Skip to content
The Morning Dispatch: U.S.-China Leaders Seek to Ease Tensions
Go to my account

The Morning Dispatch: U.S.-China Leaders Seek to Ease Tensions

Plus: Is Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko Behind Europe’s latest border crisis?

Happy Wednesday! We wanted to give you an early heads up that there will not be a Morning Dispatch on Saturday, January 1, 2022 because a) it is a Saturday b) it is New Year’s Day and c) HBO Max’s just-announced Harry Potter 20th anniversary special debuts the night before.

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • Pfizer announced on Tuesday it has formally requested Emergency Use Authorization from the Food and Drug Administration for its COVID-19 oral antiviral, Paxlovid, which it claims reduced the risk of hospitalization or death for high-risk adults by 89 percent in a clinical trial when taken within three days of the onset of symptoms. The Biden administration reportedly plans to spend about $5 billion stockpiling 10 million courses of the drug for the United States, while Pfizer said it will license the drug to a global health nonprofit so generic drugmakers can increase supply and bring down prices for low-income countries.

  • The U.S. Census Bureau reported Tuesday that retail sales increased 1.7 percent from September to October, a sign the American economic recovery is still going strong despite COVID-19 and inflationary concerns.

  • The Washington Post reported Tuesday that the Biden administration plans to announce the United States will engage in a diplomatic boycott of the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, with neither President Joe Biden nor any other top U.S. government officials attending the Games in response to the Chinese Communist Party’s human rights abuses. The move is not expected to affect American athletes planning to participate.

  • Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen sent a letter to congressional leaders on Tuesday warning that the United States could default on its debt shortly after December 15 if lawmakers do not act to raise the country’s borrowing limit before then.

  • Germany’s energy regulator temporarily suspended the approval process for Russia’s Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline on Tuesday, saying the companies behind the project need to form a German subsidiary in order to receive an operating license. European natural gas prices spiked on the news, as it’s unclear how long the approval process will now take.

  • Members of the hardline House Freedom Caucus elected GOP Rep. Scott Perry of Pennsylvania their new leader this week. He will succeed Rep. Andy Biggs, the Caucus’ current chair, in 2022.

  • Rep. Jackie Speier of California announced Tuesday that she will not seek an eighth term in 2022, becoming the latest Democrat to announce his or her retirement ahead of midterm elections widely expected to sweep Republicans into the House majority.

  • The Senate voted 68-29 on Tuesday to confirm competition lawyer Jonathan Kanter, a prominent critic of Big Tech companies, to lead the Justice Department’s antitrust division.

Biden and Xi Attempt to Lower the Temperature

(Frederic J. Brown / AFP via Getty Images.)

The heads of the United States and China convened in a virtual meeting Monday night, signaling an effort by the world’s leading superpowers to repair bilateral ties following a period of heightened tension. President Biden—broadcasting from the West Wing’s Roosevelt Room—spoke to President Xi Jinping and other leading Chinese officials for three-and-a-half hours in what both sides described as a constructive clearing of the air.    

“I’m happy to have found time to meet, and I look forward to a candid and forthright discussion like all of the discussions we’ve had thus far,” Biden said to open the meeting. “As I said before, it seems to be our responsibility—as leaders of China and the United States—to ensure that the competition between our countries does not veer into conflict, whether intended or unintended. Just simple, straightforward competition.”

Xi, who hasn’t left China in roughly two years, expressed regret that the two leaders couldn’t meet face-to-face, but said the virtual conversation—the first of its kind since Biden took office in January—sufficed. “I feel very happy to see my old friend,” Xi said, using the term “lao peng yo”—an indication of mutual respect and trust.

These heads of state’s exchange of pleasantries comes amid recent geopolitical strain, which some onlookers have described as a precursor to another “Cold War” stalemate. Last month, China’s aggression near Taiwan’s airspace reached its peak, with nearly 150 military aircrafts breaching the air defense identification zone (ADIZ) in the first few days of October alone. Other issues—like economic competition, the coronavirus pandemic, and Beijing’s many domestic human rights abuses—have disrupted Sino-American relations since former President Donald’s Trump’s time in the White House. 

But according to Craig Singleton, who researches China at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, both leaders are hoping to mend ties amid domestic priorities. “Like President Biden, Xi is facing an unprecedented number of domestic challenges, including a COVID-19 resurgence, rampant energy shortages, and a looming housing bubble burst. The last thing either Biden or Xi want right now is a major foreign policy crisis,” Singleton told The Dispatch. “That is why, at least in the near term, both men appear willing to overlook major differences in the bilateral relationship in favor of lowering the temperature.”

Keeping with that goal, much of the summit centered on areas of shared interest. According to White House and Chinese Foreign Ministry accounts of the call, Xi and Biden discussed their mutual goals in the realms of global development, energy security, public health, and—perhaps most prominently—climate change and green technological innovation. 

“While Beijing remains the world’s top carbon emitter, Xi is facing intense domestic pressure to address environmental-related issues,” Singleton said. “Growing international calls for China to play a more significant role in addressing climate change also reinforce Beijing’s strong desire to be viewed as a great-power. So, from Beijing’s perspective, being ‘out front’ on climate is truly a win-win.” 

But despite some consensus, Xi’s red lines remain ever-prevalent. And, at least for now, the Biden administration appears unwilling to test them, with China reiterating its rejection of Taiwan’s sovereignty via the “one China” policy, which both sides of the call emphasized. “Such moves are extremely dangerous, just like playing with fire,” the Chinese foreign ministry said, referring to growing U.S. support for Taipei. “Whoever plays with fire will get burnt.”

“President Biden underscored that the United States remains committed to the ‘one China’ policy,” said a White House readout of the summit, “guided by the Taiwan Relations Act, the three Joint Communiques, and the Six Assurances, and that the United States strongly opposes unilateral efforts to change the status quo or undermine peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait.” 

Biden did, however, push back on Beijing’s many human rights abuses in Xinjiang, Tibet, and Hong Kong. Growing international concern about China’s repression of pro-democracy demonstrators and ethnic minorities in areas under its control have become a point of heightened tension between the two countries, with Americans urging the administration to hold the Chinese Communist Party accountable. According to Washington Post columnist Josh Rogin on Tuesday, Biden plans to go through with a diplomatic boycott of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, which are just three months out.

But many Americans, lawmakers and experts alike, think that the White House’s efforts to counter Chinese aggression at home and abroad have, thus far, come up short.

“Historians will almost certainly look back at Washington’s half-hearted responses to both the Chinese Communist Party’s Hong Kong takeover as well as its human rights violations in Xinjiang as the moment in time when Beijing realized that America’s rhetoric was more bark than bite,” Singleton said. “The Chinese recognize that Washington will continue to use sanctions and other levers of power to respond to China’s malign behavior. The problem, however, is that these tools are becoming less and less effective in either altering or deterring Beijing. As China’s leadership works to close off its economy from the rest of the world while simultaneously building up its own domestic circulation, these tools will become even less impactful.”

Belarusian Border Crisis Heats Up

We wrote to you yesterday about a concerning buildup of Russian military forces along the country’s border with Ukraine. Today, it’s a different pair of Eastern European countries whose shared boundary is in the news. 

Poland first declared a state of emergency at its Bruzgi-Kuźnic border checkpoint with Belarus nearly two months ago, but Tuesday was arguably the worst day of the crisis thus far: hundreds upon hundreds of Middle Eastern and North African migrants seeking asylum in Poland began throwing stones and other debris at Polish border agents, who responded with water cannons and tear gas. At least 11 people have reportedly died at the border over the past month.

“I am angry,” 23-year-old Kurd Rawand Akram—a refugee from Iraq—told the New York Times. “Everyone is angry. This is the last thing we could do. There is no other solution if we ever want to get to Europe.”

Why, you may be wondering, is an Iraqi refugee trying to enter Poland … via Belarus? Looking at a map of the region, it doesn’t seem to make much intuitive sense. Belarus is not a stop along the quickest or easiest route to the European Union. That’s where Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko comes in.

Often referred to as “Europe’s last dictator,” Lukashenko has been itching for ways to get back at the European Union after the body sanctioned him and dozens of other Belarusian government officials in response to the violent crackdown on protesters. The former Soviet state’s 2020 elections, widely believed to be fraudulent, sparked the unrest. The EU strengthened those sanctions over the summer after Belarusian officials diverted a Ryanair flight to Minsk in order to arrest a journalist on board.

Lukashenko has responded in recent months with what European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has labeled a “hybrid attack.” To hear the EU tell it, Lukashenko has been luring prospective migrants to Belarus with loosened visa restrictions and promises of easy passage into Poland, Lithuania, or Latvia—the European Union. Once there, the migrants are ushered by Belarusian officials to the relevant border, where they are decidedly not welcome. Anne Appelbaum visited the area for The Atlantic, and explained what has been happening:

Once they arrive in Minsk, the migrants stay in hotels, which they also pay for, though sometimes they sleep at the airport. Videos posted on social media have shown them clustered in large groups in central Minsk, and there are stories of them buying up rubber boots and winter clothes. What happens next is murky. Some pay to be taken to the border—Anwar said the cost was $300 for each car full of people—but others report having been escorted by uniformed men, probably border guards. When they arrive at the border fence, they are told to cross it—illegally. Trucks transport them along the border, and the Belarusian border guards help them to find deserted areas where crossing is easy. Anwar said that border guards used wire cutters to cut the border fence and allow his family to pass through. Others have been given wire cutters and told to do it themselves.

At that point, they have no other choice. They are not allowed to go to the formal border checkpoints to ask for asylum, though some ask to do so. They are not allowed to return to Minsk, even if they beg to be allowed to return home. The Belarusian border guards point guns in their faces, beat them, and tell them they have no option. And so they start walking westward.

“These migrants are going into Belarus having received false promises,” Center for Strategic and International Studies fellow Andrew Lohsen told The Dispatch. “The intention is to then ferry them closer to the border.” 

In addition to being incredibly destabilizing for the region, Lukashenko’s gambit is also astonishingly cruel: Capitalizing on the desperation of would-be asylum seekers, leading them into incredibly dangerous situations, and thrusting them upon another country—all for his own perceived geopolitical gain. Poland and the EU have thus far refused to back down, weighing the construction of physical border walls, lobbying airlines to discontinue certain one-way flights to Minsk, and vowing the weaponized migrants will not enter the country. 

“We are just a stick that they are beating each other with,” the aforementioned Kurdish migrant said, referring to Belarus and the EU. “Nobody wants to look weak. We have become a ball kicked about in their big political game.”

On Monday, the EU broadened its previously implemented sanctions on Belarus to impose travel bans and asset freezes on individuals and entities determined to be facilitating Lukashenko’s ploy. “Belarus must stop putting people’s lives at risk,” von der Leyen said. “The Belarusian authorities must understand that pressuring the European Union in this way through a cynical instrumentalisation of migrants will not help them succeed in their purposes.” Lukashenko warned last week that Belarus would cut off the supply of Russian natural gas to Europe if additional sanctions were levied, but he has yet to follow through—and Russian President Vladimir Putin poured cold water on the idea on Friday. “Russia was, is and will remain a country that fulfills all of its obligations in supplying European customers with gas,” a Putin spokesperson told reporters Friday.

Lukashenko is, however, a close ally of Putin, whom some Western countries have accused of aiding Belarus’ destabilization efforts. “The actions by the [Lukashenko] regime threaten security, sow division, and aim to distract from Russia’s activities on the border with Ukraine,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said in a readout of a call Secretary of State Antony Blinken held over the weekend with Poland’s foriegn minister. “Blinken and Foreign Minister Rau strongly condemned the instrumentalization of vulnerable migrants and called on Lukashenka to address the root causes of sanctions imposed by the West—the denial of human rights and fundamental freedoms for the Belarusian people.”

Worth Your Time

  • Larry Summers—former Clinton administration Treasury Secretary and Obama administration National Economic Council director—has been warning about today’s scourge of inflation since the beginning of the year. In the Washington Post this week, he argues that it’s time for the rest of the economic world to join him. “The [Biden] administration should signal that a concern about inflation will inform its policies generally,” Summers writes. “Measures already taken to reduce port bottlenecks may have limited effect but are a clear positive step. Buying inexpensively should take priority over buying American. Tariff reduction is the most important supply-side policy the administration could undertake to combat inflation. Raising fossil fuel supplies, by relaxing regulations and deploying the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, are crucial. … While an overheating economy is a relatively good problem to have compared to a pandemic or a financial crisis, it will metastasize and threaten prosperity and public trust unless clearly acknowledged and addressed.”

  • Over the past two years, the Worth Your Time section has linked to a lot of work from Derek Thompson, The Atlantic staff writer focusing on economics, technology, and the pandemic. Thompson launched a new podcast for The Ringer this week called “Plain English,” and we can already tell it’s going to be great. Tuesday’s episode? A conversation with New York Times tech reporter Kevin Roose about the metaverse, cryptocurrency, and non-fungible tokens (NFTs). Are they short-lived fads, or precursors to a better online future?

  • Freddie deBoer considers himself a democratic socialist, but he’s come to a conclusion that very few of his fellow leftists have. “It’s time for young socialists and progressive Democrats to recognize that our beliefs just might not be popular enough to win elections consistently. It does us no favors to pretend otherwise,” he writes for The New York Times. “The idea that most Americans quietly agree with our positions is dangerous, because it leads to the kind of complacency that has dogged Democrats since the “emerging Democratic majority” myth became mainstream. Socialists can take some heart in public polling that shows Americans warming to the abstract idea of socialism. But “socialism” is an abstraction that means little without a winning candidate. And too much of this energy seems to stem from the echo-chamber quality of social media, as young socialists look at the world through Twitter and TikTok and see only the smiling faces of their own beliefs reflected back at them. Socialist victory will require taking a long, hard road to spread our message, to convince a skeptical public that socialist policies and values are good for them and the country. Which is to say, it will take decades.”

Presented Without Comment

Toeing the Company Line

  • In light of Kyle Rittenhouse’s murder trial, David’s Tuesday French Press (🔒) focuses on the law of self-defense—and the increased prevalence of open-carried rifles. “The presence of angry, openly armed men dramatically increases the sense of danger surrounding any public confrontation, and then it entrusts other angry (often) armed men to understand exactly when menace transforms into deadly threat,” he writes.

  • In this week’s Sweep, Sarah catches readers up on all things 2022, Audrey provides an update on Gov. Larry Hogan’s future plans, and Chris argues that Democrats’ pandemic response will hurt the party in next year’s midterms. “Pandemic fatigue is a major part of what’s driving voters into the arms of the GOP,” he writes. “If Democrats maintain the belief that one day the virus will be forever banished, they will continue to face a backlash.”

  • Like Sisyphys and his boulder, House Democrats maintain that they are finally—for real, this time!—getting close to passing the Build Back Better Act. Tuesday’s Uphill has all the latest on their efforts, as well as a helpful breakdown of the immigration and family provisions tucked into the bill.

  • Biologist Matt Ridley joined Jonah on The Remnant yesterday for a conversation about his new book about the search for the origin of COVID-19. Did the virus emerge from a lab? What would that mean for virological research? And how can we prepare ourselves for future pandemic?

Let Us Know

Does a diplomatic boycott of the Olympics by the United States send a strong message to the rest of the world about China’s human rights concerns? In an ideal world, how would the rest of the world (and China) respond?

Reporting by Declan Garvey (@declanpgarvey), Andrew Egger (@EggerDC), Charlotte Lawson (@lawsonreports), Audrey Fahlberg (@AudreyFahlberg), Ryan Brown (@RyanP_Brown), Harvest Prude (@HarvestPrude), and Steve Hayes (@stephenfhayes).