Beijing’s Early Reactions to the Biden Administration: Strategic Continuity and Tactical Change
The following is the full text of ASPI President Kevin Rudd's prepared remarks, which he delivered in part during an Asia Society virtual discussion on March 18, 2021.
Put it down to bad timing on my part.
As we gather here this evening to reflect on early Chinese reactions to the Biden administration, Tony Blinken and Jake Sullivan are experiencing all that first hand, literally as we speak, in Anchorage, Alaska.
So if I get it all wrong tonight, we can be confident that you will read all about it in tomorrow morning’s media. Except, of course, in the Murdoch media, where, of course, I’m always wrong.
The meeting on March 18 in Anchorage between U.S. Secretary of State Blinken and National Security Advisor Sullivan, together with Chinese politburo member Yang Jiechi and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi is no ordinary meeting.
The last time the U.S. secretary of state and national security advisor met with their Chinese counterparts together was in the context of President Trump’s “state visit plus” to Beijing in November 2017. That was three and a half years ago.
With the single exception of then Secretary of State Pompeo’s one-on-one meeting with Yang Jiechi in Honolulu last year, the last time we had an interruption in high-level political dialogue of the type now underway in Alaska between China and the U.S. was in the period following Tiananmen in 1989. Three and a half years is a long time between drinks.
The Trump administration suspended the strategic and economic dialogue with Beijing from early 2017. But apart from President Xi’s early visit to Mar-a-Lago, followed by President Trump‘s visit to Beijing later that year, there has been a near total drought in high-level political contact between the two sides. The only track left open was the trade track with USTR Lighthizer at one end and Vice Premier Liu He at the other. And their job was to manage the U.S.-China trade war.
This can create a problem in the management of great power relations in any age. The Trump administration had its reasons for suspending high-level diplomatic contact with Beijing. But the problem is that when countries go on radio silence with each other, and we are left primarily in the hands of the Chinese propaganda department on the one hand and President Trump’s Twitter account on the other, it can create unnecessary complications, drama, and crisis in a relationship which was already difficult to manage in the first place.
So in all this I confess to be on the side of Winston Churchill and his long-famous aphorism that it’s generally better to “jaw jaw than to war war.”
Of course, that assumes that the “jaw jaw” has real substance to it, that it’s not just an exercise in diplomatic deception and subterfuge, that both sides have real messages to convey to each other and that these are conveyed and communicated with clarity and effect.
The time has come for a serious dose of reality therapy for this most critical of relationships. Gone are the days when one side could assume that the other side was too stupid to understand what was actually going on in the real world of security and economic policy action on the ground. Both systems are now sufficiently sophisticated that the mouthing of platitudes will no longer suffice for substantive communication.
Second, both sides of course have their messaging needs for their domestic political constituencies. But, at this stage of the relationship’s evolution, to conflate public messaging with the cold, hard reality of substantive diplomatic engagement is counterproductive.
Finally, for both Secretary Blinken and National Security Advisor Sullivan, there is also a further imperative. In Xi Jinping’s China, most of Xi’s senior officials are terrified of him. They are highly unlikely therefore to be providing frank and fearless advice internally. Under these circumstances it’s critical that Chinese intermediaries are able to convey accurately and concisely messages they are receiving from their American counterparts directly to China’s paramount leader himself. In the Chinese system, Xi Jinping is the decision-maker. Nobody else.
For these reasons, this meeting in Anchorage may primarily end up being a dialogue about the terms, expectations, and mechanisms for future dialogue. Not thrilling for the fourth estate. But in itself no bad thing.
I wish all four diplomats well. I have known each of them for many years. There is a lot of conceptual, analytical and practical grunt in that room.
The Trump Inheritance
The purpose of my remarks today is not to provide gratuitous public advice to either side about how they should conduct their bilateral relationship.
I have written recently and extensively on my proposal for “managed strategic competition” between Washington and Beijing — as outlined in my recent essay in the February edition of Foreign Affairs — which argues that there should be an agreed, joint strategic framework between the two countries at the highest political and diplomatic level that is capable of embracing three things simultaneously: strategic red lines concerning each country’s core national interests; the vast open spaces of strategic competition which now present themselves across the economy, foreign policy, and the rest of security policy; as well as providing political space for strategic cooperation where each country’s national interests align and where there is a global interest at stake, for example in the case of climate change. Much easier said than done. Operationalizing such a concept would be difficult but, in my judgement, doable. And I still don't see a credible strategic alternative on offer — short of appeasement in one direction and confrontation, conflict, and war in the other.
My purpose today is much more limited in scope. It is simply to describe, and to analyze where I can, how Xi Jinping’s administration is responding to President Biden’s new team in the several months which have now elapsed since the election last November. In doing so, I will look at three things:
- China’s changing official commentary on its overall national security environment;
- China’s statements and comments directed specifically at the future of the US-China relationship; and
- What Chinese political, military and economic actors have been actually doing in the real world over the last several months which give us some indication of where Chinese strategic behavior is really up to.
Neither the Chinese nor the American sides begin with a blank sheet of paper. China, the United States, the region, and the world have all changed radically since the halcyon days of 2016.
Over the last five years, Xi Jinping has taken his country further to the left in its domestic politics, to the left in its domestic political economy, and to the right in its promotion of Chinese nationalism. As a result, Xi is now more powerful than ever. This is despite a number of self-inflicted wounds in China’s emerging economic model and despite open criticism of his leadership during the first half of last year when the COVID crisis was at its worst.
Xi’s China, having so far navigated the virus successfully, and with its economy now roaring back to life in most but not all sectors, has emerged more self-confident than ever. This has been reinforced by blanket media coverage through the Chinese propaganda apparatus of the spectacular failures in the U.S. and much of the rest of the West in pandemic management. Indeed, the level of China’s self-confidence at present is problematic as it may blind some Chinese leaders to the extent of China’s own continuing domestic and international vulnerabilities, just as they may also be blinded to America’s ability to rebuild its economy, politics, and global standing.
Prior to the virus torpedoing both countries, from Beijing’s perspective, much of the bilateral relationship had already collapsed as a result of the trade war, the imposition of a range of technology sanctions against Chinese firms and the suspension of high-level strategic dialogue. The White House signing ceremony in January 2020 for the “phase one” trade deal was seen in Beijing as a national humiliation. It received virtually zero media coverage at home. Indeed, Xi Jinping had told his Politburo several months earlier when an earlier draft agreement had been rejected by the Chinese side that the Party needed “to prepare for another 30 years of American provocation” and that the country now needed to embark on a new economic strategy of “national self-reliance.”
On foreign policy, at one level, Beijing was delighted by President Trump’s profound disinterest in human rights. They were also delighted by Trump’s paper-thin measures adopted in response to the Chinese crackdown in Hong Kong with the new national security law of June 2020. Although they were apoplectic in response to Secretary of State Pompeo’s free-riding on Taiwan policy, which had the effect, in their view, of undermining the integrity of the “One China policy.” Overall, however, Beijing believed Donald Trump was a paper tiger on any question of hard national security, having read his language and behavior carefully over both Syria and North Korea, and concluded that Trump would never take up arms against “his great personal friend Xi Jinping.” For these reasons, and because Trump had weakened the U.S. alliance structure in both Europe and Asia, the Chinese national security hardheads, despite all of Trump’s unpredictability, would on balance have preferred to see his re-election rather than the Biden alternative.
By the time of Biden’s election, from Beijing’s perspective, the deep fabric of the bilateral relationship had already been torn apart. Once again, the national security hardheads saw this as an inevitable structural change in the underlying terms of the relationship as the balance of power gradually shifted in China’s favor. The same hardheads also saw that there had been a sea change in American public opinion towards China, leaving negligible political space for the Democrats to improve the relationship even if the Democrats wanted to. They concluded there would be some tactical shifts in the Biden administration’s policy approach to Beijing. But they also recognized that the fundamental directional change that had been put in place, with the 2017 National Security Strategy defining China as a strategic competitor, was likely to remain in place under the Democrats, albeit through a more disciplined, whole-of-administration strategy. And on this, the Chinese, basically, are being proven right.
The bottom line is that across the multiple measures put in place by the Trump administration in trade, investment, technology, individual sanctions, Taiwan, student and journalist visas, and consulate closures, practically all these measures have so far remained in place under Biden.
Two months into the administration, tariffs remain in place. Some technology bans have been strengthened, while a limited number of others have been placed under review. The number of sanctioned individuals has increased as retaliation for recent changes to the Hong Kong electoral law. One category of student visa bans has been deferred while the others remain in place. And the consulates that have been shuttered remain shuttered.
For those interested in the detail of each of these measures, there is an attachment to the written version of this speech which may be useful. It makes for sobering reading of where the relationship has gone to over the last several years.
But this indeed reflects much of the substance of this much diminished U.S.-China relationship as of mid-March 2021 as the secretary of state and the national security advisor sit down with their Chinese counterparts in Anchorage.
China’s Changing Official Language on National Security
So how is the Chinese official media describing China’s national security circumstances and does it really matter what the Chinese official media have to say.
In the Chinese political system, the “line” approved by the propaganda apparatus on any policy actually matters because it signals to the party membership where major changes are occurring and/or where new emphases are emerging. With a party membership of around 90 million, internal documents cannot be relied on alone to communicate the center’s political and policy direction to its foot soldiers. Also, in an increasingly controlled media space, the broader public must also understand the acceptable parameters for public discussion.
In other words, the party’s official language is a useful barometer of changing Party thematics on the broader question of U.S.-China relations, although it is always hazardous to reach any policy conclusions of a more granular nature simply from a survey of the official literature.
A fuller, but by no means complete picture, is likely to emerge when official statements and commentary are meshed with concrete policy actions taken by the Chinese party-state on the ground. Even then, however, we will have only part of the picture in the political culture of a Leninist party, which for one hundred years has prided itself on its culture of absolute secrecy.
The core political messages conveyed in the Party’s “inward-facing” statements on national security and commentary over the several months since Biden’s election are as follows:
- First, that despite the current turbulence in international relations, there is an inexorable trend that favors China. As Xi himself said in January 2021: “the world is in a turbulent time that is unprecedented in the past century…but time and momentum are on our side.” In an earlier message in January, Xi had also said that “as changes to the global structure accelerate, China’s rule is in sharp contrast with the turmoil in the West.” Or as Chen Yixin of the Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission said more graphically: “the rise of the East and the decline of the West (dongsheng xijiang) has become a global trend and changes in the international landscape are in our favor.”[i]
- Second, despite these deep trends in China’s favor, Xi warned that the Party’s “political and law enforcement work faces new risks and challenges” causing his lieutenants to demand “strengthening in the evaluation of risks” and, using the ideological vernacular of Marxism-Leninism, a “curbing [of] major new hidden contradictions” that threaten the system both from within and without. Once again, Chen Yixin made plain that “U.S. suppression is a major threat” to China.[ii]
- Third, given these threats, Chen, on Xi’s behalf, reminded the party that “security is now the cornerstone of development” and that “without security we cannot achieve anything.” This “securitization” of the entire policy agenda of the Party includes “economic security” which has become the new rationalization of Xi’s 2020 doctrine of “national self-reliance” in everything. This would also necessitate a further strengthening of domestic law enforcement against threats to political security, including for the first time what Guo Shengkun refers to as the “extraterritorial application of Chinese laws.”[iii]
- Fourth, these domestic and international threats and their impact on national security writ large mean that China must now engage in protracted “struggle” or douzheng against its adversaries. This term is important in both Chinese domestic and international behavior. Again, it proceeds directly from Marxist-Leninist orthodoxy and is understood to be the necessary response to the emergence of “contradictions.” Struggle can be both violent and non-violent within the framework of Chinese Marxist ideology and in the lived history of the Chinese Communist Party. Significantly, on March 1, 2021 Xi Jinping delivered a speech to the Central Party School in which he urged cadres to “dare to struggle,” and said that “struggle is how our party got to where it is today,” and that “we must rely on struggle to win the future.” Equally significantly, nowhere does Xi identify that the “struggle” he is calling for should be nonviolent in nature.[iv]
- Fifth, Xi’s new emphasis on threats to security at home and abroad and the need to struggle against these threats has also been translated directly into the military sphere. In his address to military delegates to the March 2021 National People’s Congress, Xi Jinping stated bluntly that the “the current security situation of our country is largely uncertain and unstable” and that the military must therefore enhance its combat readiness. General Xu Qiliang, the vice chair of the Central Military Commission, at the same meeting stated for the first time that “in the face of Thucydides Trap and [China’s] border problems, the military must accelerate increasing its capacity” — although, given China’s GDP growth, Xu said, China was already “standing on the edge of a new chapter of strength.” On top of this, Defense Minister Wei Fenghe stated that strategic confrontation with the U.S. had now entered a period of essentially equal balance and stalemate and that “containment and counter-containment will be the main theme of bilateral ties in the long term.”[v]
- Finally, all these factors have come together in hardline language on Taiwan. At the same March session of the NPC, Foreign Minister Wang Yi stated bluntly that “the two sides of the Taiwan Strait must be and will surely be reunified” and that this too, deploying the Marxist-Leninist language of historical determinism, was “the trend of history and the collective will of the entire Chinese nation.” And in the context of U.S.-China relations, Wang added that this was “a red line that should not be crossed,” and where there was “no room for compromise.”[vi]
These are the six major themes now alive in China’s foreign and security policy discourse. The question arises, of course, as to what they actually mean in the context of U.S.-China relations. This is a complex question in terms of both domestic and international signaling by the Chinese party-state.
While the language about the “rise of the East and the decline of the West” is relatively new in the current context, variations on this theme have been used by Xi in the past, although not with its current frequency and intensity. It was also a favored phrase of Mao.
The language on the need to face “Thucydides Trap” rather than avoid it is for the Chinese military also new, as is the language on Chinese-American military parity and the reality of military confrontation.
As for the other formulations I have referred to on the new threats China faces, the new premium on security, the reality of the new contradictions it now confronts and the centrality of struggle, these too have been used before, albeit sparsely. However, they now litter the official discourse.
Overall, the changing tone of the official commentary appears to represent a number of trends. It is designed to signal domestic political confidence at a time when the Chinese people have been under duress during much of 2020 with both COVID and economic contraction. At the same time, however, the repeated language about domestic threats to security also seems to reflect a high degree of regime anxiety about the underlying strength of its rule. In this context, the graphic depiction of the great external threat of the United States is designed to further justify the securitization of everything. While these are all domestic political interpretations of China’s changing national security discourse, we would be foolish to ignore them. The bottom line is that Xi Jinping’s external security discourse is measurably hardening, also making it more difficult over time for the system to compromise on any critical future challenge on Taiwan, the South China Sea, or even the East China Sea.
China’s Official Commentary on the Biden Administration
Beyond these general positions on Chinese national security, as reflected in the party’s official media over recent months, there have also been a number of specific statements and commentaries on the Biden administration itself. Unremarkably, these have generally been more accommodating in both tone and content than the hardline realpolitik reflected above. China’s overriding interests have been to re-stabilize the relationship strategically, reduce the risk of unintended crises (principally in the near term over Taiwan) and to achieve these objectives by re-establishing more regular mechanisms of high-level political dialogue. By and large, these are tactical objectives. Thus far, however, they do not foreshadow any fundamental shift in Chinese strategy.
Following the November 2020 presidential elections, Chinese officials began their commentary on the state of the U.S.-China relationship by blaming the Americans for bringing the relationship to its lowest level in half a century, calling on Washington to recognize the errors of its ways and rebuild the relationship in the spirit of “no conflict, no confrontation, mutual respect, and win-win cooperation.” From Washington’s perspective, this was not an entirely persuasive opening foray in the re-stabilizing process. It was seen as catering to the needs of China’s domestic political narrative rather than addressing China’s own responsibility for the deterioration of the relationship.
Foreign Minister Wang Yi was first out of the blocks on this in his Asia Society address on December 18, 2020. His formulation was a familiar one: calling on the Americans to de-ideologize the relationship by respecting China’s domestic political model; to respect China’s domestic sovereignty and territorial integrity (code language for Xinjiang, Tibet, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and the South and East China Seas); to remove trade sanctions; to avoid maritime confrontation; and to restore people-to-people exchanges.
Yang Jiechi followed with a similar speech to the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations not long after the Biden inauguration, in which he launched a full-scale attack on the Trump administration’s mismanagement of the relationship — including Trumpian decoupling, the threat of a “new Cold War,” and Trump’s Taiwan policy. This speech had followed a Chinese decision announced on January 19 to impose personal sanctions on 28 individuals from the Trump administration who had “seriously violated Chinese sovereignty.” This was the first time that China had imposed sanctions on individuals in this way, reflecting its declared intention to engage in “the extra-territorial application of Chinese law.” Despite the Biden administration’s lack of affection for team Trump, however, once again this was not a winning formula in Washington as Beijing sought to drive a crude wedge between Republicans and Democrats on China strategy, ignoring the fact that the one thing that has united Republicans and Democrats over the previous four years had been China. Instead the new Democrat administration attacked China’s actions against the 28 Republicans.
Yang also traversed China’s long-standing argument that the “root cause” of the deterioration in the U.S.-China relationship was a “strategic misjudgment by some in the U.S. who view China as a strategic competitor or even adversary.” The reality is that this “misunderstanding” argument has zero traction in Washington. But post-COVID it also has zero traction across the rest of America. And it now sits uncomfortably with the public language of Xi Jinping and China’s military leadership at the most recent NPC speaking in direct terms of America’s decline, China’s rise, and the regional military parity and/or superiority that China has achieved. Chinese diplomats understand that this combined narrative of American strategic misunderstanding of Chinese intentions, grave American policy errors, and the need for the Americans to now repent of their mistaken ways is no longer of any practical use. The fact that it is still used, however, is a reflection of the rigid articulation of a long-standing foreign policy dogma and domestic political narrative that has now passed its use-by date.
By the time these early Chinese efforts to return the bilateral relationship to the status quo ante began to stall, both Wang and Yang reached elsewhere into their diplomatic toolkit to trial other ideas on how the relationship could be revived under the new administration. Wang Yi had already floated in his Asia Society address the idea of categorizing the relationship into three baskets: strategic red lines which could not be crossed; those areas where competition would be normal; and those other areas where the traditional cooperation agenda could apply. Indeed, this type of formulation would also be found in Secretary of State Tony Blinken’s first foreign policy speech on February 3 and his own elegant formulation that “our relationship with China will be competitive when it should be, collaborative when it can be, and adversarial where it must be.” Yang Jiechi on February 2 had also identified those specific areas where “mutually beneficial cooperation ought to be broadened,” including climate, pandemics, global macroeconomic coordination, and cyber. Even Xi Jinping in his January 25 Davos address began advocating “fair competition” with the U.S. “like competing with each other for excellence in a racing field, not beating each other in a wrestling arena.” In other words, Xi, Yang, and Wang were beginning to adjust the historical official Chinese narrative from one of global harmony, blissful cooperation, and a wonderful world of win-win, to one which begins publicly to recognize the fundamentally realist nature of the strategic competition which has long been underway between China and the United States.
The third stage in the evolution of China’s official discourse on the bilateral relationship came with the two-hour-long telephone conversation between Xi and Biden on February 10. An earlier call on February 7 between Yang and Blinken had not gone well. Yang had warned Blinken that “no one can stop the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” Meanwhile, the secretary of state returned diplomatic fire that the U.S. “would hold Beijing accountable for its abuses of the international system.” President Biden himself added in a CNBC interview that “there's going to be extreme competition” with China under his administration, but that as “I've said to [Xi] all along that we need not have a conflict.” He added that “I'm not going to do it the way Trump did. We're going to focus on international rules of the road.”
But just two days later, a slightly different tone appears to have been struck between Xi and Biden in their February 10 call. According to the American readout, Biden had confronted Xi over China’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,” while at the same time telling Xi he was willing to work with China on areas of mutual interest including COVID-19, climate change, and nuclear proliferation. While Xi Jinping provided China’s customary defense that these were China’s internal affairs and that the U.S. “should respect China’s core interests” and “act with caution,” he also said that the two sides should “re-establish mechanisms for dialogue so that there would be an accurate understanding of each other’s policy intentions and to avoid…miscalculation.”
Some internal analytical readings of the call from China’s side have emphasized that the personal chemistry between the two leaders was “very good,” with “lots of common memories exchanged” and that Biden had said he “wouldn’t want confrontation with China” and that “that was a bottom line.” Chinese official reporting has also emphasized the “spirit of the call,” although there remained “different interpretations of the facts” pertaining to the One China policy. Indeed, wider official commentary even in the lead up to the call had carried a chorus of orchestrated opinion pieces calling for the re-normalization of the relationship. Following the call, the official position was that the call had pointed the relationship in a positive direction, with Foreign Minister Wang Yi on February 22 stating that “this very important call has oriented China-U.S. relations, which had been struggling to ascertain its bearings” and had “sent out the first encouraging news of the spring for the two countries and the whole world.”
Beyond the immediacy of the U.S.-China relationship, however, the greater Chinese diplomatic juggernaut continued to roll on. Foreign Minister Wang Yi, on January 18, in yet another speech, had committed China to “deepening its comprehensive strategic coordination with Russia to form a bulwark for peace, security, and strategic stability in the world.” On the European Union, long seen as the geo-political swing state in China’s global strategic competition with the United States, Wang stated China would work to “upgrade our relations with Europe,” building on the signing between Brussels and Beijing the previous month of their Comprehensive Agreement on Investment. Meanwhile, Xi Jinping again used his Davos address to advance China’s credentials as a champion of multipolarity (aka less American and more Chinese power in the international system) and a champion of globalization, as well as to foreshadow greater Chinese activism in the institutions of global governance, indicating in particular that “China will become more actively engaged in global economic governance.” The meta-message from the Chinese system was clear: whatever happened in the immediate dynamics of the Beijing-Washington relationship, China would continue to expand its global geo-political and geo-economic footprint.
Finally, in this short review of the relevant Chinese official commentary across the last several months, one new, major, and potentially overwhelming issue to emerge in U.S.-China relations is the unfolding international debate on the question of whether or not Chinese policies in Xinjiang represent genocide against the Uighurs, and whether this should trigger an international boycott of the Beijing Winter Olympics in 2022. Secretary of State Blinken in his confirmation hearings had already agreed with the previous administration’s characterization of actions in Xinjiang as genocide. That was despite stern warnings from the People’s Daily the previous day that: “The Winter Olympics is a key landmark event at an important historical juncture for China…a vital opportunity to showcase China and boost China’s development and national spirit.” This had followed Xi’s visit to the Olympic Village the previous day, where he underlined the “great importance” the CCP Central Committee and the Chinese people attached to hosting the games.
The reason I mention this here is that whatever else may unfold with the U.S. and China this year, this single issue has the capacity to unravel the entire relationship. It will trigger all the forces of Chinese nationalism, similar to what we saw with Russian nationalism under Putin in early 2014 when the U.S. and others boycotted the Sochi Winter Olympics. The Russian invasion of Ukraine happened barely a month later. For these reasons, genocide and the future of the Olympics have, of themselves, an explosive potential for the year ahead.
Chinese Actions Towards the Biden Administration
Much of my analysis so far has been based on the changing tone and content of Chinese official commentary since the November 2020 presidential election. In part, this has dealt with China’s domestic political discourse about China’s inexorable rise. It has also distilled China’s foreign policy commentary on the future of Beijing’s relationship with the United States. In the final part of these remarks, I intend briefly to examine any observable changes in Chinese official behavior towards the United States in both the military and economic sphere. By bringing these three streams of analysis together, I hope then to have some indication of where China may now be headed with the Biden administration.
Taiwan of course remains the geopolitical crucible of the relationship. Just three days after the Biden inauguration, the PLA flew 13 military aircraft across the Taiwan Strait and into Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone (or ADIZ). In response, the U.S. immediately dispatched a carrier battle group into the Taiwan Strait to conduct freedom of navigation operations. The administration later confirmed that the carrier in question, the USS Theodore Roosevelt, and its accompanying ships were then used as a simulated target by the Chinese air force. The administration then released a statement reaffirming America’s “rock-solid” commitment to Taiwan’s defense, and noting “with concern the pattern of [China's] ongoing attempts to intimidate its neighbors, including Taiwan.” Following this series of incidents, a U.S. destroyer, on February 24, separately transited the Taiwan Strait in a patrol. China responded the next day with 10 bombers conducting exercises in the South China Sea just south of Taiwan. Then, on March 16, Taiwan’s defense ministry confirmed that the Biden administration had approved the sale of three categories of advanced submarine parts of unspecified value to Taiwan. Two of these had been provisionally approved by Trump in December and January, but Biden approved an additional category as well. The bottom line is that, on Taiwan, the level of operational tension between the U.S. and Chinese militaries remains high — with Chinese aircraft having crossed the Taiwan Strait almost every day in January in an almost unbroken continuation of a record-high 91 days of intrusions into Taiwan’s ADIZ in 2020.
On the South China Sea, in a January 28 call with Philippine Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr., Secretary of State Blinken affirmed that the U.S.-Philippines mutual defense treaty applies to any attack on Philippine assets in the South China Sea, stating that the U.S. “stands with Southeast Asian claimants in the face of PRC pressure.” Meanwhile, on February 5 a U.S. warship sailed past Chinese controlled islands in the Paracels, in the first Freedom of Navigation Operation under Biden. Then, on February 10, U.S. Rear Admiral James Kirk warned that Chinese military activities in the South China Sea have risen “steadily” in recent months. As with the Taiwan Strait, the tempo of the U.S. and Chinese military activity remains high in the area, after the U.S. Navy conducted a record number of South China Sea FONOPs in 2020.
As for the East China Sea, in a January 28 call with Japan’s Yoshihide Suga, Biden reaffirmed that the U.S. considers the U.S.-Japan mutual defense treaty to apply to the Senkaku islands. Three days later, on February 1, China passed a new Coast Guard Law authorizing the Chinese Coast Guard to fire on foreign vessels violating its territorial waters. This prompted significant concern in Japan, which subsequently saw Chinese incursions into waters around the Senkaku islands on six separate days in February, the highest frequency since 2016. Japan in turn decided that its Coast Guard should also legally be permitted to fire on vessels “violating Japanese law.” Tokyo proceeded to raise these changes to China’s Coast Guard Law repeatedly with Washington and with the other members of the Quad. The U.S. State Department said on February 19 that it was very concerned about China's Coast Guard Law, because its allowances for the use of force “strongly implies this law could be used to intimidate the PRC's maritime neighbors.”
As for Hong Kong, on March 5 a draft decision on changing Hong Kong’s electoral system was introduced at the NPC. This neutered the democratic opposition by stacking both the Election Committee and the Legislative Council with new loyalist members, and empowering the EC to approve candidates for office, ensuring “that control is firmly in the hands of forces that love their country and love Hong Kong.” According to Beijing, opposition forces in the city had coalesced into a “severe threat to national sovereignty, security, and development interests,” and “this had to be met with staunch opposition and forceful measures to contain and defuse the risks.” The U.S. in response called China’s moves to change the Hong Kong electoral system a direct attack on its autonomy and democratic processes and said that Washington was working at “galvanizing collective action” against China over both Hong Kong and Xinjiang. This would include, by March 16, further sanctions on 24 Chinese officials for their complicity both in the emasculation of Hong Kong’s electoral laws and in the introduction last year of Hong Kong’s new national security law, which had already seen the mass arrest of Hong Kong’s democratic leadership. China, however, appears utterly contemptuous of American actions to date, as none of these measures have touched China’s material economic or security interests.
On Xinjiang, as noted above, the Party has become deeply focused on the gathering international movement to define its policies there as “genocide” and to initiate a boycott of the 2022 Winter Olympics. On February 22, Wang Yi addressed the U.N. Human Rights Council on Xinjiang, declaring that there has “never been so-called ‘genocide,’ ‘forced labor’ or ‘religious oppression’” in Xinjiang. He then invited the UNHRC high commissioner to visit Xinjiang. In the meantime, China sought once again to exercise its new extraterritorial legal reach when a group of Chinese companies filed a lawsuit in a Xinjiang court against U.S.-based researcher Adrian Zenz, one of the foremost voices on Xinjiang abuses, for costing them money due to resulting sanctions. This is the first such suit of its kind, with the potential to see China imposing legal costs on academics and other human rights critics. Finally, the 14th Five-Year Plan adopted by the NPC in March also stated that it would “fully implement the party's basic policy on religious work” and “continue to pursue the Sinicization of China's religions and actively guide religions so that they can be compatible with socialist society.” This would apply to both Islam and Christianity. On Xinjiang, as with Hong Kong, Xi Jinping’s China is now doubling down against the West, is increasingly indifferent to international political opinion, and is reinforced in this by its ability to garner sufficient international support in multilateral fora including the UN to defray any attack.
The Biden administration, like its predecessor, has continued to elevate the significance of the Quad. Biden met with the Quad heads of government on March 12 in the first such Quad Summit in history. They released a joint statement listing “the rule of law, freedom of navigation and overflight, peaceful resolution of disputes, democratic values, and territorial integrity” as key objectives but did not explicitly name China. Jake Sullivan later stated that the group had discussed China’s “coercion of Australia, their harassment around the Senkaku islands, and their aggression on the border with India” as key issues. The Quad also launched a U.S. plan to provide one billion doses of COVID-19 vaccines to Southeast Asian nations in order to counter Chinese influence in the region. Xi Jinping is likely to be concerned about the strengthening of the Quad over the last several years. China’s official reaction to the summit has been to denounce the formation of “small cliques” motivated by “Cold War mentality and ideological prejudice.”
China’s relationship with India remains of critical importance to both countries because of their contested border, the Maritime Silk Road, and Pakistan-Kashmir. China has not welcomed India’s final and full embrace of the Quad with the U.S., Japan, and Australia. Here, however, China appears to be in the process of de-escalating conflict after its bloody border clashes in June 2020. On February 22, China and India completed a negotiated pullback of troops from their border, and India began clearing 45 suspended investment proposals from China. It has also been reported that Xi may attend the BRICS summit in India later in the year and meet with Modi, potentially signaling the beginning of a thaw in relations. China may not want to have active adversaries on all points of the compass.
Meanwhile Biden has been at pains to consolidate his European flank given the EU’s decision to agree to the CAI with Beijing on the eve of the inauguration. This is part of what some in the European Commission describe as Europe’s desire to achieve European “strategic autonomy” rather than becoming an American strategic ally against China. On February 19, Biden spoke at the Munich Security Conference, stating that the U.S. and EU must work together to prepare for “long-term strategic competition with China,” and have a common obligation to stand up for democracy, as well as to “push back against the Chinese government’s economic abuses and coercion that undercut the foundations of the international economic system.” Biden added that “competition with China is going to be stiff,” that democracy was under assault, and that the West had to “prove that our model isn’t a relic of history,” saying that the international debate on that point was at an “inflection point.” This speech was likely to have been music to Xi Jinping’s ears, as from China’s perspective it conveyed a high a level of defensiveness about the autocratic challenge to democratic legitimacy.
On technology, the Biden administration on March 12 informed Huawei suppliers of tighter conditions than previously for approval of export licenses, including banning items for use in or with 5G devices. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo had earlier promised to use the entity list “to its full effect.” On the same day, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission designated five Chinese companies, including Huawei and ZTE, as threats to national security under a Trump administration law. U.S. companies using their equipment will be required to “rip and replace” that equipment. This tightening of technology laws by the new administration will underscore Xi’s decisions, reflected in the 14th Five-Year Plan, to maximize the allocation of resources for the achievement of Chinese national technological self-sufficiency, most particularly in all categories of micro-chips, where China has continued to lag.
Cybersecurity has already loomed large in the early days of the Biden administration. On March 8, the U.S. media reported that the White House was wrestling with how to respond to the major hack of Microsoft by a Chinese state-backed group. The administration had already indicated a series of clandestine actions against Russia would commence in the coming weeks, having promised cyberattacks would not “go unanswered.” Jake Sullivan and Anne Neuberger, deputy national security adviser for cyber and emerging technologies, are reported to have elevated cyber response to the top of the NSC’s agenda.
In the only faintly positive development in the U.S.-China relationship in recent months, the U.S. media reported on March 10 that Washington and Beijing would co-chair a G-20 study group focusing on climate-related financial risks. The Chinese co-chair will be Ma Jun, although it was not clear who the U.S. co-chair will be. Ma Jun said China had proposed upgrading the study group to working group level, which would enable it to make policy recommendations. According to leading U.S. climate change policy advisor John Podesta, “both sides were inching closer to each other and trying to make climate a safe lane for communication.”
It is clear from all of the above — from Taiwan, the South China Sea, the East China Sea, Hong Kong, Xinjiang, the Quad, India, the EU, technology bans, cybersecurity, and climate change — that the operational political, economic and security terrain of the relationship remains overwhelmingly adversarial. In some areas, the relationship between China and the U.S. has actually deteriorated further, albeit not significantly so. The only area where there appears to be a glimmer of light at present appears to be climate change. What this says to us all is that, both in Beijing and Washington, the culture of strategic competition now runs deep across the board. Although we should wait and see what Anchorage delivers.
So what do these various elements of analysis say to us about the essential nature of Xi Jinping’s early response to the Biden admin?
In our examination of China’s official national security discourse over the last several months, it is relatively clear that Beijing is as hardline as ever — and arguably more so. Xi Jinping’s language about the “rise of the East and the decline of the West,” has now become all pervasive within the Chinese system. Similarly, the language of his military commanders has become remarkably unguarded in terms of the hard, strategic competition in which the Chinese leadership is now engaged in against the United States. Nonetheless, unofficial reporting indicates that Xi is also deeply aware of the military and economic vulnerabilities that China has were they to find themselves in open conflict with the U.S. tomorrow. Xi Jinping’s strategy, therefore, in my judgement is still to seek to buy time in order to further adjust the correlation of forces in China’s favor by decade’s end.
This explains in large part why the public language that we have seen in China’s official foreign policy discourse with the Biden administration has been more accommodating. The overwhelming thematic in the public language of Xi Jinping, Yang Jiechi, and Wang Yi has been the paramount importance of returning to some form or another of regular, high-level strategic dialogue with Washington. For Beijing, this appeal makes eminent good sense, tactically. The expectation of China’s political and security apparatus for its diplomatic establishment is to extract as much as they can from their American counterparts about America's strategic intentions; to provide as little as possible about China’s; and to take the strategic temperature down in the relationship overall by embedding and enmeshing it in a complex of dialogue mechanisms.
As for our third level of analysis — that is, what Chinese military and diplomatic officials are actually doing on the ground — once again the overall thematic here is of a deeply realist China in determined prosecution of its long-term strategic objectives. In this sense, it meshes entirely with the conclusions reached from our analysis of China’s internally focused national security discourse described above. The sharpness of PLA Air Force deployments in the Taiwan Strait and South China Sea; the significance of China’s new direction to its Coast Guard to deploy weaponry where necessary; together with the ruthlessness of Chinese actions in Hong Kong, all reflect absolute, hardline realist strategic resolve.
The overall message, therefore, to emerge from these early months of China’s response to the Biden administration is one of Chinese strategic continuity accompanied by a limited degree of tactical flexibility. Chinese strategy remains building its comprehensive economic, military, and technological power over the course of the decade ahead in order to achieve its territorial objectives without ever having to fire a shot. Tactically, China’s objective is to continue to provide its military, economic and technological establishment the time necessary to prepare for the day of their choosing.
All this, of course, is of primary relevance to the question of Taiwan. In many respects, Xi Jinping has been emboldened over Taiwan because of the pusillanimous response of the U.S. and the collective West over the passage of Hong Kong’s new national security law and its just-announced new electoral law. The U.S., even under Trump, declined to take any hard financial or economic measures against Beijing, primarily because too many Western financial interests were at stake. While the imposition of individual sanctions against Chinese and Hong Kong leaders is both personally inconvenient and politically humiliating, these actions do not go to the core economic and strategic interests of the Chinese state. From Beijing’s perspective, they have largely been seen as a pinprick. And while China does have a deep interest in preserving its global reputation as a would-be global great power, Beijing ultimately remains confident that its ultimate critics will end up being a dwindling band of westerners primarily located in the Anglosphere.
For Xi Jinping, Taiwan remains the pearl of great price. No other Chinese leader since Mao has burnished the same level of ambition to return Taiwan to Chinese sovereignty. For Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin, and Hu Jintao, China’s economic dependency on the United States remained the central organizing principle for the overall U.S.-China relationship. Taiwan, by and large, was always a distant second, and was handled as best they could. For Xi Jinping, these priorities have been reversed; Xi has concluded that China no longer needs to be as dependent on the United States. While access to the American export market and high technology suppliers continue to be important, for Xi Jinping such access is no longer deemed to be essential. Hence his newfound doctrine of national economic and technological self-sufficiency. For Xi, the future of the U.S.-China relationship is now seen primarily, if not exclusively, through the prism of Taiwan. And this of itself fundamentally impacts the long-term trajectory of the U.S.-China relationship overall.
Given all of the above, is Xi Jinping likely to be interested in any joint strategic framework such as “managed strategic competition” that might govern the relationship with the United States for the decade ahead? Possibly. But particularly if it was able to strategically re-stabilize the U.S.-China relationship for at least the first half of the decade — and perhaps longer. Remember, Xi Jinping’s tactical objective is to buy as much time in the immediate period ahead to enable the relativities of Chinese and American military economic and technological power to move more decisively in Beijing’s favor.
Would a concept of managed strategic competition be of any value to the U.S. in these circumstances? Once again, possibly. It may afford the United States the strategic window necessary to fully recover from the political, economic, and public health consequences of the great pandemic of 2020-2021. It might also provide the window necessary for America to rebuild its relationships with friends, partners, and allies across the international community as it cleans up the foreign policy wreckage from the Trump years.
In many respects, “the great race” between China and the United States as of 2021 remains evenly poised. China continues to have many vulnerabilities that are often invisible to Western political elites — just as America’s great national strengths, including its capacity to politically and economically rebound from national disasters, has never really been understood by the CCP. For these reasons, underneath all the sturm and drang of the U.S.-China relationship over the last several months, there is still a level of respect and concern on the part of the Chinese party leadership that America could still come roaring back under this Biden administration.
The jury is still out. And we all wait with interest the outcome of the first formal engagement between the two sides in Anchorage, Alaska, today.
Attachment A: Trump Administration Measures Toward China Biden’s Subsequent Actions
- Trump left office with tariffs of between 7.5-25 percent on around $370 billion USD in Chinese goods.
- Under Biden, no tariffs have so far been removed. Indeed, in February Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said Trump-era tariffs would remain in place and that any changes would depend on China’s adherence to trade deal commitments.
- By the time Trump left office, the Bureau of Commerce had placed more than 420 Chinese companies (plus subsidiaries) on its Entity List, restricting exports. This included 60 added in the largest single batch on December 18, 2020. Notable companies and organizations include Huawei, ZTE, SMIC, DJI, China State Shipbuilding Corporation, and Hikvision, along with several universities.
- On January 14, 2021, the Department of Defense added nine new Chinese companies to its blacklist of “Communist Chinese military companies,” bringing the total blacklisted to 45. This includes notable organizations beyond the DOC list, including Xiaomi, COMAC, CNOOC, and China Telecom. Companies on the DOD list are also subject to November 2020 Trump executive order banning US investors from holding stock in the military-linked companies.
- In August 2020, Trump signed orders banning WeChat and TikTok, among other Chinese apps. In January 2021, Trump also signed an additional order banning payment transactions with eight Chinese apps, including WeChat Pay, Ant Group’s Alipay, and Tencent’s QQ Wallet.
- In November 2020, the Trump administration proposed an additional rule allowing the Commerce Department to ban technology-related business transactions that it determines pose a national security threat, as part of an effort to secure supply chains.
- None of these technology restrictions have been removed or repealed by the Biden administration. Some reviews have been commissioned, however; for example, a “review” of the TikTok and WeChat ban – but these have not been removed yet. In addition, a U.S. court has ordered a halt to Xiaomi’s inclusion on the DOD blacklist. The bans on TikTok and WeChat were also temporarily blocked by U.S. courts at the end of 2020. The Biden administration has paused the Trump administration’s legal appeals to these blocks as part of the “review” mentioned above.
- At the same time, Biden is moving to further tighten tech restrictions overall. The administration has allowed the Commerce Department’s sweeping November 2020 national security rules to go forward, to be implemented later in March 2021 after public comment. The impending Commerce Department rules are widely considered the most far-reaching of the Trump administration actions against Chinese tech. It would give the department sweeping powers to require licenses for the wide range of technology transactions or to ban them outright.
- On March 11 the Biden administration also further tightened the requirements for suppliers to be granted a license to export 5G related parts to Huawei. And on March 12, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission designated five Chinese tech firms as posing an “unacceptable risk” to national security (Huawei, ZTE, Hytera Communications, Hangzhou Hikvision Digital Technology, and Dahua Technology).
- The Trump administration sanctioned dozens of Chinese and Hong Kong officials, including four individuals in July 2020 for Xinjiang abuses, including Politburo member Chen Quanguo; 11 individuals in August of 2020, including Xia Baolong, Carrie Lam, Luo Huining, Zheng Yanxiong, and various other HKSAR government and mainland security officials; 14 individuals in December 2020, including the whole NPCSC, with the exception of Li Zhanshu; and six individuals in January 2021, including You Quan, vice chairman of Beijing’s Central Leading Group on Hong Kong and Macau Affairs, and Sun Qingye, deputy director of Hong Kong’s national security office.
- The Biden administration has removed none of these. Indeed, they have now added to them. On March 16, the Biden administration announced new sanctions on 24 Chinese and Hong Kong officials over electoral changes, including on Politburo member Wang Chen. Financial sanctions were added to previous travel sanctions on some individuals, including all the vice-chairs of the NPCSC.
- On January 9, 2021, Secretary of State Pompeo lifted U.S. government guidance restricting meetings between U.S. and Taiwanese officials. This included Taiwanese officials not being permitted to enter the State Department, for example.
- The Trump administration had already also sent a series of increasingly high-ranking officials to Taiwan, including Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar and Under Secretary of State for Economic Growth, Energy, and the Environment Keith Krach.
- The Trump administration also sold more than $5 billion in arms to Taiwan in 2020 alone.
- None of these measures have been changed since the coming into office of the Biden Administration.
- Biden invited Taiwan’s defacto ambassador, Bi-khim Hsiao, to his inauguration, in the first time Taiwan was officially represented at a presidential swearing in ceremony since 1979.
- On Pompeo’s relaxation of rules, Blinken said in January that “I want to see that process through to conclusion if it hasn’t been completed, to make sure that we’re acting pursuant to the mandate in the (Taiwan Assurance) act that looks at creating more space for contacts.”
- Also on February 10, the Biden administration held a meeting between Hsiao Bi-khim and Sung Kim, acting U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs – notably inside the State Department building.
- On March 16, Taiwan’s defense ministry confirmed that the Biden administration had approved the sale of three categories of advanced submarine parts to Taiwan of unspecified value. Two of these had been provisionally approved by Trump in December and January, but Biden approved an additional category as well.
- In 2018 the Trump administration significantly tightened student visa regulations for Chinese students hoping to study in sensitive fields like aviation, robotics, and advanced manufacturing, shortening the duration of visas issued for study in these areas from five years to one, citing the risk of espionage and intellectual property theft. In March 2020 Trump administration also began limiting F-1 visas for foreign students amid the coronavirus outbreak. In September 2020 the Trump administration also proposed a rule to shorten F-1 student visas to a limit of four years, among other measures.
- In March 2020, China expelled a large number of U.S. journalists from the country amid tit-for-tat escalation of visa restrictions with Washington, including from the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Washington Post, after their writers criticized the Chinese government’s mismanagement of the coronavirus outbreak. In May 2020, the U.S. shortened visas for Chinese journalists to 90 days. In August 2020 China threatened to expel U.S. journalists if the U.S. didn’t renew the expiring visas for Chinese journalists in the U.S. In September China froze the press credentials for more US journalists and many later left the country.
- In July 2020, the US closed China’s Houston consulate, after which China closed the Chengdu consulate. And, in September 2020, China announced new restrictions on six more US media organizations working in China. This followed U.S. requirements that Chinese media organizations in the US register as foreign missions.
- In January 2021, Biden issued an executive order for agencies to postpone Trump rules that had not yet taken effect. This included the latest F-1 visa rules, but not the 2018 changes. In January 2021, Biden also issued an executive order on “Ending Discriminatory Bans on Entry to The United States,” which ordered a resumption of visa processing and a clearing of application backlogs, including those halted due to COVID. Biden had said during the campaign that he would also lift Trump’s ban on new H-1B work visas, but as of early March it was reported that the administration was “still undecided” on lifting the ban. Biden has not yet lifted the tighter F-1 visa requirements implemented by Trump in 2018 that focus on national security.
- The Biden administration has said nothing publicly about lifting the visa restrictions on Chinese journalists, which remain in place.
- There has been no indication so far of a decision to reopen the consulate closed by the Trump Administration or any parallel action by the Chinese.
[i] Statements at Central Political and Legal Work Conference and study session, 9-11 January 2021. https://www.scmp.com/news/china/politics/article/3117131/amid-chaos-wes…; https://www.scmp.com/news/china/politics/article/3117973/time-chinas-ri…
[ii] Statements at Central Political and Legal Work Conference and study session, 9-11 January, 2021. https://www.scmp.com/news/china/politics/article/3117131/amid-chaos-wes…
[iii] Statements at Central Political and Legal Work Conference and study session, 9-11 January 2021. https://www.scmp.com/news/china/politics/article/3117973/time-chinas-ri…
[iv] Xi Jinping, annual speech to the Central Party School in Beijing, 1 March 2021. http://cpc.people.com.cn/n1/2021/0302/c64094-32039915.html
[v] Meeting of the Central Military Commission at the Fourth Session of the 13th National People's Congress, 8 March 2021. https://www.scmp.com/news/china/politics/article/3124591/chinas-militar…
[vi] Wang Yi at Foreign Ministry press conference at the Fourth Session of the 13th National People's Congress, 7 March 2021. https://www.fmprc.gov.cn/mfa_eng/zxxx_662805/t1859138.shtml