After Biden's pivot to Asia, China feels the chillJune 23, 2022
Hello China Watchers. I’m Yun Sun and I’m excited to guest host China Watcher this week while Phelim is out getting some sun. I direct the China program at the Stimson Center, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit, nonpartisan think tank that uses analysis and outreach to enhance international peace and security. In today’s China Watcher, I explore how President Joe Biden’s recent Asia diplomatic offensive continues to reverberate in Beijing. We also look at delays in a congressional vote on legislation to confront China and dig into our latest book pick, “Dispatches from the South China Sea: Navigating to Common Ground.”
The Biden administration, hoping to counter China’s growing influence in Asia, has initiated several high-level engagements with Asia in recent months, ranging from summits to a presidential visit to the region. Despite lukewarm reception at home, it’s now clear that Washington’s Asia pivot caused much anxiety in China.
The administration's outreach started with Southeast Asia — the U.S.-ASEAN Special Summit in Washington in mid-May followed by President JOE BIDEN’s high-profile visit to South Korea and Japan on May 19-24. In Japan, Biden attended a summit with leaders of Japan, Australia and India (the Quad) and launched the long-expected Indo-Pacific Economic Framework.
Despite the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the administration has tried to keep its focus on China as the most consequential strategic challenge of the U.S.; Russia by comparison is considered the “acute” yet short-term threat. Washington is confident that it can walk and chew gum at the same time, namely countering both Russia and China simultaneously in two theaters.
China was not directly included in last month’s Asian activities but its presence loomed large over them. The focus on the Asia campaign came at a time of China’s “strategic low tide,” as it dealt with myriad domestic issues, including the Covid-19 pandemic.
The anxiety that the outreach generated in Beijing was not limited to Biden’s comment in Tokyo that the U.S. will intervene militarily if China attacks Taiwan. More unsettling for Beijing was the public commitment by U.S. allies — South Korea and Japan — to the peace and stability of the Taiwan Strait, which implied potential roles for them in a future Taiwan contingency.
China has gradually grown to the prospect of Japanese involvement, given U.S. military bases there. However, Beijing is much less prepared for a similar South Korean role.
South Korea’s shift. Beijing is concerned about President Yoon Suk Yeol’s strategic reorientation, which was reflected in his joint statement with Biden. By focusing with the United States on deterrence against North Korea — the opposite of his predecessor, who prioritized engagement with the North — Yoon is marginalizing China’s role on the Korean peninsula. That doesn’t sit well with Beijing’s goal to strengthen its strategic influence with both Koreas to oust U.S. troops.
Yoon prioritizes security cooperation and the Global Comprehensive Strategic Alliance with the U.S. — a joint effort to reinforce the rule-based international order, which effectively ends his predecessor’s pursuit of neutrality between the U.S. and China.
The 10-year honeymoon between China and South Korea has finally come to an end. What China expects is a rapid deterioration of relations with Seoul on issues from North Korean provocation to the maritime disputes between China and South Korea. In the offing, there’s concern about Seoul’s potential involvement in a Taiwan conflict.
Japan pulls away. China has similar concerns about Japan, especially Tokyo’s potential to join U.S.-dominated security partnerships, such as AUKUS, a trilateral security pact among the U.S., U.K. and Australia that will provide nuclear powered submarines to Australia. In addition, Beijing worries about Japan’s involvement in the Quad and the regional economic framework, which Biden launched in Tokyo.
China has been skeptical of both alliances, primarily because it believes that the Quad — an informal alliance among Australia, India, Japan and the U.S. — has little substance and the IPEF framework lacks congressional authorization, thus not sustainable. However, given the region’s enthusiasm for U.S. engagement and actions, Beijing cannot help but feel the chill.
This is also the case with Southeast Asia, where China arguably has more leverage given the region’s economic dependence on Beijing. However, public opinion polls from the region have been increasingly wary of China’s hegemonic ambition and influence, which has pushed countries such as Singapore and Vietnam in recent years to seek Washington’s support and involvement to counterbalance China.
In this sense, although the Chinese laughed at the U.S. commitment of $150 million to Southeast Asia — calling it small and trivial compared to its own $1.5 billion spend across the region last year — Beijing cannot help but find the U.S. focus on maritime safety and climate change as a threat.
Problems on the homefront. Biden’s diplomatic offensive in Asia came amid China’s sharp focus on worrying domestic issues. The Covid crisis has consumed most of the government’s attention. The ensuing economic difficulties have reduced China’s capability to continue its checkbook diplomacy as it did before the pandemic. These hardships are further complicated by the Russian war in Ukraine, in which China was dragged, albeit unwillingly, as Russia’s ally to face the West’s rage and hostility.
China’s recent failure to ink a regional security and economic arrangement with the Pacific islands is one example of the limit to its reach.
On top of these setbacks, the 20th Chinese Communist Party Congress this fall dictates that all priorities in China lie in the preservation of stability to ensure President XI JINPING’s smooth transition to a third term. Simply put, China’s too distracted and risk-averse before the Congress to thoughtfully develop its strategic reactions.
That most likely will not be good news for the outlook beyond 2022. Given Xi’s record of assertive foreign policy, it is reasonable to assume that, after transitioning into his third term, he will no longer need external validation to satisfy domestic audiences as much as before. However, equally plausible and more probable is that after wiping out the domestic pressure and internal challenge, Xi will be even more aggressive than before on the world stage.
As regional countries’ cooperation with the U.S. intensifies, we could very possibly see a repeat of recent history: China’s fierce opposition to any perceived threats or slights through economic sanctions, political retaliation and military coercion. One can look to recent examples for how this might play out: economic punishments for Seoul’s deployment of the THAAD missile defense system in 2016, land reclamation in the South China Sea and gray zone activities against Taiwan. Once the issue of leadership transition is out of the picture, Xi will be far less constrained in the foreign policy arena.
In this sense, Biden’s Asia engagement is a good beginning to align with allies and partners. But the region will need to see even more of Washington and in a sustainable manner.
The upcoming midterm election and its result will signal to the region how committed the U.S. really is this time and for how long. For a region wary of Chinese intentions and activities, it will require more than just a visit to be reassured that the U.S. is here to stay.
And now, back to your regular programming …
— CHINA BILL DELAYED: Congress won’t vote on the China competitiveness legislation before the July 4 recess, after House and Senate leaders failed reach an agreement in a meeting on Tuesday. The bill includes a sprawling package aimed at increasing U.S. competition with China through boosting the tech and manufacturing industries. The complexity of the bill, including immigration provisions in the House version, has slowed negotiations.
Senate Majority Leader CHUCK SCHUMER and House Speaker NANCY PELOSI said in a statement, “We expressed our belief that there is no reason that we should not pass this bill through Congress in July.”
— FAMILIES PRESSURE BIDEN TO FREE JAILED AMERICANS IN CHINA: Family members of U.S. citizens wrongfully detained in China urge the Biden administration to play diplomatic hardball by brokering the release of Beijing’s American prisoners, our own PHELIM KINEreported Sunday.
The families are calling for the Biden administration to use prisoner swaps or to explicitly link their relatives’ freedom to progress on key bilateral issues, including tariffs and trade. National security adviser JAKE SULLIVAN told China’s top diplomat, YANG JIECHI, in a June 13 meeting that releasing Americans wrongfully detained or subject to exit bans is a “personal priority for both himself and for the President,” a senior administration official said. But lawmakers and family members say Sullivan and the State Department are pursuing a prisoner release approach that’s likely to fail because it’s hinged to quiet engagement.
— BIDEN TO PRESENT INITIATIVE AT G-7 TO COUNTER CHINA: Sullivan told Bloomberg the plan will provide “an alternative to what the Chinese are offering.” It will be announced at the two-day summit, which begins Sunday in Germany, Bloomberg reported.
The Chinese government poured cold water on the idea. “The US initiative misuses countries’ shared aspiration for common development and win-win cooperation. It is driven by zero-sum mentality and desire to stoke confrontation,” Foreign Ministry spokesperson WANG WENBIN said Friday.
At the G-7 last year, Biden unveiled the Build Back Better World initiative, designed to “meet the tremendous infrastructure need in low- and middle-income countries.” The plan laid out an ambitious agenda of $40 trillion in investments by 2035 but has yet to produce tangible follow-up since its announcement.
— XI TAKES ON NATO IN BRICS SPEECH: Xi implicitly criticized NATO expansion and Western sanctions in an opening address Wednesday at a virtual summit with leaders of Brazil, Russia, India and South Africa.
“The Ukraine crisis is another wake-up call for all in the world,” Xi said, according to a published full text of his speech. “It reminds us that blind faith in the so-called position of strength and attempts to expand military alliances and seek one's own security at the expense of others will only land oneself in a security dilemma.”
— CHINA NAMES FIRST SPECIAL ENVOY TO THE HORN OF AFRICA: China is keen to play a more important role in promoting peace and security in the Horn of Africa, Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post reported. “Beijing will also provide assistance in kind, in peacekeeping, cooperate in law enforcement and speed up the assistance of criminal investigation lab equipment to countries in the region,” XUE BING, the Chinese special envoy for the region, said.
— AUSTRALIANS SOUR ON CHINA: Australians’ attitude toward China hit a record low in a new public opinion poll, according to the Lowy Institute, a Sydney-based think tank. In a shift from 2020, a majority of Australians now see China as “more of a security threat to Australia,” reflecting a recent deterioration in Australia-China relationship, the institute said.
— CHINA LAUNCHES THIRD AIRCRAFT CARRIER: The PLA Navy’s first domestically designed and built catapult aircraft carrier Fujian was put into service on Friday, according to Chinese state media Xinhua. China’s first carrier Liaoning was a retrofit of an old Soviet model, while the second, Shandong, was homebuilt based on its predecessor.
“The big thing for China is that they appear to have entirely skipped steam and moved directly to an (electromagnetic-style) launch system. If their system works, which remains to be seen, this is a very significant leapfrogging of technology," MATTHEW FUNAIOLE, a senior fellow of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told the Washington Post.
China did not specify where Fujian would be deployed but LIU WENSHENG, a spokesperson for China's PLA Navy, said “the needs of safeguarding national sovereignty, security, and development interests” would be considered, according to China daily.
— HONG KONG NEVER A BRITISH COLONY?: New Hong Kong liberal studies textbooks say the city was never a British colony, changing a long-established narrative among Hong Kongers, The New York Times reported last week. The material is seen to be part of the patriotic education under the national security era as China seeks to teach its version of history in the territory.
“In the Xi approach to history, facts are merely incidental. Only interpretation matters. And only one interpretation is allowed,” STEVE TSANG, a Chinese politics specialist at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, told the AP.
“Beijing never recognized that China had given up her sovereignty over Hong Kong, that British rule in Hong Kong had legitimacy and that 1997 is the time China resumed the exercise of sovereignty over Hong Kong,” said LAU SIU-KAI, a senior adviser to Beijing on Hong Kong policy.
— UYGHUR FORCED LABOR DATABASE LAUNCHED: The Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act implemented on Tuesday prohibits import of goods linked to forced labor in China. The Jewish World Watch launched a database Wednesday that detail companies’ reported ties with Uyghur forced labor.
Financial Times: The corporate feud over satellites that pitted the west against China
WSJ: The Tiny Loophole That Understates the Trade Deficit With China
The Wire China: The Diplomatic Deadlock
Book: Dispatches from the South China Sea: Navigating to Common Ground
Author: JAMES BORTON is an independent environmental policy writer and former Washington Times foreign correspondent who contributes regularly to Asia Times, Nikkei Asian Review, The South China Morning Post and other outlets.
What is the most important takeaway from your book?
Science diplomacy targeted at various issues, including overfishing, coral reef destruction, land reclamation and mitigating tensions over sovereignty claims in the South China Sea. The U.S. and China are already cooperating to develop a marine-protected area network in the South China Sea, combating high seas driftnet fishing and in early typhoon warnings with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
What was the most surprising thing you learned while researching and writing this book?
Despite the region’s rampant nationalism over fishing rights and ownership of atolls and rocks, there’s an increasing number of regional marine scientists quietly working together in workshops and surveys since they all know the seriousness from the rapid decline and destruction of coral reefs, ocean acidification, biodiversity loss and fishery collapses. China is an active partner in science cooperation through monsoon onset monitoring with international partners in the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission for the Western Pacific.
What does your book tell us about the trajectory and future of U.S.-China relations?
Despite the South China Sea being the lightning rod for military and political muscle flexing, growing numbers of policy experts in Washington and Beijing understand there’s little time to waste on geopolitical divisions. The latest scientific reports confirm that we are at a tipping point from climate change and pollution. There are many geopolitical challenges in the South China Sea, namely over Beijing’s disputed maritime territorial claims, but responsible global governance requires coordinated engagement and systemic responses to prevent the worst outcomes from these dire environmental threats.
Thanks to: Ben Pauker, Matt Kaminski, digital producer Raymond Rapada, Nicolle Liu, Phelim Kine and editor John Yearwood.
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