In February, US President Joe Biden’s administration sent two aircraft carriers to the South China Sea in an escalation of signaling between Washington and Beijing. China is pressing Biden to reverse the across-the-board “confrontational” strategy of former US president Donald Trump’s administration. That would be a mistaken return to failed pre-Trump policies that the new team seems poised to avoid.
Biden is trying to balance several competing imperatives: keeping China at bay, but still in communication while his team develops its own policy, and distinguishing his strategy from that of the administrations of former US president Barack Obama and Trump without scrapping the latter’s important initiatives.
The day after the carrier passages, Biden accepted a telephone conversation that Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) had sought for months, which had been delayed until Washington could consult with US allies — a deliberate departure from the perceived “go-it-alone” Trump style.
Biden wrote on Twitter that he “shared concerns about Beijing’s economic practices, human rights abuses, and coercion of Taiwan. I told him I will work with China when it benefits the American people.”
In a statement on the two-hour conversation, the White House said that Biden “affirmed his priorities of protecting America’s domestic welfare and preserving a free and open Indo-Pacific.”
He “underscored his fundamental concerns about Beijing’s coercive and unfair economic practices, crackdown in Hong Kong, human rights abuses in Xinjiang, and increasingly assertive actions in the region, including toward Taiwan,” it said.
“The Taiwan question and issues relating to Hong Kong, Xinjiang, etc, are China’s internal affairs and concern China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, and the US side should respect China’s core interests and act prudently, Xi stressed,” China’s Xinhua news agency said.
Later that day, Biden visited the Pentagon and announced an expedited review of the US’ defense posture in Asia. The panel would focus on US capabilities to meet the China challenge and be headed by Ely Ratner, US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin’s special assistant for China.
Ratner collaborated with Kurt Campbell, US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan’s Asia director, in a 2018 Foreign Affairs article that might suggest some of Ratner’s thinking in preparing the review. It is unclear what role, if any, Campbell might play, as he was compelled to recuse himself from many China-related issues because of prior business dealings with Chinese entities.
The authors acknowledged that the China engagement policies they long supported are no longer tenable. The view that, beyond building corporate and personal profits and enhancing professional careers, integrating China into the international community would moderate its domestic and international behavior has proved hopelessly naive and mostly irrelevant.
“Nearly half a century since [former US president Richard] Nixon’s first steps toward rapprochement, the record is increasingly clear that Washington once again put too much faith in its power to shape China’s trajectory,” they wrote.
They might have added that the foreign policy establishment also put too little credulity in the permanency of Chinese communism’s malevolent intentions.
In accepting as conventional wisdom that only a few years ago was spurned as outmoded Cold War recidivism, the authors painted with too broad a brush in equating and discarding all prior thinking on the China threat: “All sides of the policy debate erred: free traders and financiers ... integrationists ... and hawks who believed that China’s power would be abated by perpetual American primacy.”
They wrongly conflated US economic and military capabilities with the will to exercise that primacy. Beijing has long doubted the US’ sustained resolve to meet its many challenges across the gamut of national interests. That low opinion of US constancy has been aided by Western intellectual, political and journalistic voices openly questioning whether defending too broadly defined security interests in Asia are worth the economic and human costs.
Saying that “neither carrots nor sticks have swayed China as predicted,” Ratner and Campbell wrongly compared more than four decades of misguided engagement policies with the brief period of comprehensive challenge under the Trump administration, which had been in office for little over a year when the article was published.
The experience of Trump’s full term should have demonstrated the relative effectiveness of a more realistic, interests and values-driven approach to the China challenge.
In adopting the “clear-eyed rethinking” that the article urges, Ratner surely would stress the need to augment the meritorious elements of the Trump administration’s policies with stronger cooperation among allies and security partners, although Trump’s team did far more in that regard than is acknowledged — eg, the US “quad” relations with Australia, Japan and India.
Meanwhile, there have been mixed, but mostly positive, signals from the Biden administration, especially regarding Taiwan, which Beijing has made a flash point for a US-China conflict.
In addition to Biden highlighting Taiwan with Xi, the de facto Taiwanese ambassador, Representative to the US Hsiao Bi-khim (蕭美琴), met with US officials last week. The US Department of State said it showed “the US is deepening ties with Taiwan, a leading democracy and important economic and security partner.”
Biden missed an opportunity to further strengthen Taiwan-US ties and enhance Taiwanese and US security when he said during his Pentagon visit: “I will never hesitate to use force to defend the vital interests of American people and our allies around the world when necessary.”
Had he included “security partners” in the US defense commitment, it would have subtly ended the strategic ambiguity that keeps China planning and preparing to attack Taiwan.
Biden also pleased Beijing by rescinding Trump’s national security restrictions on TikTok and WeChat, and a requirement that US universities disclose their contractual arrangements with Chinese entities, such as the Confucius Institutes.
Two US officials annoyed China by pushing back on its dishonest behavior. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken had a “frank and tough” telephone conversation with Chinese Office of the Central Commission for Foreign Affairs Director Yang Jiechi (楊潔篪) and laid out the US position on Taiwan and other issues.
Yang told him bluntly: “Let’s each manage our own business.”
At the same time, Beijing criticized Sullivan for “pointing fingers” when he said the WHO report on the origin of COVID-19 would be credible only if it were not subject to “alteration by the Chinese government.”
If the steady, straight talk from Biden, Blinken and Sullivan continues, it will be an improvement over the hot-and-cold rhetoric from Trump that alternately reinforced and undermined the historic advances made by his foreign policy and national security appointees. That would be a welcome demonstration of bipartisan unity on the US’ greatest existential danger.
Joseph Bosco served as China country director in the office of the US secretary of defense. He is a fellow at the Institute for Taiwan-American Studies and a member of the advisory committee of the Global Taiwan Institute.
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