With Washington in diplomatic disarray, global powers court America's states instead

From London to Beijing, leaders are recognising state governors as powerful figures in foreign relations

California Governor Gavin Newsom held talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing in October. AP
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For students of Panda Diplomacy and its place in the Sino-US relationship, last week provided a new annal in a 50 year story.

When Richard Nixon went to China, chairman Mao Zedong offered Giant Pandas for the US public zoo. At the time pandas were among the most endangered species on Earth, so the gesture meant something.

During his visit to the US last week, President Xi Jinping suggested Beijing will soon be sending more pandas to the US. He hinted they would replace a pair, aged 35 and 36, recently returned to China from San Diego Zoo. According to the memorandum of understanding for the exchanges, pandas on loan to the US are Chinese citizens and must be returned to their homeland at a specific point.

What caught my eye was how Mr Xi framed his announcement on "continuing work with the US on panda conservation". He said he had heard of the sadness of the people of San Diego at seeing the pandas go, and said the Chinese side would do “our best to meet the wishes of the Californians so as to deepen the friendly ties between our two peoples”.

Mr Xi was speaking in California, where he was attending the Apec summit. He was met off the plane by Gavin Newsom, the California governor.

It was not the first time that Mr Newsom had met Mr Xi. In fact, he was accorded a face-to-face with the Chinese leader in October. Mr Xi held discussions with Mr Newsom every bit as substantive as those he conducted last week with President Joe Biden.

The topics, according to the readout, included co-operation on climate change and China’s role in producing the chemicals that make the drug fentanyl.

At the Apec summit, Mr Xi was carefully primed to say that “China sympathises deeply with the American people, especially the young, for the sufferings that fentanyl has inflicted upon them”.

It is not just countries that are warily offering the US “mutually beneficial co-operation” that are reaching out to states like California to build better ties.

The UK likes to think of itself as the closest ally that America has. Yet neither the Trump or the Biden administrations took any serious steps to capitalise on Brexit. London has angled for a US-UK free trade agreement but found its efforts have come to nothing.

Coping with American extremism in its national politics has not been easy for the UK. There is not quite as much friction as between Beijing and Washington but certainly London has been bruised by unwelcome indifference.

Xi held discussions with Newsom every bit as substantive as those he conducted last week with Biden

Also in America last week was the UK’s trade secretary, Kemi Badenoch. Her trip was also focused on the states – not the national government. Indeed, she too travelled to the Apec summit for meetings of the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership.

That 11-country free trade area has accepted the UK’s application to join. While it is home to 500 million consumers across Asia-Pacific and Americas, the US withdrawal from it was a hammer blow to western leadership of global trade. The attitudes that saw the US lurch out of international deals have only been tempered – not quashed – under the Biden administration.

The Republicans in Congress continue to act as spoilers as far as countries such as China and the UK are concerned. The Democrats’ left-wing lobby equally makes impossible any thoughts of international trade arrangements that promote globalisation.

That may explain Ms Badenoch travelling to San Francisco, where she also made time to meet Mr Newsom. The two sides were happy to progress on talks for a UK-California preliminary agreement to boost trade and investment, something that was billed as a means for the UK to make progress on reaching net-zero targets.

British officials were happily pointing out that California would be the 5th biggest economy in the world if it were a country. The opportunities for better access to that market for UK businesses are portrayed as advantageous for UK business.

Afterall the British a few days earlier signed a UK-Florida preliminary agreement that was also touted as a boost for trade and investment.

Courting Florida’s Trump-like governor, Ron DeSantis, and Mr Newsom, the frontrunner to step into Mr Biden's shoes, traversed America’s yawning political chasm in a week.

There is significance in itself that the two governors can be engaged on the same issue of reducing trade barriers and enhancing international co-operation. Leaving aside the optics for two ambitious governors in the presidential stakes, the engagement path chosen by the Chinese and British does look positive for the future.

The rest of the world can also hope there is more panda diplomacy to come. What started with the US went global, as the Chinese developed their diplomatic strategy in the following decades.

Its heyday came after a massively successful IVF breeding programme that restored the panda numbers in the Qinling mountains.

That programme in itself was a proving ground for Chinese progress. And with the numbers rising in their native habitat, the sending of pandas abroad was a symbol of openness. China's rise took on more substantive forms such as the Belt and Road Intitiative reaching all corners of the globe.

The resulting competition with Washington has meant frosty relations with Beijing. Reviving panda diplomacy looks to be a corrective move from the Chinese side. As Mr Xi said, one planet is big enough for both.

How America reciprocates is a key test of its own political system.

It is encouraging that capitals like Beijing and London are finding ways around America’s hardliners and their destructive dysfunction.

Published: November 20, 2023, 7:00 AM