David Ignatius, long the national-security journo with the closest access to Democratic decision-makers, wrote in an intriguing column in today’s WaPo that National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan’s recent meeting in Vienna with top Chinese diplomat Wang Yi, “Sullivan praised Wang’s mediation of the bitter rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran… welcoming China’s effort to de-escalate conflict in the region.”
This is a real turnaround. It deals a strong serious blow to all the anti-Iran hawks in Israel and Washington who have tried to keep Saudi Arabia and the UAE firmly in the anti-Iran camp, and have downplayed the significance of the region-transforming rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia that Wang unveiled in Beijing back in March.
Ignatius diplomatically buried this significant news item down the near the bottom of today’s column. The column also offered many other tidbits indicating that the Biden administration is now finally recognizing the folly, at a time of intense confrontation with Russia, of trying also to maintain or ramp up an intense confrontation with China.
More on that, below. But regarding the support Sullivan expressed to Ignatius (“off the record”) for China’s breakthrough diplomacy in West Asia, this came just eight or nine days after he had given a fawningly pro-Israeli speech to the “Washington Institute” think-tank in which he lauded the Israeli-Arab “Abraham Accords” and a new coalition dubbed “I2U2” (Israel, India, the United States, and the UAE) … and pledged the administration’s deep support for Israel.
My clear understanding is that it was most likely Sullivan himself who had briefed Ignatius on the results of the Vienna meeting with Wang. If it was indeed Sullivan, he had clearly hurried to do so within 36 hours after returning back home to Washington. If the source of David’s reporting was not Sullivan himself but a trusted aide fully authorized by him to do so, that would have taken even longer for them to organize and authenticate. So basically, we can read David’s column as expressing (at one remove) the spin that Sullivan wanted to put on the Vienna meeting—though the only specific reference David made to any actual sourcing non-committal: “From accounts that have emerged… “
But even though it is clear that Sullivan (or his designated Ignatius-briefer) was spinning the story heavily, it is undoubtedly fascinating, marking a sea-change in the way Biden’s top people are starting to talk about Beijing. David writes,
The U.S. and Chinese officials are said to have talked for hours about how to resolve the war in Ukraine short of a catastrophe that would be harmful for both countries. They discussed how each side perceives and misunderstands the other’s global ambitions. They spoke in detail about the supremely contentious issue of Taiwan…
Over nearly a dozen hours of discussion, [Wang and Sullivan] threw schedules aside. They have the confidence of their bosses, Presidents Biden and Xi Jinping, to engage in detailed discussion about sensitive issues. They appear to have found a language for superpower discussion, like what once existed between the United States and both Russia and China but has been lost.
The reveals about Ukraine are particularly interesting. I guess they warrant one of my tables:
|Sullivan and Wang are said to have discussed the Ukraine war at length. China insists it won’t abandon Russia, its longtime partner. China seems to understand that this conflict won’t be resolved on the battlefield but through diplomacy.||David’s use of the construction “China seems to understand that X is true” indicates to me that either David, or the Sullivan whom he was challenging here, believes that X is indeed the case. Does Sullivan actually believe that the Ukraine conflict, “won’t be resolved on the battlefield but through diplomacy”? Interesting, if so!|
|As Ukraine prepares a counteroffensive that could push back the Russian invasion, China fears a cascading series of Russian losses could destabilize President Vladimir Putin.||This looks extremely spinny to me! How do either of these guys know “what China fears”?|
|China has proposed a peace plan for Ukraine and is sending a special envoy this week to Kyiv, Moscow and other key capitals. U.S. officials expect that China’s role won’t be as a mediator but a check on Russia’s actions.||First, interesting that Sullivan was not poohpoohing China’s peace plan for Ukraine, which Blinken had certainly done earlier. Second, I’d love to know the evidence on which the U.S. officials had based that “expectation” regarding China’s role…|
|If Xi decides it’s time for this war to end, Putin has few alternatives. That’s why the Kremlin is said to have viewed last week’s Sino-American engagement with dread.||Again, not much evidence for any of this apparent spin. And then, the hilarious passive-voice locution “the Kremlin is said to have viewed... “|
David then moves to two big questions regarding which he pretty evidently had deeper briefings from Sullivan. The first of these was what,
might be described as the “inevitability” question. Is the United States in inevitable decline while China is moving toward inevitable ascendancy? Xi’s policies have been premised on both outcomes, but the past several years have raised questions in Beijing. The U.S. economy and social framework have shown surprising resilience, and its technology remains supreme.
The second of these, as he dubbed them, questions “essential” for China was,
whether prolongation of the Ukraine war is in Beijing’s interest. Some Chinese officials are said to have argued that a long war is good for China, because the United States is bogged down in the conflict and Russia’s ties to China are reinforced. But there’s apparently a growing counterargument that the war strengthens America’s alliances in Europe and Asia and creates long-term trouble for China. U.S. officials say they believe the latter argument is gaining force in Beijing.
No sources, I will note, for the counter-arguments referred to there. But once again, very interesting that this was what Sullivan and Ignatius chose to be spinning here.
The next paragraph is particularly interesting, since it gives a first strong indication that the Biden administration—or even Pres. Biden himself— had recently undertaken a change of tack:
For the Biden administration, the fundamental question has [until recently] been whether it is in America’s interest to accept China’s growing global role and work with Chinese leaders to accomplish mutual goals. Sino-American engagement had been focused on “soft” issues such as health, food and climate change. But Biden encouraged Sullivan to engage on core security issues such as Ukraine.
That is fascinating. First of all, it seems to indicate that until recently the idea that it might be good to to try to work with China on issues like health, food, or climate change had itself been in question. (Whaaaat?) But then, apparently, Biden himself, according to this account, encouraged Sullivan to engage on the “core security interests.” (No word there about whether they’re also still weighing whether to engage with Beijing on the “soft” issues. Also, no serious evidence that they have made any attempt to launch such engagement, up until now.)
So, lots of inside-the-White-House tea-leaves to read here. But who is the missing ghost at this feast? I thought we also had a Secretary of State?