By Harsh V. Pant
Days after Chinese President Xi Jinping addressed this year’s virtual World Economic Forum, emphasizing the importance of global cooperation in fighting the covid pandemic and saving the world economy, Beijing declared its intent of conducting military exercises in the South China Sea in the Gulf of Tonkin, just east of Vietnam. This is the new Chinese style of diplomacy, wherein the world is supposed to take the rhetoric of cooperation more seriously than the country’s aggressive actions. The Communist Party of China would have the world believe that even its malevolent actions against weaker, smaller states are actually about the greater global good.
At the World Economic Forum’s virtual event, The Davos Agenda, Xi Jinping wanted the world to focus on multilateral cooperation, even as he targeted the US and its allies for “ideological prejudice”. In some ways, Xi was once again trying to do what he did in 2017 when he delivered the keynote address at Davos—positioning China as guarantor of the world economic order by signalling a willingness to take on a bigger role in global leadership at a time of growing American isolationism. But in 2017, it was Donald Trump at the helm of the US, while now President Joe Biden wants to make America globalist again.
So, calling for a rejection of isolationism and “ideological prejudice”, the message from the Chinese leader was one of engagement on Chinese terms. And sure enough, his speech was followed by actions in the South China Sea, after a US carrier group led by the USS Theodore Roosevelt entered those waters on Saturday to promote freedom of sea navigation. Xi’s message was aimed primarily at the Biden administration, which is still trying to settle in, and the contours of its China policy are only just about beginning to emerge. Given the Trump administration’s explicit posturing vis-à-vis China on issues ranging from trade, the Indo-Pacific, Hong Kong, Xinjiang and Taiwan to the South China Sea, it is important for Beijing to lay down a clear marker for the new US administration. Beijing seems unsure about how relations between the two countries will shape up under President Biden.
Xi, therefore, made his preferences clear when he suggested that “we should respect and accommodate differences, avoid meddling in other countries’ internal affairs and resolve disagreements through consultation and dialogue.” Referring to the last few years, the Chinese leader also said that “history and reality have made it clear time and again that the misguided approach of antagonism and confrontation—be it in the form of a cold war, hot war, trade war or tech war—will eventually hurt all countries’ interest and undermine everyone’s well-being.”
While Biden has suggested that he would like his country to “engage with the world once more”, there is every likelihood that his China policy will take its cues from his predecessor. And that’s what China remains worried about. Terming Trump’s approach to China a “strategic misjudgement”, China’s top diplomat Yang Jiechi recently urged the Biden administration to “rise above the outdated mentality of zero-sum, major-power rivalry and work with China to keep the relationship on the right track.” Jiechi reminded the US that Beijing expects Washington “to honour its commitment under the three Sino-US joint communiques” and abide by the ‘One China’ principle, as “these issues concern China’s core interests, national dignity as well as the sentiments of its 1.4 billion people”, thereby constituting “a red line that must not be crossed.”
While the Biden administration might be keen on working with Beijing on big issues such as covid response, economic recovery and climate change, the tech and trade rivalry with China that sharpened under Trump is not going anywhere in a hurry. In his first foreign policy speech after taking office, Biden made it clear that America will confront Beijing’s “economic abuses, counter its aggressive, coercive action to push back on China’s attack on human rights, intellectual property, and global governance.” In the Indo-Pacific, new secretary of state Antony Blinken has re-committed the US to the defence of the Philippines, reaffirmed the strength of the United States-Thailand defence alliance, rejected China’s maritime claims in the South China Sea, and pledged to stand with Southeast Asian claimants in the face of Beijing’s pressure. This followed the Biden administration’s assurances to Japan over the defence of the Japanese-administered Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, which China claims and calls the Diaoyu. Blinken has also underlined the importance of cooperation, including through multilateral organizations and mechanisms like the Quad, to tackle shared challenges in his outreach to regional US partners like Australia, Japan and India.
The stage is set for continuity in America’s China policy, despite there being serious concerns in the Indo-Pacific about America’s future posture towards China and the region. Biden and his team may need some more time to fully make up their mind about China, but regional powers are clear about the challenge they face. If the US won’t respond adequately and in time, then regional players will have to marshal their own resources to manage the consequences of China’s rise. It was Barack Obama’s eight years in the White House that allowed China to emerge the menacing power it is today. For the Indo-Pacific, giving Biden any more time is a luxury the region can’t afford.
This commentary originally appeared in Mint.