The China Conundrum for Biden

Breakfast with Bwana

By Anil Madan

If one were to make a list of the greatest challenges facing President Biden, surely China would be in the top three, if not at the very top. Dealing with China is no easy task because, as Secretary of State Anthony Blinken mentioned the other day, America’s relationship with China involves adversarial aspects, competitive ones, and cooperative ones involving mutual interest. Frequently, the right response in any of these aspects can complicate the other aspects of the relationship and a delicate rebalancing and tempering of how we deal with China is necessary.

Secretary Blinken allowed that President Trump was right to take a tougher approach to China. But, he added, the way Trump went about it, in his judgment, was wrong across the board.

This must have delighted Yang Jiechi, the chief foreign policy advisor to President Xi Jinping who told Blinken in a recent call that the US must “correct recent mistakes, and work with China to promote the healthy and stable development of China-US relations by upholding the spirit of non-conflict, non-confrontation, mutual respect and win-win cooperation.” So Blinken effectively began his term as Secretary of State by declaring that the previous administration was “wrong across the board” in a tacit endorsement of China’s complaint. Certainly, Blinken did say that the US has to engage China from a position of strength. But make no mistake, Yang’s words mean that America should engage with China on China’s terms.

How the US navigates the shoals of this relationship will have profound consequences not only for the US but for many other countries that look to the US for leadership and support. India, Japan, Australia, Bhutan, Nepal, virtually every African country, and all nations in the Pacific Ocean are affected.

Existential threat

Almost a half-century has lapsed since President Nixon embarked on a trip to mainland China, the first publicized outreach to the Communist nation from the US. which had been content, up to that point, to act as if China did not exist. In economic and military terms, perhaps China did not have a sufficient footprint in the 1970s to worry western nations. Certainly, anyone suggesting that China presented an existential threat to any country other than Taiwan, would have been dismissed as an alarmist. Indeed, China’s military skirmishes of the 1960s with India had not produced any large-scale conquest and its struggling economy was inconsequential against the combined force of the American, British and European economies. 

Winston Lord, a member of the National Security Council’s planning staff who accompanied Nixon on that historic 1972 trip, had previously been to China together with Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to lay the groundwork for Nixon’s visit. Lord recounts that the Chinese were anxious to make it appear that it was Nixon who wanted to visit China and the Chinese were gracious enough to invite him. Eventually, Kissinger and the Chinese agreed to a statement that went along the lines of “Knowing of President Nixon’s interest in visiting China…” the Chinese government had invited him.

It is not unusual to see the Chinese engaged in what they consider “face-saving” diplo speak over the most trivial matters to the point of being childish about it. It is also a fair observation that President Nixon’s overture to China was infused with a bit of American naïveté — after all, wasn’t allowing China to engage more freely with the world an act of America’s generosity? America was going to “admit” China into the world community. In fact, well before that trip to China in 1972, Nixon went so far as to state after his election in 1968: “There is no place on this small planet for a billion of its potentially most able people to live in angry isolation.” Some have even referred to these somewhat delusional thoughts as emanating from a certain presumptuousness about America’s role in the world. If the nations of the world, large and small, were tectonic plates, America could cause tremors that would shift them as it desired.

As laughable and naive as the expectation was that an act of imagined American largesse would erase the anger of the Chinese at their isolation, who would have thought that not quite fifty years later, China would be openly drawing red lines and threatening war over them? Who would have thought that China would be seen as an existential threat by many nations including America itself? The tectonic plates have indeed shifted, temblors have been felt and earthquakes are in the offing.

Hark back to just ten days after the presidential election in the US when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared: “Taiwan has not been a part of China.” Pompeo went on to parse the American position as merely being an acknowledgment of China’s position that Taiwan is a part of China, rather than an explicit recognition of the validity of China’s claim. Pompeo also underscored that the US is “bound by law to provide Taiwan with the means to defend itself.”

As might be expected, this outraged the Chinese Communist Party. But what was surprising was that even as spokespersons for the CCP have become quite a bit more belligerent in their outrage, they had not totally abandoned diplo speak. Wang Wenbin, a foreign ministry spokesman repeated words that might as well be a coda to the Chinese national anthem: “Taiwan is an inalienable part of China.” But he went on to say that Pompeo was further damaging Sino-US ties. China has imposed sanctions on US companies that are selling weapons to Taiwan and has repeatedly flown its fighter jets near Taiwan and particularly when US officials visited the Taiwanese capital. 

Taiwan does not, of course, consider itself a part of the People’s Republic of China, declared a Taiwan foreign ministry spokesperson, and added: “Taiwan is a sovereign, independent country.” 

One has to acknowledge that the US has walked a fine line in seemingly accepting a one-China policy while nurturing Taiwan’s hopes for an eventual recognition of its independent national status.

As 2020 came to a close, Japan’s State Minister of Defense Nakayama declared: “There’s a red line in Asia – China and Taiwan. How will Joe Biden in the White House react in any case if China crosses this red line?” He added: “The United States is the leader of the democratic countries. I have a strong feeling to say: America, be strong.” Japan also maintains a one-China policy. Minister Nakayama also called for a clear statement by Biden of where the US stands on its next leg of its China policy so that Japan could prepare its own response accordingly.

The Chinese rejoinder to all statements of this type is to issue a passive-aggressive declaration that outsiders should not interfere in its internal affairs. “Taiwan is China’s internal affair. We firmly oppose interference in China’s internal affairs by any country or anyone by any means.” Of course, we have heard similar statements over the years from China whenever it seeks to deflect criticism of its military, humanitarian, trade, or other predatory practices. 

Passive-aggressive approach

China’s passive-aggressive approach has now tilted more to the aggressive side. Earlier this month, China warned Taiwan that “independence means war” and justified having sent multiple fighter jets and bombers into Taiwan’s ADIZ as a “response to provocation and foreign interference.”

Yang Jiechi elaborated on just what China seeks. Aside from the obligatory admonition that the US must stop meddling in China’s internal affairs, he added: “We expect the United States to honour its commitment under the three Sino-US Joint Communiqués. We ask the US to strictly abide by the One China principle, and respect China’s position and concerns on the Taiwan question.

  • “The United States should stop interference in the affairs of Hong Kong, Tibet, and Xinjiang.
  • “These matter to China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.
  • “The US must stop attempts to hold back China’s development by meddling in China’s internal affairs.”

But then, he added ominously, that interference from the US in Hong Kong, Tibet, and Xinjiang affairs were a “red line that must not be crossed”.

It is not so long ago that President Obama declared a “red line” that wasn’t when he warned Syria about chemical weapons. 

What is interesting here is that Yang did not include Taiwan in the issues that constitute a red line. All of this brings to a head how the Biden administration should go about structuring its China policy.

In today’s piece, we have room for an overview and in future writings, will have an opportunity to explore policy choices in more detail.

Breaking the US-China relationship by reference to its adversarial, competitive, and cooperative aspects is certainly reasonable. For one thing, it gets us away from the Trump approach which focused almost entirely on the trade imbalance in favour of China and helps to focus our attention on the fact that this is a multidimensional issue with strategic, economic, cultural, social, humanitarian, security, and even existential overtones. The implications for emergence from the coronavirus pandemic, dealing with climate change, and geopolitical security are immense.

It is easy to say that the relationship has to be based on mutual respect. Clearly, neither side respects the other in the sense that respect means admiration. China seems to approach respect as meaning how much deference the US should show to China’s worldview, feelings and wishes.

Responsible super power

It is also clear that for the US-China relationship to be constructive, there has to be trust between the two. Of course, trust is all but missing from this relationship.

Solving the problem of channelling China’s behaviour to the point of having a responsible and dependable partner working cooperatively with the US and other nations to address common problems and advance the welfare of all people in the world would be much easier if the US were not so dependent on China for manufactured goods. American companies and American financial firms are deeply entrenched in China. Apple, a major American company gets a sizable portion of its production from China.

So long as the US and American business interests are unwilling to give up their cozy dependence on China and its cheap labour, China has far greater leverage in the overall relationship than does the US. This is, of course, short-sighted thinking on the American side. We have seen how China has grown at America’s expense when both countries should have grown while mutually embracing fairness in trade and development not only for both their economies, but for the rest of the world.

China saw that it could get away with its abuses in Tibet. Certainly, the US was not about to engage militarily with China over Tibet but its response has ranged from non-existent to ineffective. China throws one of its diplo speak childish tantrums when the Dalai Lama visits the US or any other country and even if he visits certain regions of India – a country that hosts him in exile. In the past, China even deigned to warn the US not to support any separationist activities in advance of a visit by the Taiwanese president. Now, China has disregarded its accord with Britain on the guarantees it made to maintain Hong Kong’s democratic setup and thumbs its nose at Britain and the US. 

There is, however, a glimmer of hope. One of Yang Jiechi’s statements was: “Each side should focus on taking care of its own domestic affairs. China will firmly continue down the path of socialism with Chinese characteristics and no one can stop the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” Socialism with Chinese characteristics obviously means a repressive society within China. This includes Hong Kong but it doesn’t have to include China. The US is hardly in a position to change China’s path to socialism or its “Chinese characteristics” whatever that means other than a repressive society.

The US would do well to concede the point but at a cost to China. The continuation of US imports of Chinese produced goods depends on leaving Taiwan alone. After all, Taiwan is a major customer of US products including military supplies.

The problems of intellectual property theft and abuse of China’s neighbours including Nepal, Bhutan and India are serious American concerns.

Undoubtedly, there will come a time when China will claim that its incursions into Bhutan, Nepal, even India, are “internal” matters. And what if Sri Lanka or Kenya should default on the “loans” extended by China for infrastructure projects? What is a Sri Lankan or Kenyan court should rule that such loans are unconscionable and involve unenforceable penalty clauses? Would that too be an “internal” Chinese matter?

There is much room to build a constructive relationship with China. The US will undoubtedly be the driver on the world stage of the nature of that relationship. The first task is to set the ground rules, something that has been missing to this point.


* Published in print edition on 23 February 2021

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