Wednesday, September 05, 2012
Hillary watch, pt. 2 [updated x 8]
I have a bad back myself. I know how back problems can flare up unexpectedly. So I'm certainly not asserting that Xi Jinping didn't really hurt his back:
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with Chinese President Hu Jintao on Wednesday and pledged greater cooperation despite tensions on a rising number of issues.
But a meeting with Mr. Hu's expected successor, Xi Jinping, was unexpectedly canceled for what a U.S. official said was a back injury.
The severity and cause of the injury wasn't clear on Wednesday. The U.S. official said the cancellation wouldn't likely affect the tenor of Mrs. Clinton's visit. A senior State Department official said Mr. Xi had also canceled appearances with Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and an unidentified Russian official.
From other news reports, under the slightly alarming headline "China's Xi Jinping cancels Hillary Clinton meeting amid 'tensions,'" we learn this:
Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi, asked at a joint news conference with Clinton about Xi's cancellation, said: "I hope people will not have unnecessary speculation."
China has in the past called off meetings at the last minute to show displeasure, although Xi has generally made US-friendly statements and sought warm relations during a trip across the United States earlier this year.
As I wrote earlier this week, I don't think our SecState would blow off an important meeting with the Chinese. I'm sure the senior State Department official who spoke to the WSJ's reporters was comprehensively briefed on the status of Mr. Xi's back and appointment schedule before going on the record (but not, apparently, for attribution by name) to Secretary Clinton's traveling press corps. And even the Chinese sometimes have trouble remembering the names of those Russian officials.
Surely only a delusional conspiracy theorist would believe that a high official in the Obama Administration might secretly bargain for a competing world power's cooperation by offering, for example, offering some vague quid pro quo during a second Obama term, when the President will have a little more flexibility.
But it might turn out to be awfully convenient for Secretary Clinton that Mr. Xi hurt his back if, for instance, she were in no particular hurry to get to Timor-Leste tomorrow to tour that coffee plantation.
So as I wrote on Monday: "I will be happy to be proved wrong, and I hope I will be." Nevertheless, "I'll believe Joe Biden's job is safe when I see reliable proof that Secretary Clinton has stepped onto the tarmac at the Presidente Nicolau Lobato International Airport in Dili."
UPDATE #1 (Wed Sep 5 @ 7:50am): Things are getting even weirder. Now WaPo correspondent William Wan is reporting from Beijing that other journalists can't get confirmation of the report I linked above from the Wall Street Journal, to the effect that the reason for cancellation was Mr. Xi's back:
The formal and highly scripted meetings in Beijing had their share of surprises. Besides the Wen comments, a meeting planned for Wednesday with Xi Jinping — the man expected to replace Hu Jintao as China’s president — was abruptly canceled upon Clinton’s arrival. Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi did not explain the cancellation, only warning that people not use it as an excuse for "unnecessary speculation."
Xi also canceled meetings with the prime minister of Singapore and a Russian parliamentarian, according to U.S. officials. To try to make sure the United States would not interpret the cancellation as a snub, the Chinese set up a last-minute meeting instead with Vice Premier Li Keqiang, who is widely expected to succeed Wen as premier.
Yang also told the Clinton that the Chinese would deliver a letter to her from Xi on Wednesday.
Citing an anonymous U.S. official, the Wall Street Journal reported the Xi cancellation was due to a back injury, a claim that American diplomats traveling with Clinton refused to confirm.
I wish the WaPo had reported when the consolation meeting with Vice Premier Li Keqiang took place, or is scheduled to take place. But surely there is a perfectly innocent explanation for all this confusion. I'm just not clever enough to piece it together yet. Certainly none of these reporters who are rushing into print to contradict each other seem to sense that anything is amiss or other than what meets the eye. At least now we know that the unidentified Russian whose meeting with Mr. Xi was also cancelled was a parliamentarian instead of some other kind of official.
UPDATE #2 (Wed Sep 5 @ 8:15am): The NYT assures us that all is well and normal. The Chinese Foreign Ministry says so:
One of Mrs. Clinton’s most important appointments, a session with Vice President Xi Jinping, the likely next leader of China, was canceled. The Foreign Ministry said at its regular briefing that the cancellation was a “normal adjustment of the itinerary.” Mr. Xi also canceled his scheduled meeting Wednesday with Singapore’s prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong. “We have reached consensus with the United States and Singapore” on the cancellations, the Foreign Ministry spokesman, Hong Lei, said.
Diplomats in Beijing said they were told that Mr. Xi had hurt his back and said there was no reason not to believe that explanation, even though there was speculation about whether the cancellation of the meeting with Mrs. Clinton was connected to the once-in-a-decade transition, or whether it was intended as a snub.
Instead of Mr. Xi, Mrs. Clinton met with the vice premier, Li Keqiang, who is expected to become the premier early next year. Earlier Wednesday, she met with President Hu Jintao, whose term ends next year, at the Great Hall of the People.
So why can't the WaPo's reporter find the same "diplomats in Beijing" that the NYT's reporters found?
UPDATE #3 (Wed Sep 5 @ 9:55am): Hanna Beech of TIME now reports more specifics. They do not reduce my curiosity, but perhaps they will yours:
The urgent notice from the U.S. embassy in Beijing arrived in e-mail inboxes at 10:26 on Wednesday morning. The press conference with China’s Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi and visiting U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had been moved up suddenly to 10:30. That would be in four minutes’ time. Could members of the foreign press please proceed quickly to Beijing’s Great Hall of the People on the edge of Tiananmen Square? The reason for the last-minute change of schedule appeared to be a no-show by the man widely expected to take over from President Hu Jintao in China’s upcoming once-a-decade leadership transition. Clinton’s scheduled talk this morning with Vice President Xi Jinping had been called off by the Chinese side, paving the way for an earlier press conference with the Chinese Foreign Minister. In the Sept. 5 media briefing, Clinton sidestepped a question about whether Xi’s cancellation might reflect tensions between the world’s two biggest economies at a time when competing territorial claims in waters off China have marred the People’s Republic’s relations with its maritime neighbors.
Despite the Xi cancellation, Clinton met with President Hu and other top Chinese leaders in Beijing on Tuesday and Wednesday. According to the American side, Xi’s scheduled meeting with Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Wednesday was also scrapped. One version of events ascribes the Chinese Vice President’s absence to an injured back. “The current schedule of the secretary’s visit has been agreed by both sides,” said Yang, presumably referring to Xi’s cancellation. “I hope people won’t have unnecessary speculation.” China’s chattering classes are atwitter over how the upcoming leadership transition will play out in the coming weeks, as the first of the high-level staffing changes within the government trickle out of the capital. In a country where analysts often must seize on the briefest of shadow plays in order to guess what’s really going on behind the bamboo curtain, it’s only natural that Xi’s no-show will set off the rumor mill. Perhaps China’s presumptive heir to the presidency really does have an aching back. But convincing China pundits of that may be tough.
I'm no "China pundit," so I'm convinced! This is totally, totally a coincidence. Certainly there's no reason to think President Obama would have any incentive to create, at the moment of his re-nomination, the same kind of spectacular international distraction from his record that he briefly enjoyed after the bin Ladin raid. Surely the speech he plans to deliver on Thursday night, and that of Vice President Biden earlier that same evening, will be so wondrous that we'll all laugh, just laugh, to think that he might have ever wanted Hillary to replace Slow Joe.
But it only takes about fifteen hours to get from Beijing to Charlotte, N.C., by air, even flying commercial. And my wild fantasy has never involved Secretary Clinton taking any risks to offend the Chinese. But the East Timoreans are, perhaps, a different story. So I'm still looking for that "Dateline: Dili" news report confirming Secretary Clinton's arrival in Timor-Leste before I'm 100% convinced.
UPDATE #4 (Wed Sep 5 @ 10:20am): Now the AP (via Bloomberg) reports:
Clinton had been scheduled to meet Vice President Xi Jinping, who is expected to take over as China's top leader later this year, but that was canceled by the Chinese for "unexpected scheduling reasons," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said. A meeting between Xi and the visiting prime minister of Singapore, Lee Hsien Loong, also was canceled without explanation.
Yang would say only there should not be "unnecessary speculation" about changes to Clinton's schedule.
So we might infer that at least one of the State Department officials who's been speaking on this subject is Victoria Nuland. She is the "Department Spokesperson, Office of the Spokesperson," for the State Department, which is impressive in a place filled with deputies and assistant vice underlings. I wonder if she knows any Russian parliamentarians. I'm guessing yes. Ms. Nuland, if you happen to read this in the next 24 hours, could you leave me a comment below, please?
UPDATE #5 (Wed Sep 5 @ 11:40am): From a southwest Asian source with which I'm not familiar, so for which I cannot vouch, a quote and time reference I haven't seen elsewhere yet:
China's likely next president Xi Jinping has cancelled a meeting with the visiting US Secretary of State, a US official said Wednesday, amid friction between the two global powers.
Hillary Clinton had been due to meet Vice President Xi later Wednesday during a brief visit to Beijing that looks set to be dominated by a series of territorial disputes between China and its neighbours, notably in the South China Sea.
"We were informed after 11:00 pm last night by the Chinese side that for unexpected scheduling reasons, the meeting between Vice President Xi and Secretary Clinton is not going to happen today," said the official, who requested anonymity.
"We understand from the Chinese side that Vice President Xi's meetings with the prime minister of Singapore and a Russian official have also been cancelled today."
Lots of things happen late at night. People hurt their backs. Airplanes fly, sometimes to secret destinations. It's sure hard for me to figure out what's going on with the SecState's travels, though.
UPDATE #6 (Wed Sep 5 @ 11:50am): Now the WSJ's reporters, Brian Spegele and Monica Langley, have posted an updated story:
China and the U.S. made little visible progress in resolving thorny diplomatic disputes during a visit by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Wednesday, as both sides stuck to long-standing positions on issues from regional territorial claims to violence in Syria.
Meanwhile, the Chinese government stayed silent on why Vice President Xi Jinping unexpectedly pulled out of a planned meeting with Mrs. Clinton on Wednesday. A U.S. official said Mr. Xi was suffering from a back problem. The incident highlighted how Beijing's information vacuum regarding its senior leaders spurs speculation by an increasingly curious and digitally savvy public.
Mr. Xi, the vice president, is expected to succeed Mr. Hu as Communist Party chief later this year and as president in 2013. Beijing's decision to cancel the meeting immediately drew speculation on the country's raucous online forums.
Chinese censors have struggled to quell political gossip on Twitter-like microblogging websites, which have become incubators for rumors. The rumors appear to be at least partly prompted by a lack of available information about the lives and work of China's senior leaders, whose very names are blocked on the services.
On Sina Corp.'s popular Weibo microblogging service, users who managed to evade censors put forward theories as to why Mrs. Clinton's meeting with Mr. Xi was canceled so suddenly.
"It seems like it's related to Japan's purchase today of the Diaoyu islands," wrote one user upon hearing the news, speculating that the Chinese might be preparing a military operation.
Mr. Yang, China's foreign minister, said there shouldn't be "unnecessary speculation" about why Mr. Xi's meeting was canceled.
Mr. Hong, the Foreign Ministry spokesman, described the cancellation as a normal "adjustment of itinerary" at Wednesday's daily press briefing.
One U.S. official said the meeting was canceled because Mr. Xi was suffering from a back problem. Further details were unclear. A senior State Department official said Mr. Xi had also canceled an appearance with Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.
Mr. Xi, who is 59 years old, hasn't appeared since Saturday on the government's official nightly news broadcast, which routinely spotlights the activities of senior leaders.
Aha. Perhaps this really is all about the Diaoyu Islands.
But why would Victoria Nuland, the most official of spokespersons, permit herself to be quoted by name by some reporters (unless we assume they risked banishment by naming her after having promised not to), but not by others, in one or more conversations about this specific topic within the last 24 hours? Isn't it reasonable to infer that there was perhaps another senior Treasury Department official who's also been speaking to the press about this — and if so, is the She Who Must Not Be Named someone who once lived in Arkansas?
This is hugely amusing to me, however it all turns out. If you're still reading this post, you must share my slightly warped sense of humor, or perhaps you just credit the Dems with the same capacity for deviousness that I do.
UPDATE #7 (Wed Sep 5 @ 12:15pm): How hard does BeldarBlog work to find out what the Secretary of State is doing on the opposite side of the globe? I even check the People's Daily Online, the official state-sponsored Chinese newspaper, which does indeed give us another piece of the puzzle, while leaving other questions unanswered:
Clinton arrived in Beijing Tuesday evening for a two-day visit at the invitation of Yang. She met with Chinese President Hu Jintao Wednesday morning and is due to meet with Premier Wen Jiabao, Vice Premier Li Keqiang and State Councilor Dai Bingguo in the afternoon.
So the consolation-prize interview with Vice Premier Li Keqiang took place many hours ago, and with it ended her need to remain in Beijing: It's already 1:15am on Thursday there. Is the SecState airborne already? And if so, are they headed to East Timor, or to North Carolina?
UPDATE #8 (Wed Sep 5 @ 1:40pm):
The LA Times, which I am normally loathe to link, has this:
In a short, frustrating visit to Beijing, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was stood up Wednesday by the future leader of China and delivered a stern lecture on China’s rights in the South China Sea.
During the third stop in her nearly two-week sweep of Asia, Clinton had hoped to meet with Vice President Xi Jinping, who is expected to get the nod next month to succeed Hu Jintao as China's president.
Xi also canceled meetings Wednesday with the Singapore prime minister and Russian officials, claiming a back injury. Nonetheless, the no-show at the session with Clinton was widely interpreted as a snub.
Xi’s cancellation of his meetings Wednesday triggered speculation that something was amiss with his candidacy and censors blocked any reference to “back injury” on the voracious microblog sites.
This is beginning to remind me of Akira Kurosawa's 1950 classic film, Rashomon.
And by the way, the video in the newer WSJ piece I linked above is an interview with their Sydney correspondent; the audio link was quite bad. But he made a determined and impressive case for the proposition that Secretary Clinton's visit to Timor-Leste is actually quite important because that new country has a lot of offshore hydrocarbons that are being developed by consortia which include American companies like Conoco-Philips. Moreover, he argued, a visit from a high-level U.S. diplomat is actually needed to show our support in the face of increased competition or even threat to Timor-Leste by China. That's all perfectly plausible. Yet none of it explains why Secretary Clinton couldn't instead simply make the visit next week after she finishes up in Vladivostok, or some other convenient time this fall.
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(1) Gregory Koster made the following comment | Sep 6, 2012 1:42:19 AM | Permalink
Dear Mr. Dyer: I've never believed in your scenario. Not one iota, tidbit, tad, sop, or bit. But you've put so darn much effort into this that I'm rooting for something to happen just so you get some payoff for all this trouble.
As a useful note, reading this, I suddenly have more sympathy for CIA analysts trying to determine what was going on in the Kremlin ca. 1950s.
CNN reports she's in East Timor.
(3) DRJ made the following comment | Sep 8, 2012 8:30:14 AM | Permalink
Diplomacy isn't Obama's strong suit. The Chinese pwned the Obama Administration, and they used Hillary to do it.
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