Katsuji Nakazawa is a Tokyo-based senior staff writer and editorial writer at Nikkei. He spent seven years in China as a correspondent and later as China bureau chief. He is the 2014 recipient of the Vaughn-Ueda International Journalist prize for international reporting.
TOKYO -- For three weeks after taking office, U.S. President Joe Biden did not speak to Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping. They spoke on Thursday, before Beijing enters a long Chinese New Year holiday.
The two men have spent many hours together, meeting and traveling when both were vice presidents. Yet in an interview broadcast Sunday, Biden said the Chinese leader is "very bright" and "very tough" but "doesn't have a democratic, small 'd,' bone in his body."
Since Biden won the election, China has explored every avenue in search of a breakthrough in deadlocked relations with the U.S. But it looks to be an uphill climb.
When U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke with top Chinese diplomat Yang Jiechi, he gave the latter an earful on Taiwan, Uighur Muslims, Tibet and Hong Kong.
To thaw the frozen relationship, compromises will be needed. But leaders in Beijing will find it hard to make concessions unless they are certain that the Biden administration will not embarrass them. China cannot afford for Xi to lose face.
Also troubling for Beijing is its quickly deteriorating relationship with the U.K.
Chinese foreign policy experts note that London's post-Brexit Asia policy could impede Beijing's Asia-Pacific strategy.
Some are alarmed by what they call a new "quasi-alliance" between the U.K. and Japan, which, in their eyes, hearkens back to the 1902-23 Anglo-Japanese Alliance that changed the dynamics of Asia.
"You should not forget that the old Anglo-Japanese Alliance not only was aimed at countering Russia, but also it had a hidden agenda of containing China's national rejuvenation," one expert said. "By joining forces with Japan again and forming a quasi-alliance, the U.K. is now trying to block China from making a leap forward."
Britain's departure from the European Union and pivot to Asia have been compared to an opposite movement that occurred in Meiji-era Japan. "Out of Asia and into Europe" was the slogan that captivated the Japanese in the late 19th century. Now London looks to be moving "Out of Europe and into Asia."
One foreign policy expert said the U.K.'s application to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership was a blow to Beijing. Now officially called the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, the trade pact is something China is seriously considering joining.
Japan has welcomed Britain's application with open arms. If admitted, the U.K. would be the first new TPP member since the trade deal took effect in 2018 with 11 participants.
The U.S. left the pact in 2017 under then-President Donald Trump. The Biden administration cannot easily return to the TPP due to domestic opposition, which is favorable for China's Asia-Pacific strategy. But if the U.K.'s membership is approved before China's, Beijing may find the gates shut tight.
U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson is promoting the idea of a "global Britain," seeking opportunities worldwide after being freed from the constraints of the EU. Asia is a natural and important target of the initiative, given the region's economic growth and rising trade volume with Britain. But Johnson's stance toward China is harsh.
On the Chinese internet, relations with the U.K. are described as in "free fall."
British media regulators recently revoked the license of CGTN, the English-language sister channel of state-run China Central Television, to operate in the U.K. They took the action on the grounds that CGTN, formally known as China Global Television Network, is under the Chinese Communist Party's control.
On Feb. 3, a "two-plus-two" meeting of Japanese and British foreign and defense ministers was held.
Beijing was watching closely, noting that the meeting that differed in nature from their previous gathering in 2017.
This time, ministers from both sides shared "grave concerns" about China's political crackdown in Hong Kong and human rights issues in Xinjiang. They also expressed strong concerns about Beijing's new Coast Guard Law, which came into force Feb. 1, which positions the China Coast Guard as a quasi-military organization and allows it to fire at foreign ships.
Japanese Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi welcomed London's plan to dispatch a strike group led by state-of-the-art aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth to East Asia by the end of this year.
Tokyo and London also reached a basic agreement to hold a joint military exercise between the carrier strike group and Japan's Self-Defense Forces during the East Asia deployment.
When the Anglo-Japanese Alliance was signed in 1902, well before the establishment of the Chinese Communist Party in 1921, the pact was intended to stem Russia's southward advancement.
But it also had various effects on China, which transitioned from the Qing dynasty to the Republic of China as a result of the 1911-12 Xinhai Revolution.
With that history in mind, China is paying close attention to the strengthening of relations between Japan and the U.K., nearly a century after the alliance was abandoned.
Biden, unlike his predecessor, attaches importance to alliances, including in dealing with China over security and many other issues.
It will become difficult for China to maneuver if deepening Japan-U.K. relations grow to resemble a new "quasi-alliance" that complements the Japan-U.S. alliance and if Britain joins the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue among the U.S., Japan, India and Australia, better known as the Quad.
The Quad nations are moving closer politically, bound by a common goal of countering China's maritime expansion.
Yet China is not sitting idle in this period, a prelude to the tug of war over a new post-coronavirus international order.
"We are making a strategic move accordingly," one Chinese trade official said. "Holding the key is New Zealand."
China and New Zealand, a TPP member country, signed a deal in late January to upgrade their bilateral free trade agreement.
New Zealand is a member of the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing alliance led by the U.S. Wellington also has kept its approach toward China largely in step with that of Australia, even as its neighbor remains locked in a fierce confrontation with Beijing.
But China has begun efforts to win over New Zealand regardless of that country's other partnerships. Any application by China for TPP membership in the future will need help from Wellington.
New Zealand is one of the TPP's original four members, when the Trans-Pacific Strategic Economic Partnership was signed by Brunei, Chile, Singapore and New Zealand in 2005. This group later evolved into the TPP.
It was New Zealand, the depositary for the trade pact, to which the U.K. submitted its letter of intent to join the TPP on Feb. 1.
China thinks it can count on New Zealand as a mediator in its confrontation with the U.S.
But will the overtures to New Zealand be enough to change the tide?
When China made a largely unexpected gambit just before Biden's inauguration to reach a basic agreement with the EU on an investment pact, it was hailed as a major diplomatic victory. The deal drove a wedge between the U.S. and Europe ahead of the incoming Biden administration.
But China overlooked one thing: The U.K. had already left the EU and was heading to Asia, China's own backyard.