While many issues may alter the status of US-China relations in the near future, the early salvos from the Biden administration and from China indicate an intensifying global power competition, without possibly making animated headlines as during the Trump presidency. These early signs have implications for India, saddled as it is with pounding pressure from China’s military presence on its Himalayan borders and its stepped-up activities in the Indian Ocean.
That such a scenario may evolve is indicated by China’s actions as well as the new leadership’s response in the US across the spectrum of conflict scenarios. China’s President Xi Jinping spoke at the Davos virtual summit meeting on January 25. He had first addressed the forum in 2017, soon after Donald Trump was inaugurated as the US President. Xi alluded to an emerging “new Cold War.”
China appears to be comfortable with combining competition with cooperation, while the US is mulling over new options under the Biden administration, distracted as it is with its Covid-19 crisis and the domestic economy. The new leadership in the US is aware of how China undercut American influence in the Indo-Pacific, initially through mercantilist policies but increasingly by gobbling up territories through ‘salami slicing’ and militarisation.
China’s overtures to South Korea and an investment deal with Europe are seen as bids to create a wedge between the US and its allies. China’s domestic policies in Hong Kong, Tibet and Xinjiang also came up for extensive bi-partisan criticism in the US, which the Biden administration cannot ignore. On the other hand, the new US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken’s comments that he agreed with his predecessor Pompeo’s terming of China’s Uighur record as ‘genocide’, suggests continuity in US policies towards Beijing.
The new US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin, in a call to his Japanese counterpart Nobuo Kishi, reiterated the Obama-era assurance that Senkaku islands come under the purview of Article 5 of the US-Japan alliance treaty. This comes in the wake of China’s parliament passing a coast guard law that empowers its forces to open fire, a sure sign of escalation and provocation.
Taiwan is still the major hotspot in US-China relations. Three days after Biden took over as President, China on January 23 sent 13 aircraft, some of them nuclear bombers, across the straits. The US State Department expressed “concern” the same day over China’s actions and stated that its commitment to Taiwan was “rock solid.”
Earlier, in an unprecedented move, Taiwan’s representative to the US, Hsiao Bi-khim was invited to Biden’s presidential inauguration. Recall that when President-elect Trump received a phone call from Taiwan President Tsai Ying-wen, China launched its inter-continental ballistic missile, DF-41, to signal its response.
The South China Sea remains a contentious issue as well, with former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton having called it a part of US “national interests.” With China’s militarisation efforts intensifying in the region, the USS Theodore Roosevelt aircraft carrier was sent to the region on January 23. The region is a part of the US’ Indo-Pacific construct, initiated by Trump and accepted by Biden.
China intended to usher in strategic primacy in Asia and beyond by challenging two major powers – by raking up a non-sovereignty issue on Senkaku islands with Japan and surpassing its trade value chain leadership in the last decade on the one hand, and blatantly occupying disputed territory with India despite a series of agreements on maintaining the status quo. The role of the US is crucial in maintaining stability in Asia. Obama made significant concessions to China in the South China Sea and on the idea of a possible G-2 with Beijing; Trump challenged China at every level after the tariff war did not yield results. What will Biden do?
At the global level as well, Trump’s isolationist policies allowed China to expand its influence in the global commons, even as Covid-19, which originated in Wuhan, restricted other economies and their outreach. Biden’s first actions in re-joining the climate change mechanisms and the much-maligned World Health Organisation could ensure a level-playing field. Besides, the new US Ambassador to the UN, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, termed China’s moves “aggressive” and a “malign force.”
Unlike during past US administrations, when the newly appointed functionaries hardly had any communications with New Delhi, this time around, the National Security Advisers and defence ministers of both countries had a brief exchange of pleasantries and positive messages. The litmus test of bilateral relations, however, will emerge on a number of issues, such as the border escalation with China, support to Pakistan on the Taliban issue in Afghanistan and on issues relating to global terrorism.
(Srikanth Kondapalli the JNU Prof has been Peking behind the Bamboo Curtain for 30 years @SrikanthKondap8)