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Tensions with China expected to grow after US election
Tensions with China expected to grow after US election
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Hong Kong, November 24 (ANI): On 13 November, China finally offered its congratulations to Joe Biden and running mate Kamala Harris on their US electoral victory, one of the last major countries to do so. A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman said, "We respect the choice of the American people."
Ironically, China does not respect the voice of its own people, since China's leaders are selected in opaque closed-circle affairs that are mired in secrecy. Nonetheless, a change in leadership of the US holds the prospect of altered ties for friends and foes alike in the Asia-Pacific region.
No relationship will be more important and indeed volatile, than that between Washington and Beijing. Chairman Xi Jinping and his cohort will presumably feel a degree of relief that someone more predictable will be ensconced in the White House come late January. However, if Xi is hoping for a major reset in their relationship, or a return to the halcyon days of Barak Obama's first term, then he is going to be disappointed.
ANI spoke to Malcolm Davis, Senior Analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), about any change in trajectory between Trump's and Biden's administrations. "I think in broad-brush tones, it will be more of the same. I think what Biden will do is restore a multilateralist approach and try to strengthen relations with key US allies ... I certainly don't see Biden adopting the approach that some people are advocating in the US of soft-pedalling China and trying to go back to an Obama first-term type of approach to engagement. I think China is now a bipartisan issue in Washington DC, and everyone understands what China is about and their intentions. So I think the US will continue to push back and try to deter a rising China. And that's good for the region, because the last thing you'd want is a Biden that would essentially accommodate China or give it strategic space."
Davis also offered an assessment of the past four years under a Trump presidency as it relates to the Indo-Pacific region's security. The Canberra-based academic said: "Well, it's a bit hit and miss with Trump. On the one hand, I think he's been correct to push back strongly against China, which is something the Obama administration didn't do enough of, certainly in its first term. So Trump has reversed a decline in US influence in that sense, and I think he's also done well in terms of boosting US defence spending and recognizing the importance of focusing on the Indo-Pacific as opposed to getting sidetracked in terms of the Middle East adventures ... I think in relation to China, Trump probably would have pushed back harder against China, which would have been good..."
That was the positive side of things, but there were serious downsides too. "...I think the negatives are quite apparent. His transactional approach to diplomacy with allies has been quite destructive, particularly in regards to South Korea, and the whole debate over how much Seoul is going to pay for US forces has been really counterproductive. I think the uncertainty the region feels about Trump and whether the US would honor its commitments has also eroded confidence in US leadership. And the concern has to be, if Trump had won, a second Trump term probably would have seen even more concern about eroding US reliability and their willingness to lead and respond to a challenge."
There is thus a palpable sense of comfort in many Asian nations now that Trump is exiting. Davis again: "I think there's relief that maybe a degree of normality will return to the world stage under Biden. I do think there's perhaps a little bit of concern about how Biden will handle the progressive wing of the Democrats, which are more important now than they were under Obama, so that's a challenge for Biden to make sure that group doesn't have undue influence over US foreign and defense policy, for that would be disastrous."
Overall though, the ASPI analyst sees a Biden win as "pretty much positive", with the proviso that the US and the rest of the world "can get through to January 20th in a reasonably calm and peaceful manner and that President Trump does the right thing and concedes and walks off to do other things."
Indeed, "We'll be in a much better situation than what would have been the case under President Trump in a second term, because I think there would have been real concerns that, in his second term, his tendencies towards transactional approaches to foreign policy and his erratic approach to defense and security issues might have been more challenging to the region."
There are many relations for Biden to patch up around Asia: India, Japan, the Philippines, South Korea and Thailand being just a few examples. "There is the potential now under Biden to really rebuild a lot of those key relationships and strengthen them to counterbalance a rising China and to deter a rising China, and that's really what we should be aiming for," Davis shared.
The USA certainly has a lot to do to reassure ASEAN members of US interest and support. Seoul is a key issue too, for if it feels the USA is abandoning it in any way, the development of nuclear weapons could become a priority for South Korea so it can protect itself against a nuclear-armed Pyongyang. And if South Korea took this route, Japan would surely follow suit. With two new nuclear powers on its doorstep, neither of which China is fond of, the PLA would undoubtedly alter its own nuclear posture, and so the whole strategic balance in East Asia would be irrevocably altered.
Any Chinese dreams of a return to the old days of Sino-US relations are a pipe dream. Worse, than that, Davis predicts the relationship will become more fraught.
He assessed, "I think tensions will increase. They'll increase in the South China Sea. They'll increase in relation to Taiwan. I think China has made itself very clear that it is seeking to realize the China Dream, which is a rejuvenated China that wants to assert its dominance as, if you like, a 20th-century Middle Kingdom ... China is determined to end US strategic primacy in the Indo-Pacific, and essentially it wants to dominate the region itself. It constantly makes public pronouncements about it not being an oppressive or hegemonic power, yet that's exactly what it's doing in terms of how it's managing the situation in the South China Sea, in how it's using the Belt and Road Initiative, to exert geopolitical influence."
The Australian continued: "I do think the US will face a more challenging threat from China. It has to respond to this threat; it can't just ignore it. It certainly can't get diverted into the Middle East, and I think Biden has to recognize that, even though there are serious domestic and fiscal issues that he has to deal with at home, he can't gut US defense spending to pay for those resolutions. He has to maintain high defense spending, and we're in a period of strategic competition that will last years."
This phrase "strategic competition" is a critical one. It echoes the US National Security Strategy published in late 2017, which labeled China a major rival. Given the growing might of the People's Liberation Army, and China's priority to assert Chinese sovereignty and influence far from its shores, the risk is heightening.
Davis pointed out, "I think that Prime Minister Morrison here in Australia, when he released the 2020 Defence Strategic Update, was quite correct to make the parallel with the 1930s. And so we have to start acting as though we're in a prewar period, and that's for the US as well. I think they recognize that with China, and with Russia in mind as well."
Taiwan remains a wildcard in the Sino-US relationship too. Davis certainly believes it so, "Because I think there are real concerns that China is probably going to provoke, to make moves around, Taiwan, and it will be interesting to see how Biden will respond to that. I'd hope that Biden would potentially emulate the Trump administration's approach in recognizing the importance of Taiwan and strengthening the relationship with Taipei to counterbalance and deter China from making such moves. But we'll see what happens."
Davis remains confident that Biden will maintain stiff US resolve against Beijing. "I think all indications are, in terms of defense, Biden will have a good secretary of defense with Michele Flournoy as the logical candidate. We're not sure who's going to be his secretary of state, but I think Biden will benefit from having experienced policy hands around him in terms of people in key positions. I think one of the weaknesses of the Trump administration was that there were not enough key people in key positions to effectively manage problems with policy."
In the last weeks of Trump in office, we can expect a flurry of activity aimed against China. For instance, some media claimed a two-star American admiral from the Indo-Pacific Command had just visited Taiwan on official business.
Biden would perhaps find it almost suicidal politically to reverse strong anti-China policies enacted by Trump. Yet Beijing will surely look for ways of initially cooperating with Biden, one example being climate change, even though the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) understands the dominant nature of their relationship is now rivalry. Biden may be more predictable than Trump, but the CCP will not yet be sure if he is more or less formidable. Improved communication between the governments is likely to improve though, including backchannels.
Anything overtly aggressive by China in the short term would seem unwise. Biden's advantage is that he can probably corral greater mutual cooperation in Asia, and thus muster a stronger "coalition" against China in the long run. This will perhaps be China's greatest fear, whereas Trump was more a loose cannon that damaged everything it encountered.
Some think Pete Buttigieg could be tapped by Biden as the next US ambassador to the United Nations. He has exhibited special interest in China and a good grasp of the CCP's modus operandi. If so, Beijing could face stronger resistance within the UN.
China is doubtlessly more powerful now than when Trump took up office. Yet Xi has blown the opportunity to curry greater favor around the world, even as Trump was clumsily stepping on allies' toes. Indeed, a Pew Research Center global survey showed that opinion about China has darkened worldwide, reaching the lowest level in places like Canada, Germany, South Korea, Spain, Sweden and the UK. Some 78% of respondents had little or no confidence that Xi would do the right thing in global affairs. Last year, that figure was 61%.
CCP propaganda tells a narrative of how the party rescued China from foreign predators, allowing the Chinese people to stand tall once again on the world stage. This requires China to be robust on foreign disputes, because it cannot allow itself to appear weak to people at home. Furthermore, its growing economic and political clout encourages it to think it can assert its will over any other country smaller than itself. The issuing of threats and retribution are thus a powerful hammer that China willingly wields against others, but which does nothing to endear itself.
Some might argue that Xi, by pursuing such aggressive tactics, has opened the door wide for the US to regain some lost prestige under a more predictable American president.
Yet Xi is president for life, whereas Trump's tenure ends soon. China has already charted its course, as witnessed at October's Fifth Plenum, with Xi's 2021-25 Five-Year Plan vowing self-reliance in technology, predicting a worsening external environment, increasing global uncertainty, more centralized control of the economy and a rejection of liberalism. China can dig in its heels for the long haul. (ANI)
Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.