Biden’s China Reset

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US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s June 2023 visit to China resurrected memories of 2008, when then-President Barack Obama undertook a major reset of relations between the US and Russia. Blinken’s trip sought to restore bilateral dialogue to facilitate a thaw in a US-China rivalry that was spinning dangerously out of control. Obama’s Russian reset eventually collapsed under the weight of unfulfilled expectations driven by policy incompatibility between the US and Russia that no amount of dialogue could ever bridge. President Joe Biden’s reset with China seems more intent on avoiding war than repairing relations and defining a policy-neutral stance than charting a new policy direction.

Blinken made headlines during his visit to China when he announced that the US would continue to embrace the “One China” policy that defined US relations with Taiwan for decades. “We do not support Taiwan independence,” Blinken said in a press conference after a meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping. “We remain opposed to any unilateral changes to the status quo by either side. We continue to expect the peaceful resolution of cross-strait differences.”

China considers self-ruling Taiwan its own territory, and while official Chinese policy is to seek the peaceful reunification of Taiwan, China has raised the prospect of responding militarily should Taiwan seek independence. Blinken’s visit was premised on the notion that such an outcome would be devastating. “[W]ere there to be a crisis over Taiwan,” Blinken said, “the likelihood is that could produce an economic crisis that could affect quite literally the entire world.”

One of the visit’s primary goals — the establishment of a crisis military-to-military communications channel — was not accomplished. And the importance of Blinken’s visit wasn’t necessarily defined by fulfilled expectations but rather the simple fact that the two nations were once again engaged in a dialogue. “We have no illusions about the challenges of this relationship,” Blinken observed. “There are many issues on which we profoundly and even vehemently disagree.” However, Blinken concluded, “The United States has a long history of successfully managing complicated relationships through diplomacy.”

A Sobering Military Assessment

Blinken’s message of diplomacy was a stark departure from a policy trajectory by the Biden administration that seemed headed toward an inevitable military conflict with China. Biden and Xi last met at the G20 Summit in Bali in November 2022. At that time, Biden reaffirmed his commitment to the “One China” policy. However, US action since the Bali meeting, including an increase in military assistance to Taiwan coupled with diplomatic interaction with the Taiwanese government, teetered dangerously close to crossing what China called “the first red line” in US-China relations, namely the recognition or encouragement of Taiwanese independence. Blinken’s blanket declaration that the US would not support Taiwanese independence was essential for changing the trajectory of US-Chinese relations.

For a while, it seemed to some that the US was hell bent on pushing China into a conflict. Aggressive rhetoric by a succession of senior US military officers and officials suggested that the US was not only ready for a war with China over Taiwan, but that they believed the US could prevail if one broke out. Such conclusions represent a sharp departure from what had been a trend in war games carried out by the Pentagon simulating a US-Chinese conflict over Taiwan. These not only always resulted in a Chinese victory, but showed, as a senior US Air Force officer pointed out, “not just that we were losing, but we were losing faster.” That statement was made in a 2021 interview referring to 2018 war games, by US Air Force Lt. Gen. Clinton Hinote, who at the time served as the deputy chief of staff for strategy, integration and requirements. This suggested that unless the US fundamentally changed course, any US president presented with the option of going to war with China would, in fact, face the prospect of a US military defeat.

While the Biden administration sought to shift military capabilities to the Pacific in an effort to effect the kind of course correction advocated by Hincote, the outbreak of a major conflict between Russia and Ukraine in 2022 compelled the US and its allies to divert military and financial resources into the European theater of operations instead.

Toward Policy Neutral

One of the major obstacles to jump-starting high-level military communication between the US and China are the unilateral sanctions imposed on Chinese Defense Minister Li Shangfu by the US in 2018 over a Russian arms purchase. “The US side knows the reason for difficulties in its military-to-military relations with China,” a spokesperson for the Chinese embassy in the US said after Blinken’s visit. “It actually imposed unilateral sanctions on China. Such obstacles should be removed before any exchange and cooperation could take place between the two countries.”

During the press conference following his meeting with Xi, Blinken reiterated the position articulated by US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen in congressional testimony delivered on the eve of Blinken’s Chinese visit, namely that at a time when trade between the US and China topped $700 billion, any effort to decouple trade and investment with China would be “disastrous.”

However, while the desire to find an offramp to avoid war was a priority, the issue of similarly off-ramping US sanctions policy was not as clear-cut. “We are for de-risking and diversifying,” Blinken said. “That means investing in our own capacities and in secure, resilient supply chains, pushing for level playing fields for our workers in our companies. Defending against harmful trade practices and protecting our critical technologies so that they aren’t used against us. I made clear that we’ll continue to take targeted actions that are necessary to protect US national security.”

Mixed Bag

Blinken’s visit to China was very much a mixed bag: A policy reset that seemed more interested in moving the US to a policy-neutral position, as opposed to pushing US-China policy in a new direction. The need for such a policy-neutral stance is driven by uncertainties over the end game in Ukraine, and, perhaps more importantly, uncertainty about the political future of Taiwan, where the opposition nationalist party, the Kuomintang (KMT), could defeat the incumbent Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in presidential elections scheduled for January 2024.

While both main Taiwanese parties oppose unification with China, the KMT seeks friendlier ties and accuses the DPP — and, by extension, the US — of worsening tensions. If the Biden administration continued down a policy course tied to the more aggressive posture of the DPP, it would run the risk of being out of sync with the KMT should it prevail at the polls. As such, a policy-neutral stance on China is Biden’s best option on Taiwan going into his own bid for reelection in November 2024, while avoiding a war with China the US is ill-prepared to win.

Scott Ritter is a former US Marine Corps intelligence officer whose service over a 20-plus-year career included tours of duty in the former Soviet Union implementing arms control agreements, serving on the staff of US Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf during the Gulf War and later as a chief weapons inspector with the UN in Iraq from 1991-98. The views expressed in this article are those of the author.

Security Risk , Alternative View
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