Biden’s 100 days: hawkish approach to China stokes Beijing frictions

This is part of a series on Joe Biden’s first 100 days in office

From his first call with President Xi Jinping to an extraordinary spat between US and Chinese diplomats in Alaska, Joe Biden’s hawkish stance on China has been much closer to that of his predecessor Donald Trump than experts had predicted.

In his first 100 days in office, Biden castigated China for cracking down on Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement, persecuting Uyghurs in Xinjiang, and military activity near Taiwan that has raised the spectre of war.

In Alaska last month, his secretary of state and national security adviser raised these issues in public opening remarks, triggering a 16-minute diatribe from the Chinese that underscored how Sino-US relations were in for a rocky ride.

“What the Biden team has been trying to do is set a new normal in the relationship where leaders in Beijing understand there’s going to be friction and that Chinese pressure on the US or its allies and partners is not going to make the US back away,” said Zack Cooper, an Asia expert at the American Enterprise Institute think-tank.

Biden has shown little interest in engaging with China on a range of critical issues as he works to strengthen the US domestically to demonstrate the resilience of its democracy, and to bolster alliances. The aim is to create additional leverage that will ultimately force China to change its behaviour.

“[China] came in with an idea of . . . resetting things . . . to either rewind the clock in some way or just blame the Trump administration for all the ills,” a senior US official told the Financial Times. “It was important to be able to make clear early on that was not the way this was going to go.”

Speaking at the Aspen Security Forum on Friday, Jake Sullivan, US national security adviser, said the Biden team would remain firm in its approach to Beijing.

“The goal is not to contain China. It’s not to start a new Cold War. It’s not to get into conflict,” Sullivan said. “It’s to compete vigorously and to push back in service of our values and what we believe to be universal values.”

Beyond his human rights stance, Biden has kept a strong military presence in the South China Sea, reaffirmed “rock solid” support for Taiwan, and reaffirmed its commitment to defending Japan, a US defence treaty ally.

But in areas such as trade, Biden has shown no sign of lifting tariffs that Trump levied on Chinese exports. His team is reviewing Trump-era moves on technology but most measures have not been reversed. He has also placed Chinese firms on an export blacklist, a tool often used by Trump.

“I’m not surprised Biden has emphasised democratic values by criticising China on Hong Kong or Uyghur policy because Democrats tend to emphasise values,” said Ling Chen, a China expert at Johns Hopkins University. “But I’m surprised that on economic and tech policy, Biden has largely adopted the Trump tradition.”

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Alex Wong, a former Trump administration official now with the Hudson Institute think-tank, said he was pleased Biden had “shown a lot of continuity” with his predecessor. “China and our partners in the region needed to hear that this is not just a Trump administration phenomenon,” he said.

Yet there are also significant differences. Biden has worked hard to repair alliances that weakened during Trump’s presidency. Underscoring the importance of the Indo-Pacific region, the first foreign leader to visit the White House was Japanese prime minister Yoshihide Suga. South Korean president Moon Jae-in will become the second next month.

Biden convened the first leader-level summit of the Quad, which comprises the US, Japan, India and Australia, even if the widely-praised vaccine diplomacy strategy it crafted has been hit by India’s coronavirus crisis.

“When America shows up and we roll up our sleeves and work with allies . . . we can still galvanise democratic like-minded nations,” the US official said.

Following their summit, Biden and Suga issued a joint statement that included support for Taiwan, the first time the two nations had done so since 1969. The US also co-ordinated with the UK, EU and Canada to impose sanctions on Chinese officials over China’s repression of Uyghurs.

“[The Biden team] has done an incredibly good job beginning the process of strengthening alliances,” said Bonnie Glaser, a China expert at the German Marshall Fund of the US, noting how Beijing had long feared the formation of anti-China coalitions. “The Chinese are worried,” she added.

Yet while Biden has won praise, he has not articulated a clear vision for what he wants to achieve in an engagement phase. The US official said that, for now, co-operation would be limited to addressing climate change and on the nuclear security challenges posed by Iran and North Korea.

“That’s largely the immediate menu. But we certainly have been . . . undertaking an effort to methodically walk through what are our interests, what are their interests and where might they intersect,” she said.

In addition to questions about how Biden will handle technology-related national security challenges, experts are waiting to see what more action he will take on Xinjiang after calling the abuse of Uyghurs “genocide”.

Jessica Chen Weiss, a China expert at Cornell University, said it was also unclear whether actions such as the co-ordinated sanctions would cause Beijing to change its behaviour.

“Whether that has the ultimate effect of changing Chinese behaviour in the areas that the Biden administration has singled out, particularly on human rights, remains to be seen,” she said, pointing out that the Chinese response had not been to change course but to impose retaliatory sanctions.

While allies have welcomed the overall US move to re-engage, they do have some concerns, including that Biden’s strategy in the Indo-Pacific is too focused on security and not enough on economics. Biden is unlikely to join any big trade pacts due to domestic political pressure and his view that foreign policy must help the American middle class.

“It’s not clear the foreign policy for the middle-class [strategy] is going to be compatible with the trade and investment approach that most of our allies and partners in Asia want,” said Cooper.

Political dynamics in both countries also suggest it may be some time before Washington and Beijing reach a detente, according to Craig Allen, president of the US-China Business Council.

“In November 2022, Biden faces a difficult must-win midterm election. In October or November 2022, Xi must manage a difficult National Party Congress, which may very well re-elect him for another five-year term,” he said.

“Until these two political events take place, there may not be a lot of room for compromise.”

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