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Biden’s Will to Resist China is Faltering

The Biden team seems to believe it can achieve a kind of Cool War modus vivendi with Beijing.

◎ The Biden team seems to believe it can achieve a kind of Cool War modus vivendi with Beijing.


Washington’s abandonment of Afghanistan hung like a dark cloud over the lofty language in President Biden’s speech to the United Nations last week. It offered meager hope to the Afghan people now destined to suffer again under the Taliban’s barbaric rule.

Biden cited a Security Council resolution that calls for “an inclusive and representative government [that] upholds human rights, including for women, children and minorities.” Those, he said, are “the expectations to which we will hold the Taliban when it comes to respecting universal human rights.”

Biden’s Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said that diplomatic and financial leverage will further those objectives. But reports out of Afghanistan indicate that the Taliban, which announced its decidedly non-inclusive and non-representative regime, is applying its usual brutal repression.

Biden’s words rang hollow for the Afghan people, especially the thousands who worked with the United States, as well as hundreds of Americans — all now Taliban hostages. Their fate remains dire while Biden shifts from Afghanistan to other concerns: “We’ve ended 20 years of conflict and as we close this period of relentless war … the United States turns our focus to the priorities and the regions of the world, like the Indo-Pacific, that are most consequential today and tomorrow.”

European allies may have found irony in Biden’s declaration — “We have reaffirmed our sacred NATO Alliance to Article 5 commitment” — since that was the basis for their joining America’s anti-Taliban campaign, which Biden ended abruptly and without consulting those same NATO allies.

As for the “most consequential … priorities [in the] Indo-Pacific,” he did not utter the name of the central actor, China, perhaps as a result of his earlier, 90-minute phone conversation with Chinese leader Xi Jinping. Biden did state obliquely: “We all must call out and condemn the targeting and oppression of racial, ethnic and religious minorities when it occurs in … Xinjiang or northern Ethiopia or anywhere in the world.”

That generic exhortation against “oppression” did not distinguish the unique nature of China’s Uyghur genocide, nor the special obligations that the Genocide Convention imposes on signatory states to prosecute its perpetrators: “Persons committing genocide … shall be punished, whether they are constitutionally responsible rulers, public officials or private individuals.”

Throughout his litany of global dangers at this “inflection point in history,” Biden consciously refused to identify the source of most of the threats. Regarding COVID-19, for example, he said: “We’ve lost so much to this devastating pandemic that continues to claim lives around the world and impact so much on our existence. We’re mourning more than 4.5 million people — people of every nation from every background.”

He asked rhetorically, “Will we work together to … take the necessary steps to prepare ourselves for the next pandemic? For there will be another one.” Yet, he conspicuously failed to repeat his Aug. 27 condemnation of Beijing for blocking an independent investigation into the pandemic’s China origins.

He said then: “To this day, the [People’s Republic of China] continues to reject calls for transparency and withhold information, even as the toll of this pandemic continues to rise. … The world deserves answers, and I will not rest until we get them.” But, with the eyes and ears of the world upon him and the global death toll still rising, Biden was silent on China’s responsibility.

On that other existential challenge, “the climate crisis,” he failed to note that China will only help in exchange for U.S. concessions on other issues. He called for “emerging technologies [to be] used to lift people up, to solve problems and advance human freedom — not to suppress dissent or target minority communities.” He did not accuse China’s government of doing just that.

Biden pledged “to uphold the longstanding rules and norms that have formed the guardrails of international engagement for decades … bedrock commitments like freedom of navigation, adherence to international laws and treaties, support for arms control measures that reduce the risk and enhance transparency.” Beijing violates those rules and norms daily, but Biden chose to give it another verbal pass.

Apparently, this administration’s thinking, like that of its predecessors until the Trump team, is that talking straight to China will offend its sensibilities and be seen as provocation. As Biden put it, “We are not seeking a new Cold War, or a world divided into rigid blocs.”

Yet, that is exactly the ideological confrontation we are in, like it or not. We will either take on the existential challenge from the Chinese Communist Party, as the Trump administration decided to do, or we can revert to the Clinton and Obama policies of self-delusion regarding Beijing’s hostile global intentions.

The Biden team seems to believe it can achieve a kind of Cool War modus vivendi with Beijing, confining its resistance to China’s assertiveness only to major security issues in the South and East China Seas by strengthening security and other relations with allies and regional partners.  Otherwise, it is intent on removing what it considers mere “irritants” in the relationship while expanding areas of supposed cooperation.

That appears to explain the deal that freed Meng Wanzhou, Huawei’s chief financial officer, from Canadian detention and U.S. extradition in exchange for the release of Canadians Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig, jailed by China in retaliation. Meng admitted wrongdoing in China’s violation of sanctions against Iran, but the “irritant” will probably return in another form as Beijing has demonstrated again the leverage value of hostage-taking.

The most likely area for Biden to indulge his vain hope of changing Chinese behavior through unilateral concessions is on Taiwan. After a promising start with the Biden team following Trump administration policies, closer U.S.-Taiwan relations now may have reached a high-water mark.

The administration can advance or slow-walk the trade and investment talks with Taiwan that would strengthen its case for membership in the Trans-Pacific Partnership and preempt Beijing’s intention to exclude its separate admission.

Or, Biden’s administration, like Trump’s, could remain aloof from Congress’s attempt to eliminate strategic ambiguity on defending Taiwan through the Taiwan Invasion Prevention Act. Of course, it also could achieve strategic clarity with a simple declaration of intent — which no prior administration has done.

But, if it seeks to further assuage Beijing, it could renege on its implied intentions to invite Taiwan to the virtual Summit for Democracy and to rename the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office as the Taiwan Representative Office.

As Biden backs off from confronting China, Taiwan and its American and international friends must remain on the alert.

 

First published in The Hill.

Joseph Bosco served as China country director for the Secretary of Defense from 2005 to 2006 and as Asia-Pacific director of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief from 2009 to 2010. He is a nonresident fellow at the Institute for Corean-American Studies and the Institute for Taiwan-American Studies, and has held nonresident appointments in the Asia-Pacific program at the Atlantic Council and the Southeast Asia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

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