Biden is Accelerating the Pace of the New Cold War with China

Peace Advocate May 2021

by Joseph Gerson

While its stated goals are to be “tough” with China and to “shape the contours of China’s rise,” the Biden administration’s provocative military operations and rhetoric are increasing the danger that an unintended incident, accident, or miscalculation could trigger an armed conflict that could escalate beyond control. The two powers share common interests in stanching the existential threats of nuclear weapons, climate change, and pandemics. But confrontational, not Common Security, approaches to China have thus far defined Biden administration policies and actions.

Since assuming power, the Biden Administration has:

  • Accelerated the pace of provocative naval and Air Force “freedom of navigation” operations near Chinese islet military bases in contested South China Sea waters.
  • Dispatched warships to transit the Taiwan Strait, broadcast its “rock solid” commitment to Taiwan and its military commitment to ensuring Japanese control over the uninhabited Senkaku/Islands (also claimed by China).
  • Poisoned the rhetorical well in the run-up to the quasi-summit meeting in Anchorage, including the claim of Chinese genocide in Xinjiang province, while embracing Israel and other grotesque human rights violators.
  • Reinforced its regional alliances to surround and contain China with Secretaries of State and Defense Blinken and Austin making their first trips abroad to Japan and South Korea and hosting the first meeting of the QUAD, the incipient U.S., Japan, Australia, and India NATO-like alliance.
  • Welcomed Japanese Prime Minister Suga and President Moon of South Korea as the first heads of state invited to Washington, D.C. to reinforce its Indo-Pacific alliance structure.
  • Invited Taiwan’s functional ambassador to the inauguration, testing the limits of the One China policy, the foundation for U.S.-China relations since 1979.
  • Celebrated NATO’s increasing Indo-Pacific commitments.
  • Announced its support for increased military spending.

Although a number of Biden’s foreign and military policy initiatives are to be commended, his China/Indo-Pacific policies and provocations are extensions of the Obama-era pivot and the Trump administration’s 2018 National Security Guidance. Recall that the public courtship of India as an anti-China U.S. ally began in 2009 when Obama welcomed India’s India’s Prime Minister as the first head of state to be honored with a state visit. 

Two years later, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced and provided the rationale for the pivot, because the region is host to “many of the key engines of the global economy” and emerging powers, has half the world’s population, the site of the seminally important Pacific and Indian Ocean shipping lanes, home to “key” U.S. allies, as well as the leading emitters of climate change gasses. 

The Pentagon then committed to deploy 60% of U.S. naval and air power to the region. Obama reinforced the United States “hub and spokes” Asia-Pacific alliance systems and deepened engagements with regional institutions like ASEAN and APEC. The Obama Administration also led negotiations for the Transpacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement to dictate the 21st century’s economic rules of the road in order to more deeply integrate non-Chinese Asia-Pacific societies with the U.S. 

Although Donald Trump weakened the U.S. Asia-Pacific alliance structure with his “America First” disregard for allies and by ignoring regional multilateral institutions, containing, marginalizing, and scapegoating China constituted his administration’s foreign policy priority. The 2018 National Defense Strategy defined China as the United States’ “peer competitor,” necessitating a reduction of U.S. foreign military and foreign policy commitments from Europe and the War on Terror to prepare for this great power war. With his nationally self-defeating trade war, Trump imposed massive tariffs on Chinese goods and deflected attention from his staggering Covid-19 pandemic failures with racist rhetoric that China was responsible for the “Kung flu.” 

After beginning his time in office with the first U.S. presidential phone call to a Taiwanese president since 1979 and sending a high-level diplomat to Taipei for the first time in 40 years, Trump ended it with more than $3 billion in arms sales and sending high-level officials to Taipei. All were designed to chip away at the one-China policy and to tie the U.S more deeply to the island nation that Beijing perceives as a renegade province that must be reunified with China.

On June 8, the Senate passed the U.S. Innovation and Competition Act, which lays out a framework for a new cold war with China.  Building bi-partisanship and national unity on the basis of fear and hatred of China, the bill seeks to jumpstart U.S. technology industries which are being rapidly eclipsed by China’s progress.  Declaring that Taiwan is “vital” to U.S. security, providing military aid to U.S. allies located near China, and undermining the possibility of step-by-step denuclearization of peace negotiations with North Korea, the bill lays out a program of permanent hostility, at a time when the U.S. and China should be collaborating to create a global green economy.  It is now an urgent priority to take out the hawkish language in the House.

Biden foreign and military policy headlines have been dominated by Blinken, Sullivan, and Austin. But the real driver of Biden China policy is Kurt Campbell, the Obama-era Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs who conceived the pivot, now the senior National Security Council Indo-Pacific policymaker.

In 2016, Campbell wrote The Pivot: The Future of American Statecraft in Asia. There he outlined a U.S. Strategy for Asia. It provides the template for the Biden-Blinken-Austin Indo-Pacific agenda. Its elements include:

  • Clarifying the need for and components of the pivot, and “mobiliz[ing]” the U.S. public behind it “through clear and authoritative declarations of U.S. Asia Strategy.” Hence the drumbeat of Biden’s and his mandarins’ warnings about the China “threat.”
  • “Strengthening ties to our Asian allies, including Japan, South Korea, Australia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Singapore (a quasi ally).”
  • Increase ties with India, Taiwan, New Zealand, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Pacific island states.
  • “Shape the contours of China’s rise” by “embedding China policy within a larger Asia policy framework…[adopting] a strategy that focuses inordinately on communiques and grand bargains and regards China …” Recognizing that relations with China will be a “mixture of competition by sustaining the US. dominated Asian ‘operating systems’ while seeking “common ground on cross-cutting global issues.
  • “Update and modernize” U.S. military capabilities in the region, including “increasing access and basing in Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean.”
  • Integrate the Asia-Pacific through the expansion of free trade agreements and economic interaction. (Further into the Biden-era, look for efforts to rejoin the TPP, now being led by Japan.)
  • Engage more deeply in the region’s “integrative international institutions” that have “the power to shape and shore up the [U.S. led] rules and norms in the region…”
  • Support democracy in the region.
  • “The United States need not Pivot to Asia alone…European allies….have the potential to support and expand shared interests.” This explains NATO’s new 2030 Doctrine which includes containing China and Britain’s and France’s recent naval deployments to the South China Sea.

Beginning with Bill Clinton, we have had a pattern of Democratic presidents being excessively confrontational in their policies and actions toward China, followed by being sobered by the dangers and failures of those policies. Despite our differences, we would do well to prioritize pursuing mutually beneficial diplomacy and building collaborations to address the existential threats to survival. Or, as Bertrand Russell and Albert Einstein advised at the height of the Cold War, remembering our humanity, and forgetting the rest.