The Chinese always test incoming American presidents. George W. Bush had his “EP-3 Hainan Incident” (he announced an US$8 billion arms package for Taiwan); Obama had his “USNS Impeccable” (he ignored it, the Chinese then confronted several other US naval vessels, still nothing; it told them all they needed to know). President-elect Donald Trump had his “sonobuoy” (when he tweeted “We should tell China that we don’t want the drone they stole back — let them keep it!” the Chinese immediately returned the buoy). As Biden prepares his national security team to face its first international crises he should be aware that his Chinese counterparts already have their opening demands for the new president. The first crisis could be with China.
President Trump’s hostility and antagonism toward China is not yet set firmly in concrete for the Biden administration. Thus, China will demand that Trump-era indignities be abandoned as a condition for a return to normal US-China relations. How the new Biden administration deals with Beijing’s demands will set the tone for America’s leadership in the Indo-Pacific.
Because I am an historian, a scholar of modern Chinese foreign policy, and a cynic, I shall call them the “2021 Demands”:
Taiwan Status: The Trump administration’s embrace of Taiwan as political entity separate from Chinese sovereignty has been the most galling to Beijing. Therefore, China’s first demand will be that the new Biden administration repudiate them: Biden must pledge fealty to the “One China Principle” and explicitly accept Chinese sovereignty over Taiwan. They know he has the power to (just as Trump recognized Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem and Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara). Biden must also renounce Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s assertion of November 12, 2020, that “Taiwan has not been a part of China, and that was recognized with the work that the Reagan administration did to lay out the policies that the United States has adhered to now for three and a half decades.” At the very least, Biden must pledge, as Henry Kissinger did in 1971, never again to allude to Taiwan’s “unsettled” international status.
Taiwan Arms Sales: The next most urgent demand will be that the Biden government greatly scale back arms sales to Taiwan. China does not demand an immediate cessation, but wants Biden’s Administration to get back into the habit of agonizing over Taiwan arms sales, especially lethal arms and fighter aircraft. Also, Biden must severely cut the dollar-value of arms sales.
US military presence in Taiwan: Recent news reports of US Marines and Army Rangers training in Taiwan have incensed Beijing. All US military personnel must be withdrawn from Taiwan, including active-duty US military personnel in diplomatic-status with the American Institute in Taiwan. If Biden gives in too easily, China will press for cessation of US Navy transits of the Taiwan Strait and the end of US air surveillance of Chinese air force and naval incursions in Taiwan’s air defense zones.
Taiwan-China Trade: The Trump Administration’s efforts to dismantle China-Taiwan supply chains in advanced technology industries such as semiconductor foundries have been the single most effective policy in alienating China’s hi-tech manufacturing sector from Taiwan. Beijing will demand that Biden quietly back away from Trump’s destructive tactics.
Taiwan Free Trade Agreement: Because Taiwan is part of China, Beijing must demand that the Biden Administration eschew any discussion of a trade agreement with Taiwan. Not only must the new administration prohibit new US Trade Representative-designate Katherine Tai (戴琪) from devoting time or resources to an FTA with Taiwan, Biden must also work to defuse the growing support among congressional democrats for a US-Taiwan FTA. China has no objection to a US-Taiwan free trade arrangement that is 1) brokered through Beijing and 2) grants access to Taiwan rules-of-origin privileges for Chinese goods transshipped through or undergoing substantial transformation in Taiwan.
Taiwan in International Organizations: There will be no further “cooperation with the United States on international challenges” if Washington continues Trump’s advocacy for Taiwan in international organizations. Taiwan’s voice in international organizations is China’s internal affair. China’s new “wolf warrior” envoys will continue their typically-annoying behavior in international organizations like the World Health Organization, International Civil Aviation Organization, and the International Maritime Organization, but also will be sharply vigilant in minor organizations to ensure that the US State Department does not arrogate unto itself the role of being Taiwan’s voice in those agencies. Chinese were alarmed in September that the US ambassador to the United Nations made a public spectacle of her contact with Taiwan’s envoy in New York. The Biden administration will suffer strong Chinese rebuke and will lose China’s “cooperation” should US diplomats overstep their bounds again.
Territorial Issues: Aside from Taiwan and the Taiwan Strait (including Pratas Reef), Beijing will pressure Biden’s Washington to acquiesce to the legitimacy of China’s freedom of action in the South China Sea, East China Sea/Japan, Greater Tibet/India’s Himalayan borderlands. The Trump Administration repudiated China’s claims to South China Sea sovereignty, decried China’s flouting of international maritime law, and ramped up the pace of naval “freedom of navigation operations” in those waters, seriously defaming China’s international prestige. Xi Jinping’s (習近平) Beijing will expect Joe Biden’s Washington to back away from such insults to China’s dignity.
Balancing Diplomacy: The Trump Administration has been rather too effective in drawing together a broad international coalition to counter-balance China’s expanding military and security projection across the Indo-Pacific region from Micronesia to the Indian Ocean’s eastern shores. In October, Secretary of State Pompeo had persuasive meetings in New Delhi, Jakarta and Hanoi. Also in 2020, Pompeo reassembled the US-Japan-Australia-India Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (“The Quad”) after it had been allowed to collapse in the Obama Administration. This Trump-era proto-alliance-building bespeaks a “new Cold War mentality.” Beijing will expect Biden’s Washington to let these coalitions dissipate and cool any partnership with India.
Economic Sanctions: The entire spectrum of Trump-era economic sanctions, and restrictive bans imposed on China’s global telecommunications and transportation empires, such as Huawei, ZTE, Cosco, China Merchants and dozens others, finally began to resonate in Europe, Australasia, India and North America in 2020. Prior to the Trump administration, China had been free to deal with individual economies on a bilateral basis, and thereby had been able to coerce each one piecemeal. China will demand that the Biden Administration cease these Trumpian anti-China actions.
The Chinese Communist Party: China will demand that Biden abjure the Trump Administration’s most annoying habit: referring to “China” as “The Chinese Communist Party” as if they were two separate things. The CCP is “China.” Trump was constantly trying “to drive a wedge between the CCP and the Chinese people and deliberately distort and slander China’s domestic and foreign policy.”
A century ago, rising Imperial Japan proved itself East Asia’s preeminent military power by defeating Manchu China, Tsarist Russia, and Choson Korea, victories which challenged entrenched European influence both in China and throughout the Asian Indies.
By 1910, rising Japan was both feared and admired by all other major powers. Great Britain allied with Meiji (明治) Japan in 1902; at Britain’s urging, Taisho (大正) Japan declared war on Imperial Germany at the beginning of the First World War.
On January 8, 1915, in return for its pleasant troubles in seizing German concessions in China and strategic islands across the Pacific, Japan issued the infamous Twenty-One Demands — not to its European allies — but to what was left of post-dynastic “China” then nominally under President (soon “Emperor”) Yuan Shih-k’ai (袁世凱). Thirteen of Imperial Japan’s “Twenty-One Demands” were uncontroversial, they conceded to Japan only what it had already taken: German ports in China, the South Manchuria Railway from Russia; mineral and military powers in Inner Mongolia. Eight secret demands, however, gave Japan control of the Yuan Shih-k’ai government’s finance and police, and effective control of Fujian province.
The United States protested and Britain, anxious about Japan’s overbearing and bullying diplomacy, pressured Japan. Collectively, the Western Powers far outmatched Japan, even in Asia. In 1919 Japan temporarily relented — only to have its imperial ambitions engulf the entire Pacific in war two decades later.
Twenty-First Century China has learned profound lessons from Twentieth Century Japan’s imperial overreach. Today, China is the world’s largest industrial power. It has the world’s largest navy, the largest army and, even considering America’s large advantage in obsolete nuclear warheads, the world’s most powerful military. In the absence of strong (dare I say “Trumpian”?) leadership from a Biden Administration, China’s “2021 Demands” are not to be restrained by timid and fearful American, European, Indo-Pacific opposition.
John J. Tkacik, Jr. is a retired US foreign service officer who has served in Taipei and Beijing and is now director of the Future Asia Project at the International Assessment and Strategy Center.
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