First, the good news: it appears that the Trump administration's pivot from President Obama's unsuccessful focus on the Middle East to a focus on a rivalry with China will have some legs with the Biden administration. At least there are some indicators:
- Biden's first week in office began with a minor test by the Chinese - an unusually agressive incursion by nuclear-capable bombers into Taiwan's Air Defense Identification Zone. We responded with the deployment of two carrier strike groups to the South China Sea, a destroyer transit of the Taiwan Straights, and the deployment of four B-52 bombers to Guam. Message received.
- Days before leaving office, Secretary Pompeo's State Department formally designated Chinese actions against the Uighurs as "genocide" - "the forced assimilation and eventual erasure of a vulnerable ethnic and religious minority group.” Biden's Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken supported the designation during his confirmation hearings.
- Long-time Biden staffer Ely Ratner has been designated to lead a four month Defense Department study of strategy and operations in Asia, including techology, force posture, intelligence, and the role of allies. No major changes are anticipated, except perhaps some impacts of climate change which are popular in Biden-think, but were largely ignored by Trump.
- Biden administration nominees have echoed Trump criticisms of China's trade practices, with Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen telling the Senate Finance Committee "China is undercutting American companies by dumping products, erecting trade barriers, and giving away subsidies to corporations." Tariffs will be kept in place as details of the economic policy are redfined.
- Biden's February 9 phone call with Xi Jinping at least addressed the Uighurs, Hong Kong, and Taiwan which are considered off limits by Xi as matters of Chinese sovereignty and territorial integrity. They agreee to work together on health security, climate change, and weapons proliferation.
The second piece of good news is that our fate relative to China is in our hands. While the Chinese GDP could match that of the United states in a few years, and they hold over $1 trillion of the $7 trillion of our debt held by foreign governments, we are self sufficient in agriculture and energy, and lead the world in military force and technological innovation. This could change with continuing trillion dollar deficits, and neither the Treasury Secretary nor the Federal Reserve Chair are concerned, but a substantial majority of voters are significantly concerned about the national debt, and an optimist would believe that eventually the politicians will reflect that. (At least the Senate Republicans would like to slow down the Covid give-aways.)
We - with a little help from our Post-WWII friends - invented the current world order - the United Nations; the World Bank; the International Monetary Fund; the World Trade Organization; the World Health Organization; the International Civil Aviation Organization; The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN); the International Standards Organization; and on and on. The Chinese would like to play a leading role in telecommunications standards with Huawei's 5G architecture, but Trump raised the alarm, and they face a steep hill.
The primary goal of Xi Jinping and his Communist Party allies - the consolidation of power - will have adverse effects. The forced integration of Hong Kong will constrict China's largest point of interaction with global financial markets. The forced assimilation of the Uighurs will play poorly in the neighboring Muslim countries of Indonesia, Pakistan, and central Asia. Measures to bring Jack Ma's social media empire to heel through regulation, jailings, and intimidation will result in less creativity and reduced ability to compete with Western internet companies.
While the Belt and Road largesse is attractive to third world countries seeking infrastructure development, there is plenty of reason for China's neighbors to be wary of China's heavy hand, with border skirmishes within the memory of leaders from India, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Russia.
So, how could a Biden administration build on what they inherited?
1. They should rejoin the renovated Trans Pacific Partnership with New Zealand, Australia, Brunei, Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam, Japan, Canada, Mexico, Peru, and Chile. (Britain, free of the European Union, applied for membership last week.) Biden would have to negotiate domestic labor and environmental objections as well as Trump's aversion to multinational dispute adjudication procedures, but an extensive alliance of countries seeking an alternative to Chinese domination is waiting for us. China's alternative proposition - the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership - will grow if we do not move.
2. Biden's team should build on the recently activated Quadrilateral Security Dialogue with the navies of Japan, Australia, and India to manage ocean transit among the countries of the Indian Ocean and the southwest Pacific. This is a step out for Australia, whose largest trading partner is China, but a multi-national approach is called for as China expands their ambitions in international coastal waters.
3. At a minimum, Biden's team should require closer monitoring of the Chinese Communist government relationships on US campuses. During his term, Trump eliminated half of the 100 Confucius Institutes - Chinese government funded cultural centers on US college campuses. Of the FBIs 5000 active intellectual property theft cases, half involve China, including prominent professors at Harvard and MIT who were paid by China while receiving grant money from the National Institute of Health or the Defense Department. With 300,000 Chinese students in the United States, the task may be impossible.
4. Chinese pressure on North Korea is a must. There should also be pressure for Xi to join nuclear non-proliferation agreements with Russia, and to support measures to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power. While the most important, this is probably the least likely.
5. A few bargaining chips will be used on global warming, where China accounts for 28% of global CO2 emissions compared to our 15%, and they espouse goals without plans to stop increasing in a decade and become "carbon neutral" by 2060. For the zealots who would destroy our economy, where emissions are decreasing, a bit of intellectual rigor is needed.
And then there is the Hunter Biden factor: appointed to the Burisma board in the Ukraine; Joe brags about getting the Burisma investigator fired; Chinese agents notice; Hunter and Joe fly off together to Beijing on Air Force 2; Hunter returns with lucrative investment banking connections and a gift of a large diamond, discussing allocation of shares to, among others, "the big guy"; Hunter publishes his memoirs to the gushing praise of the New York Times. Maybe it is best if Joe is just a figurehead.
bill bowen - 2/11/21