As President Joe Biden announces that ‘America is back’, some are wondering just how far back this will go, particularly on China. Whatever his detractors may say, Donald Trump often called out China on crucial issues and then followed it up with sanctions. While Biden is yet to complete his first 100 days in office, there are already some disquieting pointers about how he may choose to take a significantly softer line on China, even as US Navy commanders report increased activity of Chinese ships in the South China Sea.
Early signs of this include removing limitations on Confucius institutes, re-entering the China-dominated UN Human Rights Council, and getting ready to talk to Beijing on climate change. Even as Washington struggles with internal divisions and a weakening international influence, it seems that there’s less substance to the public pugilism than is immediately apparent.
Public statements: China as ‘competitor’
Biden’s public statements seem strong enough, though a far cry from the Cold War language used by his predecessor to frame policy on China. In his second major foreign policy interaction at the virtual Munich Security Conference, Biden warned of “stiff competition” from China, and called for unity across Europe and Asia, and imposing rules of the road on Beijing. The bulk of his remarks were on foreign policy, including a commitment to Afghanistan, and fighting the Islamic State, climate change and a stinging diatribe against Vladimir Putin’s Russia along with a commitment to Ukraine. Nothing like it on China.
In his first speech as president on foreign policy, Biden had used similar language on ‘the most serious competitor’ while also saying Washington was ready to work with China when it was in American interests. The call to President Xi Jinping did tick-box Xinjiang, even while it called for cooperation on Covid and climate change, and ‘practical result-orientated engagements’ when necessary. Barring Taiwan and ‘internal affairs’, Beijing put a largely positive spin on the call that apparently went on for two hours, which is unusual, especially for Biden. The following day, China banned the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). It’s all very confusing.
Policy on the ground
Now for the details of actual policy. First, the US State Department’s readout of Secretary of State Anthony Blinken’s phone call with Quad ministers reaffirmed the importance of the grouping, which also includes India, Australia, and Japan. But in a stark contrast to earlier such statements, it said nothing about China. Among the four, the only one to speak out clearly against China was Japan. India never does, and Australia’s statement was even shorter and more ambivalent than last year’s. It could be argued that Biden’s call to Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga reaffirming commitment to the defence of Japan, including Senkaku, should be good enough. But the mutual defence clause is a given, with the US hardly likely to retract from it. So that’s another mixed reaction.
Chinese ingress into US universities
Yet another policy change is more curious. Since at least 2018, the issue of Chinese ingress into US universities has raised a storm, leading to the arrest of prominent scientists like Charles Lieber, while the American Association of University Professors has long been raising the role of Confucius institutes in particular. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) had taken up the issue strongly, insisting on disclosure of foreign funding in universities, and academics being recruited in programmes like the Thousand Talent Plan, which targeted these sciences in particular.
Now, an Executive Order from the White House has reversed the ‘requirement for student and exchange visitor program certified schools to disclose agreements with Confucius institutes and classrooms’. That’s strange, but it would certainly please Beijing, besides letting loose another spate of funding.
The UN human rights body
Then there’s the announcement that the US would rejoin the UN Human Rights Council. Under Trump, the US had left the body in 2018 after accusing most of its members, though not unfairly, of being involved in human rights abuses themselves. Biden’s agenda is to restore American leadership by rejoining international bodies and making Washington’s presence felt. That’s a good policy overall, but the UNHRC is seen as dominated by China after Beijing was, rather ironically, elected to the Consultative Group last year.
Recently, the UNHCR’s two experts made a statement on Kashmir, condemning the loss of autonomy of the state after India scrapped Article 370 of the Constitution in August 2019. China’s influence is assessed as considerable, getting its chosen resolutions passed without much opposition. There is some concern that a US re-entry could lead to the UNHRC becoming a negotiating counter between the US and China, with Washington using it to further its own interests.
Biden’s focus on climate change as a ‘crisis’ is more than welcome, and his first actions were to set up a committee, cancel the environmentally disastrous Keystone Pipeline, and rejoin the Paris Agreement. Recently, his climate czar John Kerry observed that climate change collaboration was a standalone issue that would not be traded against China’s human rights abuses. China reacted angrily, but at a recent meeting of the powerful National Committee on US-China Relations (NCUSCR), top diplomat Yang Jeichi offered a path ahead for strong cooperation on the issue.
Any action on climate change can’t ignore China, partly because more than 25 per cent of emissions emanate from there, and partly because its global economic footprint makes it imperative for Beijing to come on board. So, despite Kerry’s brave words, Biden will have to negotiate with China, which will use the issue to get powerful sections of the US industry and groupings like the NCUSCR — which includes former diplomats like Henry Kissinger and business heads on its board — to push the administration towards cooperation rather than confrontation.
In sum, there is little wonder that there has been a spate of official and unofficial papers being quietly released to underline the ‘China threat’. One such was the declassified secret strategy against China, and another was the anonymously written ‘Longer Telegram’ on how to deal with an aggressive China. To this can be added warnings from serving senior naval officers and reports from within the Pentagon.
Although no one is suggesting that the US goes unequivocally hostile against China, there is fear that a Democrat administration with several domestic crises on its hands — among them the Covid crisis, mob violence and political divisions — will be tempted to lead with ‘cooperation’ rather than a clear policy of containing Chinese adventurism. That’s not a great idea with the Chinese. As the secret writer of the ‘Longer Telegram’ warns, the “US strategy must never forget the innately realist nature of the Chinese strategy that it is seeking to defeat. Chinese leaders respect strength and are contemptuous of weakness. They respect consistency and are contemptuous of vacillation”. That’s as clear as it could possibly get. Don’t dodge around the bush with the Chinese, just say it. But that’s not happening, not yet anyway. Don’t hold your breath and keep your powder dry.
The author is former director, National Security Council Secretariat. Views are personal.
Why news media is in crisis & How you can fix it
India needs free, fair, non-hyphenated and questioning journalism even more as it faces multiple crises.
But the news media is in a crisis of its own. There have been brutal layoffs and pay-cuts. The best of journalism is shrinking, yielding to crude prime-time spectacle.
ThePrint has the finest young reporters, columnists and editors working for it. Sustaining journalism of this quality needs smart and thinking people like you to pay for it. Whether you live in India or overseas, you can do it here.