President Joe Biden’s China policy is coming into focus. As some of us predicted before his inauguration, he appears to be continuing the previous administration’s hard-line stance with Beijing—suggesting that the COVID-19 crisis marks a turning point akin to how the communist bloc’s attempt to seize West Berlin and South Korea solidified bipartisan commitment to waging the Cold War. Similarly, Beijing’s criminal mishandling of COVID-19 seems to be galvanizing a new consensus at home and abroad as we wade deeper into Cold War 2.0.
Before we look at Washington’s hardening position toward the People’s Republic of China (PRC), remember that Xi Jinping’s policies—not some supposed need for an external threat among the American populace—triggered the change.
Beijing illegally claims some 90 percent of the South China Sea. Xi has backed up those claims by building illegal artificial islands beyond PRC waters. One of the islands has a 10,000-foot airstrip—large enough to deploy warplanes, which began arriving in 2017. Others feature radars and antiaircraft weapons.
Xi promised that the PRC would never militarize the “Made in China” islands. But as America and its allies learned at enormous cost last century, words don’t matter to men like Xi. Strength and the will to wield it matter. Xi has both. China’s annual defense outlays now eclipse $261 billion—a staggering 517-percent increase since 2000. China’s military expenditure, by way of comparison, is larger than that of Britain, France, Japan, and South Korea—combined. Xi boasts a 350-ship navy (now the world’s largest). Virtually all of his warships focus and concentrate on China’s neighborhood, while the US fleet is dispersed in every part of the globe.
Xi’s goal is to control the resource-rich South China Sea, assert sovereignty claims, muscle the United States out of the Western Pacific, and of course, bring Taiwan under his heel. Xi has made clear that, one way or another, democratic Taiwan “must and will be”absorbed by the communist mainland. “We make no promise to abandon the use of force,” he warned in 2019. That explains Beijing’s provocative ground-unit maneuvers, naval drills, and bomber sorties around the island democracy.
True, Xi is not brazenly trying to lop off part of Venezuela (like Kaiser Wilhelm II in 1902) or annexing the Sudetenland in the heart of Europe (like Adolf Hitler in 1938) or declaring a sovereign Kuwait “Province 19” (like Saddam Hussein in 1990). His methods are subtler, more circumspect. But his ends are the same. Munich reminds us it’s better to confront such aggression than appease it.
Here at home, the PRC’s hack-and-harvest intellectual-property war against US industry costs Americans as much as $600 billion annually. Xi’s cyber-soldiers have targeted US military programs such as the F-35 and C-17; financial data on 21.5 million Americans stored by the Office of Personnel Management (OPM); networks at NASA and the Department of Defense; and vaccine research at US biopharmaceutical firms.
That brings us back to COVID-19—a local public-health problem that metastasized into a global pandemic because of Beijing’s incompetence or intention. As alluded to above, an important and likely lasting consequence of the COVID-19 crisis is how it awakened the American people to the true nature of the PRC. America and the world now know that Xi’s henchmen lied about human-to-human transmission; allowed thousands of people to leave the epicenter in Wuhan during the pandemic for destinations around the world; carried out a premeditated plan to hoard 2.5 billion pieces of medical protective equipment as the virus swept the globe; blocked scientists from sharing findings about genome sequencing for several precious weeks; and continue to refuse to cooperate with international health agencies.
Some of us didn’t need COVID-19 to see the PRC for what it is (see here, here, here, here p.50). All we needed was to consider how the PRC treats its subjects. Xi’s China is a place where, as Freedom House reports, “hundreds of thousands” of religious adherents are sentenced to forced labor; churches are smashed and followers of Christ sent to reeducation camps; Buddhist temples are bulldozed; Uighur Muslims are herded into concentration camps; Uighur men are packed into freight trains; Uighur women are forcibly sterilized; Uighur babies are forcibly aborted; physicians are jailed for following the Hippocratic Oath; bishops and Nobel Peace Prize laureates die in prison.
As dissident leader Xu Zhangrun observes, “A polity that is blatantly incapable of treating its own people properly can hardly be expected to treat the rest of the world well.”
If nothing else, that lengthening litany helps explain Washington’s stiffening stance on China.
Thus, Biden has stood up a Pentagon task force to “chart a strong path forward on China-related matters,” “meet the China challenge,” and “ensure the American people win the competition of the future.”
Thus, when asked about his predecessor’s decision to label as “genocide” Beijing’s treatment of Uighurs, Secretary of State Tony Blinken answered, “We’re very much in agreement… The forcing of men, women, and children into concentration camps; trying to, in effect, reeducate them to be adherents to the ideology of the Chinese Communist Party, all of that speaks to an effort to commit genocide.”
When asked about Taiwan, which saw expanded and elevated contacts with the US during the Trump administration, Blinken offered an even more eyebrow-raising example of hard-line continuity: “I want to see that process through to conclusion… to make sure that we’re acting pursuant to the mandate in the (Taiwan Assurance) act that looks at creating more space for contacts,” adding that he “would also like to see Taiwan playing a greater role around the world.” Most importantly, Blinken declared, “The commitment to Taiwan is something that we hold to very strongly.” Indeed, the State Department recently pledged “deepening our ties with democratic Taiwan,” reaffirmed the Taiwan Relations Act and Six Assurances, committed to “maintaining a sufficient self-defense capability” for Taiwan, and declared a “rock solid” “commitment to Taiwan.”
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has used that same language, calling US support for Taiwan “rock solid” and vowing to “make sure that we’re living up to our commitments to support Taiwan’s ability to defend itself.”
When asked to assess China’s goals, Blinken concluded, “They seek to become, in effect, the leading country in the world, the country that sets the norms.” In response, Blinken said the Biden administration will “make sure that [America’s] model is the one that carries the day.”
From the tough rhetoric and surprising statement on genocide, to the “rock solid” commitment to Taiwan and inauguration invite to Taiwan’s top diplomat, historian Walter Russell Mead calls Biden’s China policy “the most aggressive concatenation of moves against a foreign power that any peacetime US administration has ever launched so early on.”
Roles and Rules
“For 70 years, the United States, under Democratic and Republican presidents, played a leading role in writing the rules, forging the agreements, and animating the institutions that guide relations among nations, and advance collective security and prosperity,” Biden observes. If America fails to play that role, he explains, “Either someone else will take the United States’ place, but not in a way that advances our interests and values, or no one will, and chaos will ensue. Either way, that’s not good for America.”
There are many ways the US can demonstrate that it has the will to defend the liberal-democratic model, enforce international rules and norms of behavior, and advance security. These include reassuring allies and repurposing alliances (e.g., the Quad dialogue), building a common allied front on trade and technology (e.g., the Clean 5G partnership), and using the bully pulpit to highlight Xi’s lawless behavior. But the most effective and immediate way to show America’s commitment to the liberal-democratic model, existing norms of behavior, and international security is by maintaining an active, forward-postured, deterrent force. The Biden administration is doing exactly that.
Freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) in the South China Sea were a constant feature of the Trump administration’s defense policy. And they are continuing under the Biden administration—with gusto. In its first 27 days in office, the Biden administration sent a Navy warship through the Taiwan Strait, dispatched another to directly challenge Beijing’s claims in the Spratly Islands, steamed two aircraft carrier strike groups into the South China Sea for joint maneuvers, and deployed a package of B-52 bombers to Guam for “strategic deterrence operations.”
Washington’s message to Beijing: you will not be allowed to annex or cordon off international seas, waterways, airspace, or air corridors.
This commitment to freedom of navigation is not new. In the first decade-plus of the Republic, the US paid ransom to win the release of mariners and vessels seized by thuggish regimes that illegally claimed international waters in the Mediterranean as their own. President Thomas Jefferson overturned this policy, famously declaring, “It will be more easy to raise ships and men to fight these pirates into reason, than money to bribe them.”
In the years that followed, defending freedom of navigation became a primary mission of the US military. As a Pentagon report explains, “Since its founding, the United States has stood for—and fought for—freedom of the seas.” Indeed, of the hundreds of instances of US military intervention tallied by the Congressional Research Service, dozens are related to freedom of navigation, maritime poaching, and piracy. So, it should come as no surprise that President Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points called for “absolute freedom of navigation upon the seas.” President Franklin Roosevelt, in the Atlantic Charter, envisioned a postwar peace allowing “all men to traverse the high seas and oceans without hindrance.” FDR called “freedom of the seas” an “American policy.”
What Jefferson began in the Mediterranean continues today in the South China Sea.
More must be done to ensure that America’s Navy and Air Force can keep the world’s waterways and skies open—and Xi’s encroaching military at bay.
Former Navy Secretary Kenneth Braithwaite proposed reactivating the 1st Fleet to relieve some of the burden on the 7th Fleet, which is tasked with overwatching the Western Pacific Ocean and a large chunk of the Indian Ocean. Biden’s team should examine this proposal.
But America needs more ships—not just more fleets—to deter Xi. At the height of President Ronald Reagan’s military buildup, the Navy boasted 594 ships. At just 297 ships, today’s Navy lacks the assets to be present in all the places it’s needed. “For us to meet what combatant commanders request,” according to former CNO Admiral Jonathan Greenert, “we need a Navy of 450 ships.”
The bad news is that growing the fleet will be difficult amidst the soaring costs related to COVID-19 recovery. The good news is that America is not alone.
The Quad—enfolding the US, Australia, India, and Japan—is edging toward something close to a security partnership. Before passing the baton to Blinken, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo proposed an “institutionalized… security framework” for the Quad. Whether or not Biden moves in that direction, the Quad democracies are conducting large-scale naval maneuvers, while deepening cooperation on military basing, intelligence-sharing, and supply-chain resilience.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg recently released a report that lays the groundwork for the alliance’s most profound strategic shift since the end of the Cold War: a detailed proposal for NATO to devote “more time, political resources and action to the security challenges posed by China,” which the document labels “a full-spectrum systemic rival.” Already, France is enforcing freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, sending warships through the Taiwan Strait, deploying attack submarines in the region, and dispatching the Charles de Gaulle carrier group throughout the region. Britain has conducted FONOPs in the South China Sea, and her majesty’s newest aircraft carrier is headed to the Pacific for its maiden deployment.
These allies recognize that the natural order of the world is not orderly. There are no police to settle disputes, deter bad guys, keep the peace, or enforce rules of the road (or the sea) in international affairs. Those tasks fall to responsible powers like the United States and its free world allies, which are called, as the Providence statement on foreign policy explains, to cultivate “the garden of world order.”
If the free world fails to answer that call, someone else will, as Biden warns—“but not in a way that advances our interests and values.”