If China is seeking a reset of relations with the Biden administration, it has a strange way of showing it. Instead of backing off from some of its more menacing behavior, Beijing is doubling down. Not only is the Chinese military buzzing Taiwan with 13 fighters and bombers, but Beijing has taken dangerous steps to escalate tensions in the South and East China Seas.
Little noticed in Washington, Beijing last week greeted the new U.S. administration with a dubious and unprecedented new law that throws a monkey wrench into U.S.-Chinese relations and increases the likelihood of a confrontation in the South China Sea. Beijing’s new so-called coast guard law, which takes effect on Feb. 1, explicitly allows the China Coast Guard to fire on foreign vessels, board and inspect ships in waters claimed by Beijing, and destroy any structures built by other states in the disputed Paracel and Spratly island chains. But it doesn’t stop there. The law also asserts the right to declare “temporary exclusion zones” to prevent ships from innocent passage through the vast waters illegally claimed by China. The law could also spur confrontation in the East China Sea, where Beijing claims the Japanese-administered Senkaku Islands, called Diaoyutai by China.
As most of the world knows by now, the territorial claims which the new law purports to defend are fiction. A bit like former President Donald Trump’s manufactured claims of election fraud, China invented the so-called nine-dash line—a horseshoe-shaped series of dashes drawn on a map of the South China Sea. These claims include reefs and islets, some of which are underwater at high tide. Beijing has reclaimed some of them with a “great wall of sand” and they now host military bases. Some of China’s claims cover international waters; others overlap with claims by Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam, and Brunei. In 2016, an international tribunal in The Hague ruled the nine-dash line claims illegitimate under the Law of the Sea Treaty, which Beijing has signed and ratified.
The ill-timed coast guard law was just the latest addition to a pattern of menacing actions by Beijing in recent weeks. These include overt military deployments, notably the intrusion by Chinese fighters and bombers into Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone—twice this past weekend. They also include sanctions against outgoing Trump administration officials who had contact with Taiwan, sending clear warnings to President Joe Biden to walk back Trump’s upgrading of diplomatic ties with Taipei. Beijing has also cautioned Washington to back off from current U.S. restrictions on Chinese trade, technology, and investment. The air threats against Taiwan—ostensibly part of Chinese military exercises—took place just days after Hsiao Bi-khim, Taiwan’s de facto ambassador in Washington, attended Biden’s inauguration on the steps of the U.S. Capitol. That it was a message to team Biden to halt the movement toward normal diplomatic ties to Taiwan couldn’t be clearer.
It doesn’t require much imagination to envision conflict scenarios. How would the United States react if China demolished Philippine construction on shoals and reefs in the South China Sea, attacked Vietnamese or Malaysian oil exploration efforts, or declared a “temporary exclusion zone” as a U.S. aircraft carrier task force cruises into the area?
This question posed by recent Chinese actions isn’t tactical, but geostrategic. The dominant narrative about the South China Sea is the United States’ inability to stop China’s encroachment on Southeast Asian countries’ maritime strategic autonomy. This narrative stretches back to the Obama administration, including the 2012 episode in which China muscled its way into controlling the Philippines-claimed Scarborough Shoal and achieved control over much of the South China Sea.
As China used a mix of economic coercion and other policy instruments, the United States has primarily relied on its military advantage. But diminishing returns on the occasional show of U.S. force, particularly freedom of navigation operations, have allowed Beijing to continuously outmaneuver Washington on national security. Neither U.S. military presence, nor U.S. treaty commitments to Japan and Korea, nor rock-solid relations with Taiwan have held off China’s challenge.
What can Biden do? At his confirmation hearing, Biden’s Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that the Trump administration’s tougher approach toward China was right, but the tactics were wrong. While there is consensus that China is a strategic competitor, the Trump administration never defined the terms of that competition. Kurt Campbell, Biden’s new Asia adviser in the White House, has written, together with National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, about the need for “clear-eyed coexistence” between the two nuclear states. With Brookings China Strategy Initiative director Rush Doshi, Campbell has also called for building a durable and flexible balance of power. The Biden team undoubtedly hoped to begin a thorough policy review as they assemble the full complement of appointees to steer an Indo-Pacific strategy. But now, Beijing has given the nascent Biden team no choice but to preoccupy itself with crisis management, beginning with better risk-reduction mechanisms to minimize the danger of inadvertent escalation.
A recently declassified U.S. Strategic Framework for the Indo-Pacific lays out some Trump administration goals that the Biden team would do well to consider. The slightly redacted memo raised economic, technological, political, and even legal concerns about how China challenges a free and open Indo-Pacific. The central thrust of proposed U.S. action was a military response: first, “denying China sustained air and sea dominance inside the ‘first island chain’ in a conflict;” second, “defending the first-island-chain nations, including Taiwan;” and third, “dominating all domains outside the first island-chain.”
Combined with the People’s Liberation Army’s emphasis on military readiness and Chinese President Xi Jinping’s command to be ready for war “at any second,” Beijing appears to be putting down markers. Team Biden should respond by sending clear signals of the cost to Beijing of implementing its new coast guard law. More broadly, Beijing’s recent actions underscore the need for smart pushback. That begins with the imperative of coalition politics: The Trump administration made a grave mistake in turning Asia strategy into a bilateral U.S.-Chinese problem; Biden rightly seeks to frame it as a China-versus-the-world problem.
The U.S. approach has been too one-dimensional by focusing on the military, with a glaring deficit of U.S. engagement in Asia in the economic and diplomacy space.
The new thinking of the Biden administration must narrow differences with China while expanding the toolkit. There is no daylight between Biden and his team regarding the need to work with allies and partners. Further, the team understands policy must not just counter malign activities but create a positive counterweight across all realms—economic, technological, trade, and security—with tangible benefits for the well-being of the United States as well as China’s Asian neighbors.
Whatever terms one uses to describe China’s activities—political warfare, gray-zone operations, technological supremacy, or information dominance—the United States’ best strategic approach should be based on a positive vision of the future. China is a formidable competitor, exploiting the United States’ desire and need to protect the boundaries of a fraying rules-based international order. But rather than reacting to Beijing by escalating a mindless tit-for-tat that risks a major war, Washington needs to reclaim credibility by offering a path to a new balance in Asia—in which the interests of allies and partners are addressed and the limits of Chinese power is defined.
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