A week into Joe Biden’s presidency, the United States and China have already delivered significant signals that the two powers’ security relationship has undergone a dramatic shift since the former U.S. vice president’s last time in the White House — and that these changes are here to stay.
“What we’ve seen over the last few years is that China is growing more authoritarian at home and more assertive abroad,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said earlier this week. “And Beijing is now challenging our security, prosperity and values in significant ways that require a new U.S. approach.”
Psaki said that, for now, the administration will approach Beijing with “patience” as it reviews its policy on China in consultation with allies. But signals from both Beijing and Washington are already pointing to a continued fraught relationship.
Sino-American ties plunged to historic lows under the administration of President Donald Trump, with the two clashing over trade, tech and Beijing’s increasing assertiveness in the South and East China seas and over self-ruled Taiwan.
On Saturday, the Chinese military sent a fleet of 13 warplanes, including nuclear-capable bombers, into the southwest corner of Taiwan’s air defense identification zone. A day later, it dispatched 15 planes, including 12 fighter jets, to the area. Just southeast of the ADIZ flights, in the area that separates Taiwan from the Philippines, the USS Theodore Roosevelt aircraft carrier strike group on Saturday entered the disputed South China Sea.
And on Tuesday, China announced that it would be conducting fresh military exercises in the strategic waterway even as the Roosevelt continues to operate there.
Though some observers questioned the timing of the large-scale ADIZ flights and the dispatch of the U.S. carrier group, it was unclear if the moves were intended to send messages to the respective capitals.
“Security issues are likely to be at the front and center in the U.S.-China relationship, and the most dangerous flashpoints are those issues that pertain to Chinese sovereignty and intersect with important U.S. interests,” Bonnie Glaser, director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank, said during an online forum this week.
“The leaders in both the United States and China want to avoid showing weakness and want to demonstrate resolve,” she added.
The U.S. approach to Taiwan, which China views as a renegade province that must be brought back into the fold — by force if necessary — is one of those key flashpoints.
China has looked to heap pressure on Taiwan by steadily ramping up air and naval operations around the country since 2016. The operations have included bombers, fighter jets and reconnaissance aircraft skirting the country, a bolstered naval presence in nearby waters and regularized crossings of the so-called median line, which is intended to head off mishaps.
The U.S., meanwhile, has sold more than $5 billion worth of advanced weapons to Taiwan. More notably, the Trump administration sent some of the highest-level officials in decades to the island for heavily publicized meetings that came amid the administration’s faltering ties with Beijing.
Trump’s approach — which has left the two sides’ militaries virtually incommunicado — coupled with China’s bolstered military actions, have raised fears of an unintended clash.
Asked about the weekend flights by Chinese warplanes, Michele Flournoy, who had previously been mentioned as a possible Biden pick for defense chief, signaled how difficult it will be for the administration to craft a new China policy.
“I am very concerned about the risk of a miscalculation between the U.S. and China, given the heightened tensions and given that we tend to not fully understand each other in terms of resolve, interests, capability,” Flournoy, a former Pentagon policy chief, said during an online event Monday. “Taiwan really has become the flashpoint because it is the No. 1 priority for China but also because the departing Trump administration made a number of very aggressive moves with regard to U.S.-Taiwan policy that were really a departure from the bipartisan norm of several administrations.”
Trump’s moves, she said, had effectively “poked China in the eye.”
For its part, the new U.S. administration appears willing to maintain a certain level of ambiguity on Taiwan, something that Biden has long supported. That was seen in an unusually quick response by the State Department on Saturday to the Chinese warplanes.
In a statement, the new administration demanded Beijing halt “its military, diplomatic, and economic pressure against Taiwan” and engage in dialogue with Taipei, noting curtly that Washington’s commitment to Taiwan remains “rock solid” and that it will continue to assist it “in maintaining a sufficient self-defense capability.”
Still, some of the language in the statement was also markedly toned down from the fiery rhetoric of the Trump era, including a pledge to stand by communiques agreed to with China on the political status of Taiwan.
Washington, which switched diplomatic recognition to Beijing from Taipei in 1979, considers the self-ruled island a key partner. Although it no longer formally recognizes Taiwan, the U.S. is required by law to provide Taipei with the means to defend itself.
Andrew Yeo, a politics professor at the Catholic University of America, said that by pointing to Washington’s long-standing commitments on Taipei, the Biden administration offered “a bottom baseline of where it stands on U.S.-Taiwan relations,” while also preserving “greater flexibility” in dealing with Taiwan and China.
“Following Trump, the Biden administration will have to figure out how much latitude it wants to give itself — and Taiwan and China — in ensuring security and stability in the Taiwan Strait,” he said.
Since Biden’s Jan. 20 inauguration, Chinese officials have appeared to seek an understanding with the new administration in the security sphere, including in a speech Monday by Chinese President Xi Jinping that appeared to target Biden.
Speaking at a virtual meeting of the World Economic Forum, Xi said the world “should reject the outdated Cold War and zero-sum game mentality, adhere to mutual respect and accommodation, and enhance political trust through strategic communication.”
It is crucial to stay committed to international law and international rules “instead of staying committed to supremacy,” Xi said, in his first address since Biden entered the White House.
“Confrontation will lead us to a dead end,” he added.
But while espousing familiar talking points highlighting multilateralism and “win-win” outcomes, Chinese officials have also hinted that a change course in the face of U.S. pressure is not in the cards.
Beijing hopes Biden “will draw lessons from consequences of the wrong policies of the previous administration, look at China and China-U.S. relations in an objective and rational light, and take positive and constructive policies towards China,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said Tuesday.
His comments came after press secretary Psaki said Monday that Xi’s remarks “don’t change anything” in terms of how the Biden administration is approaching its relations with China.
Biden, mindful of criticism that Beijing attempted to take advantage of the U.S. during his time as vice president in the administration of Barack Obama, will also be seeking to demonstrate that he will hold China’s feet to the fire.
But he will be doing so at a very crucial period for Xi.
This year marks the centenary of the ruling Chinese Communist Party’s founding — which comes with the concomitant goal of building “a moderately prosperous society in all respects” — and next year will see a National Party Congress, at which Xi is widely expected to seek a third term as the party’s general secretary.
The Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Glaser said Xi will be “especially vigilant” on protecting core issues as he seeks “to shore up bonafides as a staunch protector” of Chinese sovereignty, including on Taiwan, the South China Sea, the Sino-Indian border and the Senkaku Islands.
“Will tensions continue to ratchet up? I expect that they will,” she said.
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