-BOUND: Ambassador JOSEPH YUN, appointed in March as the State Department’s special presidential envoy to renegotiate extensions of soon-to-expire treaties with Pacific island allies, will travel to the Republic of the Marshall Islands June 14-16 as part of those efforts, a State Department spokesperson said Wednesday. The treaties with Marshall Islands, Palau and Micronesia, called Compacts of Free Association, obligate the U.S. to provide the three countries financial assistance and rights of visa-free migration. The COFAs for Micronesia and Marshall Islands expire in 2023, while Palau’s expires in 2024, raising fears that they might become targets of Beijing’s aggressive diplomatic inroads in the region.
— U.S. EMBASSY: ‘FALSE STATEMENTS’ THREATEN DIPLOMATS: The U.S. Embassy in Beijing on Tuesday protested the Chinese government’s amplification of allegations circulated on Chinese social media that U.S. diplomats in the city of Guangzhou described U.S. allegations of human rights abuses in Xinjiang as a tactic “to fight against the Chinese government.” An embassy spokesperson urged Beijing to “stop attributing false statements to US officials or taking other actions that might subject our diplomats to harassment.” The Foreign Ministry’s Zhao responded on Tuesday by decrying “despicable moves of smearing Xinjiang with political manipulation.”
— STATE BACKTRACKS ON TAIWAN PAGE WORDING: The State Department quietly walked back the recently adjusted wording on its Taiwan page and inserted the statement: “we do not support Taiwan independence.” Zhao responded on Monday to the change by urging the U.S. to “stop using Taiwan-related issues to engage in political manipulation.” The State Department didn’t respond to a request for comment and Taiwan’s diplomatic representatives in Washington, D.C. declined to comment.
— CANADA AND AUSTRALIA PROTEST PLA HARASSMENT: The Canadian and Australian governments have protested harassment of their aircraft by People’s Liberation Army fighters. Canadian Prime Minister JUSTIN TRUDEAU on Monday condemned as “irresponsible and provocative” several incidents between April 26-May 26 in which Chinese fighter jets almost collided with Japan-based Canadian aircraft on North Korean sanctions-monitoring duty. Chinese Defense Ministry spokesperson WU QIAN accused the Canadian pilots of “unprofessional operations.”
Australia’s Defense Minister RICHARD MARLES on Sunday accused a PLA fighter pilot of deliberately releasing chaff — tiny strips of zinc or aluminum used to foil missile strikes — into the engine of an Australian reconnaissance plane in the South China Sea last month. Zhao at the Foreign Ministry responded Monday by urging Australia to “respect China’s national security interests.”
— TAIWANESE VOLUNTEERS AID UKRAINE’S DEFENSE: At least 10 Taiwanese citizens have traveled to Ukraine to join the ranks of its International Legion of Territorial Defense, the self-governing island’s Central News Agency reported Sunday. One of those volunteers, JACK YAO, told CNA that he joined the fight against Russia because “what happened to Ukraine could very well happen in Taiwan.”
— BEIJING’S BLINKEN SPEECH REBUKE SPREE: Secretary of State Blinken rendered the Biden administration’s distillation of its China strategy in a 46-minute, 6,724-word speech on May 26. China’s Foreign Ministry has responded with a six-day spree of performative grievance totaling (so far) more than 4,800 words. That response — laced with wolfish invective and boilerplate phrasings — blends tirades about Biden’s China policies with propaganda points that impugn logic and history.
Beijing’s key messaging:
Friday May 27: China rejects norms that have governed the post-war international system
“The so-called ‘rules-based international order’ claimed by the US is nothing but a set of ‘house rules’ established by the US and a handful of other countries to maintain the so-called ‘order’ led by the US,” said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokespersonWANG WENBIN. “No country has the right to monopolize the definition of democracy and human rights, to lecture others on those issues, or to meddle in other countries’ internal affairs under the pretext of human rights.”
May 28: The U.S. is a threat. And China is unstoppable.
“The United States has, in effect, become a source of instability undermining the current international order and an obstacle in the pursuit of greater democracy in international relations,” China Foreign Minister WANG YIsaid Saturday. “China’s development and rejuvenation is underpinned by clear historical logic and strong internal driving force.”
May 30:China is a force for global peace
“We have not initiated any war or taken an inch of land from other countries,” said the Foreign Ministry’s Zhao. “China remains a builder of world peace, a contributor to global development and a guardian of international order.”
May 31: China’s rule of Xinjiang, Tibet and Hong Kong is a model of good governance
“Accusations about ‘genocide’, ‘crimes against humanity’ and ‘detention camps’ in Xinjiang … are nothing but the biggest lies of the century. Tibet has witnessed economic prosperity, social harmony and religious and cultural development. Since the implementation of the Law on Safeguarding National Security in the Hong Kong SAR, the so-called ‘beautiful sight to behold’ [of Hong Kong pro-democracy protests] in the eyes of certain US politicians has vanished,” Zhao said.
June 1: China hates the Bipartisan Innovation Act
“The proposed bipartisan innovation legislation … is aimed to make China an imaginary enemy, with the word ‘China’ mentioned as many as more than 800 times and full of articles and provisions detrimental to China’s interests,” Zhao said.
June 2: There is no alternative to the ruling Chinese Communist Party
“China’s development would not be possible without the leadership of the CPC,” Zhao said.
June 6:Beijing is rattled by U.S. policies on tech and Ukraine
“The US spared no effort to crack down on China’s Huawei, France’s Alstom and Japan’s Toshiba and coerced the TSMC, Samsung and other companies to provide to the US chip supply chain data.” Zhao said. “The US forced countries to take sides in the conflict between Russia and Ukraine and wantonly threatened to impose unilateral sanctions and long-arm jurisdiction.”
POLITICO: “America’s ‘strategic ambiguity’ on Taiwan: 6 Things to Know”
Samuel Bickett on Hong Kong Law & Policy: “The US Congress is Failing Hong Kong’s Refugees`”
Government Matters: “China’s reaction to Biden’s recent Asia trip”
— CHINA CONVENING AFRICAN HORN PEACE TALKS: China will back its growing African economic muscle by convening a peace conference in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa on June 20-21 to defuse conflicts in the African Horn countries of Ethiopia, Sudan and Somalia.
The Book: Hollywood in China: Behind the Scenes of the World’s Largest Movie Market
The Author:YING ZHU is founder and chief editor at Global Storytelling: Journal of Digital and Moving Images and a professor at Hong Kong Baptist University’s Academy of Film.
What is the most important takeaway from your book?
It took film industry lobbying for the Chinese and U.S. governments in the first half of the 20th century to see the potential of movies for cultural influence and political persuasion. Once they caught on, both governments sought to put a leash on their film sectors. The U.S. government functioned mostly as a facilitator for the growth and international expansion of the American film industry as it relished Hollywood’s power in spreading idealized renderings abroad of the American lifestyle and consumer products.
The PRC fended off U.S. cultural influence by banning Hollywood films during the Mao era. In the post-Mao era, the Chinese government has utilized Hollywood to its own advantage in both image campaigns and market building, which has now put the U.S. government on the defensive.
What was the most surprising thing you learned while researching and writing this book?
The semi-covert overnight marathon screenings in China in the early 1970s of Western films at government and military compounds as pacifiers for people who had to endure multi-day marathon party meetings. These were mostly films available only for internal circulation among the privileged class during the time when Hollywood-led Western films were officially banned. These taboo films were so popular, the screenings frequently went eight hours straight, a Mao-era precursor to today’s “binge-watching” of streamed content.
What does your book tell us about the trajectory and future of U.S.-China relations?
History repeats itself — in this case the roller coaster ride of the Sino-Hollywood courtship against the Sino-U.S. relationship which now seems to be spinning out of control amidst worsening mutual suspicion and which threatens to destabilize the existing world order.
Got a book to recommend? Tell me about it at [email protected].
Recap: The China Watcher Quiz
Last week’s question: “How many times did Secretary of State Antony Blinken say the phrase ‘China strategy’ in his China strategy speech last week?”
The answer: Zero. Trick question, but you’re better for re-reading the speech!
Bravo to fast responder subscribers M. PFEIFER, Washington, D.C.; SAMUEL SHIH, New York City; MICHAEL SOBOLIK, Washington, D.C.; JACOB WILSON, British Columbia, Canada; and LUKAS SEELIG, Brussels, Belgium.
Thanks to: Ben Pauker, Matt Kaminski, digital producer Raymond Rapada, the POLITICO video staff and editor John Yearwood.
Do you have tips? Chinese-language stories we might have missed? Would you like to contribute to China Watcher or comment on this week’s items? Email us at [email protected].