Mixed Signals and High Hopes. What Will Biden Make of East Asia?

Mixed Signals and High Hopes.  What Will Biden Make of East Asia?

Academics and analysts are not fortune tellers. They try to analyse events and processes while inferring patterns or possible outcomes. Decision-makers, instead, react to processes and events in a different manner. It is their reactions that create new events and the course of those events that further give birth to new processes.

Inferring possible outcomes from U.S.’s 46th President would be a premature attempt. As a former academic in China, I attended numerous conferences on the Trans-Pacific relations. I remember how, four years ago, many colleagues of mine in Beijing were concerned about the chances of a rapprochement between the United States and Russia. At the time, they were considering such a scenario could be detrimental to China, who may lose its trade leverage in Russia and Central Asia. As U.S.’s new President-elect recited the presidential oath of office, I am sure many scenarios continued to be prematurely considered with regard to the role the United States will play in the global arena in the next four years. Among them, the only certainty are the high hopes.

Certain signals in this direction came from Beijing, as the Chinese President Xi Jinping congratulated the US President Joseph Biden, hoping that the two countries will “uphold the spirit of non-conflict, non-confrontation, mutual respect and win-win cooperation”. In the same key, Hua Chunying, spokeswoman of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs signaled China’s desire to work with the U.S. “in strengthening dialogues, managing differences and expanding cooperation so as to return bilateral relations back to the right track of development at an early date and better serve the people of the two countries and the whole world.”

At the same day, only hours after the inauguration ceremony, well-wishing did not stop China to sanction thirty former Trump administration officials: in addition to Mike Pompeo, former Secretary of State – and, according to some analysts, a possible Republican candidate for the 2024 elections, the list of China-sanctioned officials comprised National Security Advisor Robert O'Brien, United Nations Ambassador Kelly Craft – who had her trip to Taipei scheduled for January 13 canceled, but still phoned Tsai Ing-wen, former economic advisor Peter Navarro, former diplomat David Stilwell, former Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar – who went to Taipei last summer, former security advisor John Bolton and advisor Stephen Bannon. Emily Horne, spokeswoman for President Biden’s National Security Council labeled the Chinese move “unproductive and cynical” noting that “President Biden looks forward to working with leaders in both parties to position America to out-compete China”.

China, however, made no visible comments with regard to the official invitation of Xiao Meiqin to the Presidential inauguration. A former member of the Legislative Yuan in Taipei, Xiao is currently representing the Taipei authorities in Washington. While, in the past, other exponents of Taipei have participated at the inauguration ceremonies at the invitation of members of the U.S. Congress, Xiao’s invitation has been extended by the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies.

Only two days after the US presidential inauguration, on January 22, China’s National People’s Congress approved the “Law of the Coastguard of People’s Republic of China”, coming into force on February 1st. Aiming at “safeguarding national sovereignty, security and maritime rights”, the national law allows the Chinese Coastguard to use “all the necessary means” in order to prevent threats from foreign vessels. As the law under discussion applies to China’s “jurisdictional waters”, which include maritime areas claimed by other countries, it raises the risk of miscalculation in possible standoffs with other vessels in East and South China Sea. Through the spokeswoman of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, China reassured that it will “remain committed to upholding peace and stability in the area”, while the Coastguard Law is nothing but “normal legislative activity of the National People’s Congress”.

The next day, on January 23, Taipei-based Central News Agency (CNA) reported several bombers and fighter jets of China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) have appeared Southwest of the island of Taiwan. While the PLA conducted daily operations in the area in the recent months, the number of the airplanes deployed seems much higher than previously. Several hours later, U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price released a statement which urged China to engage in a “meaningful” dialogue with the “democratically elected” representatives of the island, giving assurances of the U.S.’ “rock solid” support for the Taipei authorities.

As tensions seemed to have continued growing, on January 24, U.S. announced one of its jet-carriers has entered South China Sea to “guarantee the freedom of the seas and build partnerships that increase maritime security”. The same day, new US Secretary of Defense, Lloyd Austin, phoned his Japanese counterpart, Nobuo Kishi, to offer assurances that the islands between China and Japan located in the East China Sea fall under the scope of the 1960 Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between Washington and Tokyo. During their call, the two officials also talked about renewing the cost-sharing agreement of the American troops in Japan. At the end of their conversation, Austin promised his Japanese counterpart to further strengthen the alliance between Washington and Tokyo and to safeguard peace and security in the Indo-Pacific. Both parties have promised to oppose any form of unilateral change with regard to the status quo of East and South China Sea, without, however, naming China. A similar phone call between Austin and his South-Korean counterpart, Defense Minister Suh Wook, reaffirmed the importance of the US-South Korea alliance which was deemed “more important than ever”. Again, no direct references were made to China or North Korea.

After a period of growing tensions between the two powers, high hopes have been placed on the development of the Trans-Pacific relations. The early – and swift – developments sent, however, mixed signals. Whether a Democrat at the White House will represent a return to Obama’s “Pivot to Asia” still remains a pertinent question. It is clear, however, that East Asia, as well as the US, went through fundamental changes since 2016 and the new relations among Trans-Pacific powers need to be assessed accordingly.

Of course, mixed diplomatic signals also show a tendency for tentative, experimental activities. They anticipate – or rather generate – preliminary 1st and 2nd track discussions that lead to significant, possibly game-changing, decisions. Depending of the results of such tentative endeavours, more vigorous political statements may emerge with regard to the strategic moves of both powers in East Asia and even further. So far, caution has been the word of the week.

A pioneer of the bilateral US-China relations, President Biden firstly visited Beijing as a Senator in 1979. No stranger of China, he first met President Xi in 2011, at a time when both were Vice-Presidents. Undoubtedly, Biden’s familiarity with China will mark a new stage – not necessarily a more amenable one – in the Trans-Pacific relations.While for the U.S. cooperation, appeasement and competition appear as still viable scenarios,during Xi’s Davos speech on January 25th, a new option seems to have been advanced“To build small circles, or start a new Cold War (...) will only push the world into division and even confrontation. At the time, high hopes remain the only certaintyWhat a hard time for decision-makers!

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Dr. N.C.


The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the official policy, position or view of IRSEA or any of its partners.