The Biden administration considers China and how to manage its emergence as a superpower a top strategic priority for the US. This stand does not differ much from the positions taken by preceding US administrations, whether Republican or Democrat.
In 2005, the secretary of defence in the former George W Bush administration raised the question of why China had been working on expanding its navy and for what reasons. Since then, this question has not been limited to the Chinese navy, but instead covers the gamut of Chinese policies in the Indo-Pacific region and beyond.
The US and most of its Asian and some of its Western allies and partners believe that China represents a challenge to what they call a “rules-based international system” and that Beijing seeks to exercise its hegemony in the Indo-Pacific region.
The administration of former president Donald Trump started with an opening up to China. In April 2017, three months after being sworn in, the former American president invited Xi Jinping, the Chinese leader, to his luxurious Mar-a-Lago Florida retreat and raised hopes among China watchers that the US and China would chart a future course of cooperation, not only in their bilateral relations but also in international and regional questions of mutual interest that have a direct bearing on international peace and security.
However, the expectations that were raised by the lavish reception afforded to the Chinese leader evaporated not long afterwards when the US government started a tariffs war against China that was reciprocated. At the end of his mandate when Trump left office, US-China relations needed a reset. But what kind of a reset?
US allies and partners, particularly those in the Indo-Pacific region, were looking forward to seeing how the Biden administration would manage US-China relations. Would it opt for a continuation of the Trump approach, or would it choose a different one that was more nuanced and more diplomatic?
To demonstrate the importance of US relations with China and eager to lay down certain parameters in this regard, top US national security officials, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and national security adviser Jake Sullivan met on 18 March at Anchorage in Alaska with two top Chinese officials, Yang Jiechi, the top foreign policy adviser to president Xi Jinping and Wang Yi, the Chinese foreign minister.
Prior to the meeting, the US administration chose to garner support among its Asian allies and partners. President Biden hosted an Indo-Pacific Summit, the first of its kind, on 12 March that brought together the leaders of India, Japan and Australia. Going over the joint statement from this meeting, no one could mistake the fact that the summit had China in its crosshairs. Both the US secretary of state and the secretary of defence also paid official visits to two main allies of the US in the region, namely Japan and South Korea, where they discussed common challenges and issues related to China and North Korea.
The Anchorage meeting did not lead to concrete results, and instead it was some kind of testing of the waters for the Biden administration. Seemingly, the two sides wanted to adopt an initially tough stand against one another as a prelude to taking a more pragmatic path later on. Sullivan probably had this mind when he said in a news briefing after the meeting that the US would continue to work with China on a host of questions such as Iran, Afghanistan and North Korea. He made it clear that Washington would share with its allies its own assessment of the way forward in shaping its strategy towards China.
While the next few decades will see two diametrically-opposed visions of the world in quiet competition worldwide, namely democracy versus autocracy, the realities on the ground will also compel both the US and China to cooperate on some important international and regional questions. It is a situation that will compel them to find a modus vivendi to manage their rivalry in a way that ensures security and stability in the Indo-Pacific region.
It goes without saying that the US, while trying to build its China strategy from a “position of strength,” will need to recognise that its Asian and Pacific allies and partners have their own interests with China that will render them hesitant to join a US-led confrontation. The political costs of such a strategy from their standpoint would be too high to bear.
In the meantime, the US on its own will keep increasing its military assets in the Indo-Pacific region. The top US commander in the region, Admiral Phil Davidson, has called China the “greatest long-term strategic threat to security in the 21st century.” He appeared before the Senate Armed Services Committee on 9 March to request $27.3 billion to fund a five-year programme called the Pacific Deterrence Initiative.
Pentagon Spokesman John Kirby in a press briefing a week ago said that “we will continue to see this department – the Pentagon – and the secretary put a lot of effort into making sure we are postured properly in the Indo-Pacific, that we are properly respecting, utilising and empowering our alliances and partnerships in that part of the world. Five of our seven treaty alliances are in the Indo-Pacific rim.”
My own belief is that the strategy of the Biden administration towards China will be a combination of deterrence and cooperation: deterrence in the long term and cooperation on a case-by-case basis.
In line with an old Chinese tradition, the answer to US statements on confronting Beijing came in an editorial in the English-language paper Global Times last week. The paper said that if the “United States is willing to coexist and cooperate with China in peace, China welcomes that and will work hard to make that relationship work. If the United States is determined to engage in confrontation, China will fight to the end.”
Have we returned to the Cold War years? I don t think so.
The writer is former assistant foreign minister.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 25 March, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly