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Blinken trip to China is about intelligence gathering, not diplomacy

Jun 19, 2023

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The visit to China by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken is widely viewed as an attempt to repair the deteriorating relationship between the world’s top economic leaders. Blinken himself said “it’s the responsibility of both countries” to figure out how both nations can work together.

Straight Arrow News contributor Peter Zeihan says the trip to Beijing should be viewed as being more about intelligence gathering on a declining superpower, than about diplomacy.

Excerpted from Peter’s June 19 “Zeihan on Geopolitics” newsletter:

Secretary of State Antony Blinken is heading to China to attempt to reset relations. He’s getting flack from both sides, and I won’t talk about that, but I do want to bring up three things …

China has descended into a cult of personality thanks to Xi Jinping. He’s rid the government of anyone capable of conscious thought, so whatever he says = law. In a situation like this (where one man is trying to do EVERYTHING), it’s impossible to have meaningful diplomatic relations.

We have a dying superpower on our hands, and if America’s mitigation plan is to ignore them … there will be no options to manage the fallout. Blinken’s visit, at the very least, is a step towards figuring out what those options might be.

At its core, Blinken’s visit is about intelligence gathering. When you have a leader like Xi (who doesn’t talk to or trust anyone), it’s incredibly difficult to get information. So the only decent way to get info is through a trip like this.

Everyone, Peter Zeihan here coming to you from Golden Horn just above Littleton, Colorado. The news over the weekend, is that Tony Blinken, the US Secretary of State is going to try to deceive you can try to reset relations. He’s getting a lot of criticism from all sides by folks on the left are saying that, you know, this is a country that is a trade foe. So maybe we should be using this as an opportunity to tighten the screws on the right there. Like why should it be Blinken that is going to Beijing when it’s things that have happened in Beijing that have wrecked the relationship. I’m not going to comment too much on that one way or the other. But there are three things I do want to bring up. First of all, China under Chairman Zhi Jing Ping has descended into a full cult of personality and that is very much in play here.
Let me put in a context that more Americans would identify with. The last, well, a pseudo cult of personality had was under Barack Obama. And according to the story I’ve been given from folks in Washington, and his first meeting with the Joint Chiefs, you know, military, he walked into the room said, I’m smarter than all of you, I could do your jobs better than you. Now, let’s assume for the moment that that is true. The President of the United States could not actually do the job of the President and the job of all the chain chiefs at the same time, and Chairman G has now prosecuted or purged everyone within the People’s Republic, who’s capable of conscious thought including in his inner circle, he has no confidence, he has no advisors that matter. It’s just him.
And in that sort of circumstance, we are seeing catastrophic decision making across the length and the breadth of the Chinese system, because nobody in the bureaucracy wants to act unless they’re given direct orders that are very clearly from Ji, personally. Or you get zealots who think they’re interpreting the propaganda on his behalf, and doing really crazy shit. In this sort of environment, having normal diplomatic relations is impossible, because there’s no cadre of people to take the broad stroke guidance that the premier in this case provides and translating that into day to day actions. So a great example is the Chinese had an opportunity a few weeks ago, a couple weeks ago, one week ago recently to meet with the US Secretary of Defense and worked out some Confidence Building Measures to avoid catastrophic confrontations and mistakes. But orders couldn’t come down from Ji on that topic, because he was busy dealing with everything else.
And so Blinken is likely to experience the same thing that there is no diplomatic position in the People’s Republic of China right now. And he’s going to be talking with people who don’t have anything to say, it’s going to feel like a stone wall. But that’s not what it is. It’s a lack of direction. And when countries hit places like this, it’s just a question of what gets dropped. So we know because of China’s mismanagement, again, because of lack of direction of things like African swine fever, they’re facing a pork crisis. We know because of their siding with Russia, they’re more exposed in terms of energy trade than they’ve ever been before. And they’re seeing the Europeans and the Americans start to melon scoop out choice chunks of the economy. And there’s nothing they can do about it, because there is no direction from the top. And even if Ji thinks of himself, like Obama, the smartest person in every room, doesn’t matter. Can’t do it all himself.
Okay, that’s number one. Number two, managing decline. One of the biggest criticisms that I think is accurate of Bill Clinton’s reign as president, is that he kind of ignored Russia after the Soviet Union fell. I mean, here we have one of the second probably the second greatest military power in human history, which at the time had 10s, of 1000s of nuclear warheads. And for the first three years of his administration, it just didn’t even register on the radar. And I would say in the second term, nothing registered on his radar. We were lucky with the former Soviet world, we were lucky with the the low amount of Imperial debris whether it was the Chechen war, or the Yugoslav Wars, or things when the Balkans with the Serbs or Afghanistan, we were lucky that none of this spun out of control. We were lucky, there were no loose nukes. Hopefully, we don’t count on luck to manage the Chinese decline.
We have a much larger country in terms of population and economics, maybe the reach isn’t as big. But we should probably be burning a little bit of oil on thinking about what a post China China looks like, and preparing for that world. And in that context, I think Blinken is doing the right thing going not that I think anything’s gonna come as a visit. Of course not. But a dying superpower that you ignore is one that you have no options for managing. And the first step of having those options is to engage. And so even if it’s nothing more than finding out that the Chinese can’t function, this trip is worth that trip.
Which brings us to the third thing, intelligence gathering. Chairman Ji is not like Trump or Putin. So Trump and Putin both had a tight circle. Have people around them and a handful of trusted confidants. Now the Russians were able to take advantage of this for Donald Trump because Donald Trump kept using his presidential phone to call these friends on their civilian lines. And so the Russians were able to hack and tap into Trump’s circle of friends because they couldn’t tap the White House themselves, gave them a pretty good look into all things White House for four years. And in the case of Putin, he’s got a half a dozen people his inner circle in the United States is thoroughly penetrated, their email, their faxes, their meetings, their calls, everything.
Ji doesn’t have that vulnerability. GE is a one man show now there is no one who’s in his inner circle. There’s no one whose phone you can tap. He doesn’t have conversations with anyone, you can’t even tap his phone. And that means our only decent window into what’s going on in China at the top is to engage directly as high up the pyramid as you possibly can. Which means we shouldn’t think of Blinken’s trip primarily as a diplomatic visit. We should think of it as intelligence gathering in one of the very few ways that it even matters in China anymore. Okay, that’s it for me, you guys. Take care

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