In a speech at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, US President Joe Biden said on 27 July that Chinese President Xi Jinping was in “deadly earnest” about China’s becoming the most powerful military force in the world by 2040 as well as the largest and most prominent economy in the world.
He added that it was “real… [He’s] got a plan” and that the United States “better figure out how we are going to keep pace without exacerbating [the situation]” in a sensible approach to the issue.
Over the last few weeks, US diplomacy has been involved in regional networking in the Indo-Pacific region through high-level visits by senior US officials to China, India, Singapore, Vietnam and the Philippines.
Last week, I wrote about the visit of US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman to Tianjin in China. Also last week, US secretary of state Antony Blinken visited India, and US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin paid visits to Vietnam, Singapore and the Philippines.
If there was a common theme in the talks that Blinken and Austin had with the officials in the cities they visited, it was undoubtedly the emergence of China as a great power and the perceived “threat” that this emergence represents to the national security interests of the US and its allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific region. In American diplomatic speak, this supposed “threat” is better known as Chinese “coercion.”
In Tianjin, Chinese Deputy Foreign Minister Xie Feng in his talks with Sherman urged the US to change what he called its “extremely dangerous Chinese policy.” He went on to say that “China-US relations are currently at a deadlock and face serious difficulties.” He provided the US deputy secretary of state with a list of demands including the relaxation of visa and other restrictions on some Chinese officials and journalists, as well as the dropping of a US extradition request for Meng Wanzhou, a senior Huawei executive who remains in Canada pending the result of a court case.
It goes without saying, and putting aside the legal considerations in the case, that if Wanzhou is extradited to the US, Chinese-American relations will witness a dangerous nosedive, let alone Chinese-Canadian relations. Taking into account the already high level of tensions in US-Chinese relations, it is highly doubtful that such an extradition – if it ever takes place – will serve the security interests of the US in East and Northeast Asia.
According to one US official, the Tianjin talks did not reach any “specific outcomes”. He said that they represented “another step in a long process of setting the terms of the relationship, of responsibly managing the competition, and of seeing if we can establish some guardrails for that.”
A day after the conclusion of the Tianjin meeting, the US secretary of defence arrived in Vietnam on 27 July. The US and Vietnam are seeking to deepen bilateral defence ties, especially in the South China Sea. The talks in Hanoi mainly focused on security and military cooperation between the US and Vietnam. The visit was meant to underscore the US commitment to strengthening ties with Hanoi and to promote closer cooperation in confronting the expansion of Chinese influence in Southeast Asia.
Le Hong Hiep, a senior fellow at the Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore quoted in the South China Morning Post, said the two countries were interested in “pursuing deeper bilateral defence cooperation, especially in the South China Sea.” He said he believed Austin’s visit aimed to drive bilateral relations in that direction.
Another Southeast Asian expert, Pham Quang Minh, former dean of the University of Social Science and Humanities in Hanoi, quoted in the same journal, said that with US weapons Vietnam “would strengthen its defence in the face of security tensions in the South China Sea.” In 2016, the US lifted a ban on the sale of lethal weapons to Hanoi.
In remarks made at the 40th IISS (International Institute for Strategic Studies) Fullerton Lecture on 27 July, the US secretary of defence said that “I have come to Southeast Asia to deepen America’s bonds with allies and partners on whom our common security depends.” He added that “our network of alliances and friendship is an unparalleled strategic asset.” As he put it, the “Indo-Pacific will again rise to the challenge. And America will be right at your side.”
In order to reassure US allies and partners in the region that the US is not planning to involve them in a future military confrontation with China, he said that he was “committed to pursuing a constructive, stable relationship with China, including stronger crisis communications with the People’s Liberation Army.” However, he also called on them to invest in cooperation and capabilities and a vision of deterrence that would meet the security challenges in the Southeast Asia and the Indo-Pacific region.
He pointed out that deterrence remains the “cornerstone of American security,” and that because of emerging threats and “cutting-edge technologies” the face and pace of warfare are undergoing changes. Accordingly, the US is operating under a new 21st-century vision that he has termed “integrated deterrence”.
It thus seems that the Biden administration is sending messages to China and reassurances to US allies and partners in the region that it is engaged in pursuing a strategy of deterrence, or “integrated deterrence,” to meet Chinese “coercion” in the South China Sea and across the Indo-Pacific region.
The stage is now set for a summit meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and US President Joe Biden to set the parameters of Chinese-American relations in the years to come. Such a summit could take place before the end of the year if the two countries decide that it is better to work out their differences through diplomacy.
I believe that the US allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific region would welcome such an important meeting. They realise that it will not provide solutions to the array of security challenges in the region, but it would provide a framework to try to overcome those challenges, or, at least, to manage them in a peaceful manner.
The writer is former assistant foreign minister.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 5 August, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly