PacNet #12 – China Policy from Trump to Biden: More Continuity than Change

The following is the first in a two-part series on the Biden administration’s policy toward the People’s Republic of China. Click here for part two on the expected changes from the Trump administration.

Media coverage of President Joe Biden’s first months in office has concentrated on the many areas where he has broken sharply with his predecessor. In the first 72 hours alone, executive orders were signed stopping the American withdrawal from the World Health Organization, rejoining the Paris climate accord, canceling the Keystone XL pipeline, reversing the “Muslim ban,” and halting construction on the southern border wall. One area that looks increasingly like it will exhibit greater continuity than change, however, is US policy toward China, which has emerged as a near-peer competitor on the world stage far sooner than most anticipated. In fact, while chasms remain between Democratic and Republican perspectives on many foreign policy issues—Israel, Iran, Russia, etc.—there seems to be uncommon convergence on the challenge posed by China, at least substantively if not stylistically.

The hardened approach among Democratic policymakers has been driven by disillusionment with China from the Obama years. In a recent BBC interview, Evan Medeiros, who served as President Obama’s China director on the National Security Council, conceded that he and other Obama-era China experts had misjudged how adversarial Chinese leader Xi Jinping would be in comparison to his predecessor:

“It’s important to keep in mind that the first Chinese leader that we had to deal with, Hu Jintao, was a very, very different leader than Xi Jinping: he was far less ambitious, he was far less aggressive, and he was far less willing to accept and tolerate risk and friction externally. So, when I look back at our China policy, I wish that we had recognized quicker how different Xi Jinping was from Hu Jintao and recognized how he was going to take China politically, economically, and strategically in a different direction.”

As President Biden continues looking to former Obama officials to fill national security roles in his administration, the China hands will be carrying this realization with them and appear resolved not to underestimate Beijing again. Following his first conversation with Xi since taking office, Biden warned, “if we don’t get moving, [China is] going to eat our lunch.”

This article will examine some expected areas of continuity with President Trump’s China policy, and a subsequent article will look at some other areas of expected divergence.

In reading the tea leaves on areas of expected continuity, a major one will be an enduring recognition within the administration that a coordinated, whole-of-government effort is necessary to effectively counter China. If China is seeking to erode American influence across a variety of domains, then America cannot respond in a disjointed fashion but must ensure that the full array of cabinet departments and the Intelligence Community are all on the same page and are fully leveraging their resources and authorities. To that end, Axios reported last month that “virtually every team in the [Biden] National Security Council, from technology to global health to international economics, will incorporate China into their work,” calling it as “a concrete example of the ‘whole-of-government’ approach toward China that officials from both the Biden and Trump administrations have supported.” Moreover, the Indo-Pacific team led by Biden’s Asia tsar Kurt Campbell, a former senior Obama administration official with deep expertise on East Asia, “will be the largest regional NSC directorate, a sign of how this NSC is prioritizing China and broader Indo-Pacific issues.” In many ways, this incipient US approach mimics the way Beijing approaches foreign policy, coordinating all elements of the country’s “comprehensive national power”—military forces, economic power, natural resources, scientific expertise, and so forth—to obtain maximum leverage over other countries rather than treating each as a separate domain.

Another expected area of continuity will be a readiness—eagerness, even—to publicly criticize the Chinese government, something earlier administrations had often eschewed out of an omnipresent concern that it might damage bilateral relations. There have been several high-profile examples already in the last month or two.

During his confirmation hearings, now-Secretary of State Antony Blinken concurred with the Trump administration’s assessment that China’s ongoing repression of its Muslim Uyghur population constituted a genocide, emboldening other countries such as Canada to follow suit. In a call to China’s top diplomat in early February, Blinken again criticized Beijing for its ongoing human rights violations in Xinjiang, Tibet, and Hong Kong, and for its reluctance to condemn the Feb. 1 coup d’état in Myanmar. Following China’s Feb. 11 banning of the BBC for its critical coverage of COVID-19 and Uyghur concentration camps, the State Department condemned the move as “part of a wider campaign to suppress free media in China.” We can expect such sweeping criticism to continue as the Biden team seeks to fulfill its commitment to hold the line against the Chinese and begin to reinvigorate Washington’s advocacy for democracy and human rights abroad, especially as new polling reveals historic levels of bipartisan unfavorability among the American people for Beijing.

Perhaps the most significant area of continuity will be on military policy. Late last year, the Defense Department’s annual China Military Power Report said Beijing “has marshalled the resources, technology, and political will over the past two decades to strengthen and modernize the [People’s Liberation Army] in nearly every respect,” and that “China is already ahead of the United States in certain areas.” The PLA has made dramatic improvements in its ability to conduct joint operations, has substantially expanded its overseas footprint, and has developed a suite of advanced missiles that make it significantly riskier for the US to operate close to China’s shores. The Pentagon report also said the PLA Navy had surpassed the US Navy as the largest in the world, with over 300 ships and submarines in operation and many more in production.

All indications are that the Biden team understands the scale of this military threat in the Indo-Pacific and will prioritize the region accordingly. In early February, two US carrier strike groups held simultaneous drills in Chinese-claimed waters of the South China Sea—the first such major exercise in seven months and the first of the new administration—and a destroyer separately conducted a so-called “freedom of navigation operation,” or FONOP, through the Taiwan Strait. These symbolic moves will be followed up by more concrete measures in the coming months and years, like insulating the US Indo-Pacific Command from expected defense budget cuts; in early March, Politico reported that INDOPACOM had asked Congress for almost $50 billion in additional funding this year and was expected to get a favorable response. Biden will also place substantial emphasis on rehabilitating relationships with key military allies in the region, including Australia, South Korea, Japan, and the Philippines, and is reportedly already planning a virtual summit with the Quad later this month. It is less clear whether Washington will maintain the same high level of engagement with Taiwan that was seen during the latter Trump years, as that has been particularly inflammatory to Beijing and the strategic benefits to the US have been unclear.

A final example of continuity between the Trump and Biden administrations will probably be on broad economic policy vis-à-vis China. Some of the more contested Trump policies, such as his unpredictable application of trade tariffs, will almost certainly fall by the wayside, but an emphasis on combatting unfair Chinese trade practices and applying sanctions where necessary will remain, as well as an acute awareness of Beijing’s malign cyber activities. Chinese economic and industrial espionage over the past two decades has been responsible for the theft of key strategic technologies with military applications and has cost the US economy hundreds of billions of dollars, according to a 2018 analysis by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Once upon a time, American corporations may have been willing to swallow the costs of such activities in the belief that access to Chinese markets would eventually compensate for the losses, but that tradeoff has become less and less tenable as the mirage of eventual full market access has proven elusive.

None of this is to say that Biden’s China policy will be indistinguishable from Trump’s, but for all the reasons outlined above, differences will tend to be more stylistic than substantive. The subsequent article in this series will take a look at some of these areas of expected divergence between the Trump and Biden administrations and their implications for the US-China relationship going forward.

Eric Feinberg (eric.m.feinberg@jhu.edu) is a postgraduate student in the Strategic Studies Department at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) in Washington and a Young Leader at Pacific Forum in Honolulu. Prior to SAIS, he was a senior Asia analyst at US Special Operations Command Pacific and a military intelligence analyst at US Army Pacific in Honolulu.

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PacNet #11 – The US Indo–Pacific Strategy: Don’t Overlook the Pacific Islands Region

This article summarizes the key recommendations found in his broader study of The United States’ Indo–Pacific Strategy and a Revisionist China: Partnering with Small and Middle Powers in the Pacific Islands Region.

If the past is precedent, as the Biden administration puts the finishing touches on its own Indo-Pacific strategy, one area will be largely overlooked: the Pacific Islands Region (PIR). The region has, in the past, been viewed as a tranquil backwater with little need for attention. Traditionally, the attention Washington did give the region was exclusively focused on Micronesia—a vast region containing both the Freely Associated States (FAS) and US territories such as Guam. The remainder of the PIR was often left in the hands of close US partners such as Australia and New Zealand. Washington’s strategic neglect of the PIR needs to end. While the United States has focused its attention elsewhere, China has established itself as a strong economic partner with a growing diplomatic network. If the Biden administration is serious about addressing China’s growing challenge to US interests across the world, it should not disregard a region where a little bit of attention, coupled with cooperation with like-minded partners, can go a long way.

My recent study on The United States’ Indo–Pacific Strategy and a Revisionist China: Partnering with Small and Middle Powers in the Pacific Islands Region provides an analysis of both US and Chinese influence in the PIR along with the important and growing role of regional friends and allies like Australia, New Zealand, Taiwan, Japan, India, and others. It argues that the PIR is just as crucial to maintaining a “free and open Indo-Pacific” (FOIP) as is the South China Sea, the Taiwan Strait, or the Indian Ocean. Any continuation of the Indo-Pacific Strategy must not neglect the PIR. The Biden administration must focus on denying the use of the PIR to “unfriendly powers” for military purposes, as well as denying the ability of external powers to interdict vital sea lines of communication from the continental United States to Asia.

Although it may seem counter-intuitive, Washington must—as part of its broader Indo–Pacific Strategy—embrace the increasing multipolarity of the region and look past the traditional division of labor between just Australia, New Zealand, and itself. The Biden administration must partner with like-minded nations of all sizes such as Australia, France, India, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea, and Taiwan  to reinforce broadly held international values conducive to a FOIP. To do this, the Biden administration should:

  • Go beyond its focus on the FAS and ensure its diplomatic engagement with the entire PIR is more consistent. An emphasis on the FAS, whilst warranted, has come at the detriment of Washington’s relationships in Melanesia and Polynesia. Raising the US delegation lead to the PIF to Secretary of State level or higher would demonstrate a positive step towards consistency.
  • Better acknowledge the strategic importance of the PIR. The 2019 Indo–Pacific Strategy Report did little to acknowledge the strategic importance of the PIR within its conceptualisation of a FOIP. Washington’s approaches thus far have given many in the PIR the impression that they are an “afterthought” or simply being “tacked onto the end” of the strategy.
  • Harness its key strengths: soft power and military relationships. The United States’ key strengths in the PIR are rooted in its strong historical, cultural, and linguistic connections to the region, as well as its military relationships. Washington can enhance these strengths through establishing:
  • Labor mobility schemes. Washington should consider expanding its existing arrangements with the FAS—which allows FAS citizens to work in the United States under special visa arrangements—to other PIR states. A similar model, called the Pacific Labor Mobility Scheme, has been employed successfully in Australia.
  • Military training, education, and joint–exercises. The United States should expand the number of joint exercises and training opportunities for PIR militaries. Furthermore, Washington should seek to expand its joint exercises and training opportunities to PIR states with security forces, but no standing militaries, such as Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands.
  • Habitual military-to-island relationships. The United States should expand the US National Guard’s State Partnership Program in the PIR. With relationships already established between the Nevada National Guard and Tonga and Fiji, this should be expanded to include partnerships in Papua New Guinea (PNG), the Solomon Islands, and Vanuatu.
  • Expanding the US Defence Attaché network. The United States currently only has one USDAO for the entire PIR, located in Suva, Fiji. The number of USDAOs in the PIR should be expanded, with a particular focus on PNG and Tonga. An alternative option may be supporting PIR states with militaries to establish Defence Attachés in Washington.
  • Expanding VOA presence into the PIR. The lack of VOA broadcasting in the PIR presents an opportunity for Washington to double-down on its strengths in the information domain. This should be a joint venture with PIR countries to develop local language broadcasting on Pacific-focused issues.
  • Expand its diplomatic footprint. The United States’ six embassies in the PIR—three of which are within the FAS—give an unfortunate impression of the low level of strategic weight Washington places on the region. Washington must expand its diplomatic footprint, especially in Melanesia and Polynesia.
  • Focus heavily on targeted engagement with rising regional powers such as PNG and Fiji. PNG and Fiji have distinguished themselves as emerging activist regional powers in the PIR. Both nations have the highest GDP and populations, and field the region’s two largest militaries. Although PNG and Fiji have certainly explored more independent foreign policies and international activism in recent decades—making them somewhat harder to influence—this also makes them effective vectors of influence in the PIR.
  • Avoid a “False Dichotomy” Trap in the PIR. The PIR has made it clear that the region does not want engagement to be framed within the context of competition with China. Although strategic competition may serve as one rationale for engagement, it should not drive engagement. Rather than focusing on countering China in the PIR, the focus should be on encouraging, facilitating, and cooperating with like–minded partners to engage with the PIR—this serves to reinforce international values, naturally counterbalancing China’s undue influence. Encouraging multi-polarity will help avoid creating a “false dichotomy” in the PIR, whereby PIR countries are seen to be choosing between just the United States or China.
  • Revisit the division of labor in the PIR. The United States can no longer afford to rely on its informal “division of labour” with Australia and New Zealand in the PIR. As a self-declared “Pacific nation,” the US must take up greater responsibility in its own neighbourhood if its “revitalised engagement” is to go beyond maintaining its defence and security arrangements in the FAS. The passing of the BLUE Pacific Act should be a priority for the Biden Administration’s approach to the PIR.
  • Engage like-minded partners.  Encouraging several like-minded—not necessarily strategically aligned—partners to pursue a concerted FOIP strategy will make it more difficult for Pacific Island leaders to play the “China Card” by diluting any perceived China-US strategic dichotomy in the region and crowding Beijing’s engagement. Ultimately, PIR states are sovereign states with their own respective agency; however, harnessing like-minded small and middle powers will help in filling gaps that Washington cannot commit to.
  • Ensure good governance and engaging Taiwan. Unlike many of the aforementioned like-minded powers, Taiwan has been actively courting the PIR for decades in its “checkbook diplomacy” with China. Although much of this activity has subsided, Washington should continue to seek out joint or even multilateral cooperation activities with Taipei in the PIR to ensure good governance principles are being upheld.
  • Better incorporate emerging small and middle external powers into the existing regional architecture. Many of the aforementioned external powers are already increasing their engagement with the PIR under their own regional strategies. Washington must work with like-minded partners to ensure these strategies are not being engaged in competition with each other, but rather, in unison. Existing groupings such as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, the Quadrilateral Defense Coordination Group, and FRANZ provide a strong basis for such coordination.
Patrick Dupont (pdupont.au@gmail.com) is a Non-resident WSD-Handa Fellow at Pacific Forum. He is currently completing a Master of Security and Strategic Studies from Macquarie University.

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PacNet #6 – Myanmar’s Military Arrests the Civilian Government—and Democracy

In the early hours of Feb. 1, the day Myanmar’s newly elected parliamentarians were to take their seats, the armed forces arrested senior members of the National League for Democracy (NLD), including State Counselor and NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi and Myanmar President Win Myint. The military declared a state of emergency, announcing it will govern the country for one year, after which it promises fresh elections. Understanding this political crisis requires unpacking the role of the military in Myanmar’s beleaguered democratization, the calculus of Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing, and a geopolitical context dominated by China.

The military claimed that the Nov. 8, 2020 general election—in which the NLD won 396 of 476 contested seats in the bicameral parliament, while the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) won only 33 seats—should have been postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Military leaders alleged massive fraud although international and domestic election observers have thus far found no such evidence. Meetings between the military and the NLD collapsed after Suu Kyi reportedly rejected all of the military’s demands, which included postponing parliament, abolishing the election commission, and recounting the votes from the November election with military supervision. While the military’s actions appear indefensible, it also appears that Suu Kyi overestimated her ability to wield another electoral mandate.

The collapse of the power-sharing arrangement between the armed forces and civilian government fits a troubled historical pattern. Myanmar’s military-authored 2008 constitution enshrined provisions that enabled the armed forces to step back from absolute power in 2011 without fear of reprisal but left Myanmar’s civilian government weak and especially vulnerable to a coup d’état. In 2020, the NLD proposed dozens of constitutional amendments aimed at curtailing the military’s influence by reducing its guaranteed allotment of parliamentary seats to below 25%, lowering the over-75% threshold to pass constitutional amendments (which effectively grants the military a veto),  and transferring control of the armed forces from the top general to the president. The military vetoed all amendments that would have reduced its political power and regarded the NLD’s efforts as a direct threat to its privileged position.

Min Aung Hlaing’s political calculus is also important for understanding the takeover. His second five-year term as commander-in-chief was expected to end upon reaching the mandatory retirement age of 65 in July 2021. Had the USDP and its allies won at least a third of the contested parliamentary seats in the November election, they could have elected him president with the aid of the unelected military parliamentarians. This would have enabled him to designate his successor with the approval of the military-dominated National Defense and Security Council, a function he could not constitutionally perform as commander-in-chief. After the NLD’s landslide victory, claiming electoral fraud and seizing power may be what Min Aung Hlaing regarded as his last opportunity to ensure military guidance of Myanmar’s “disciplined” democratization while protecting the economic gains of his cronies and avoiding prosecution. Given Suu Kyi’s age and lack of a political heir apparent, the military may be looking to hold power until it can shape a more compliant civilian government.

International reaction to the military takeover has ranged from measured calls for dialogue and stability from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to protests and condemnation. On Jan. 29, three days after the armed forces publicly refused to rule out a coup, a group of Myanmar-based diplomatic missions representing Western countries issued a rare joint statement opposing any attempt to alter the electoral outcome. After the takeover, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken demanded that “[t]he military must reverse these actions immediately.” President Joe Biden threatened new sanctions. The military, not known for its economic competence, must now contend with capital flight from what was Southeast Asia’s fastest growing economy in 2016, as well as the COVID-19 pandemic. All of this will likely set Myanmar’s economy back years.

The military also faces a domestic population that overwhelmingly supports the NLD and is likely furious that hard-won, albeit partial, democratization has been so abruptly halted. Furthermore, the military’s disrespect for domestic institutions has implications for the tortuous peace process with armed ethnic groups in Myanmar’s borderlands. Groups that negotiated ceasefires with the central government may increasingly doubt Naypyidaw’s intentions for peace and inclusive development, raising the danger of further cycles of violence. With less legitimacy and capacity than when they previously ruled the country, military leaders appear to be acting in self-interest rather than the national interest.

Diplomatically, Myanmar has risked returning to pariahdom because of military atrocities against Rohingya Muslim ethnic minorities in Rakhine State. Since 2017, over 750,000 Rohingya have fled to refugee camps in neighboring Bangladesh. Aung San Suu Kyi’s outspoken defense of the armed forces despite international condemnation and her refusal to disavow anti-Rohingya hate speech severely tarnished her global reputation as a Nobel-winning champion of democracy and alienated international supporters. Suu Kyi may have calculated that doubling down on nationalism would protect her from being outflanked by the military and Buddhist extremists, allowing her to secure a larger electoral victory and ultimately strengthen civilian rule by amending the constitution. That gamble appears to have failed spectacularly.

Unlike many of Myanmar’s diplomatic partners, China has avoided criticizing its “friendly neighbor.” Beijing provided economic and diplomatic lifelines to the previous military regime in exchange for access to natural resources and extensive political influence, generating concerns in Myanmar that the country was becoming dangerously overdependent on China. Political reforms enabled Naypyidaw to reduce that dependence, but as international opprobrium mounted over the Rakhine crisis, China continued to defend Myanmar against human rights criticisms at the United Nations while pouring investment into the country and supporting the peace process with ethnic armed groups. As Myanmar has moved further into Beijing’s orbit, it is again becoming vulnerable to overreliance on China, and Chinese diplomatic leverage. The return to military rule will accelerate this process at a time of heightened tension in both Sino-US and Sino-Indian relations. Yet, Myanmar’s political volatility also threatens China’s interests in a stable environment for its infrastructure projects and strategy for accessing the Indian Ocean. On Jan. 12—less than three weeks before the military takeover—Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited Myanmar to discuss cooperation on a wide range of issues with Suu Kyi, Win Myint, and Min Aung Hlaing. That the takeover happened despite Beijing’s extensive investment suggests that greater stability might have been achieved by collaboratively promoting good governance in Myanmar.

Myanmar has confronted colonialism, intercommunal violence, military dictatorship, and civil war. Securing stability requires tolerance across political fault lines, rule of law, and respect for the expressed will of the people. Myanmar’s military subverting democratic processes bodes ill for human rights and geopolitical stability. The crisis poses an early test of President Biden’s vision for a coalition of democracies, but it also highlights the need for regional powers to rise to the challenge. Both Seoul and Tokyo regard Myanmar and Southeast Asia as important elements of “new southern strategies” to economically diversify away from China. As key US allies and leading Asian democracies, South Korea and Japan should join willing ASEAN partners in issuing a statement demanding the release of civilian leaders, immediate access to Myanmar by international observers, and a commitment from the military to reverse its seizure of power. As China will likely block action by the UN Security Council, coordination among regional stakeholders and global democracies will be critical to an international response that places the people of Myanmar, and their self-determination and prosperity, at its center.

Jonathan Chow (chow_jonathan@wheatoncollege.edu) is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Wheaton College, Massachusetts where he teaches international relations and East Asian politics.

Leif-Eric Easley (easley@ewha.ac.kr) is Associate Professor of International Studies at Ewha University in Seoul where he teaches international security and political economics.

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged. Click here to request a PacNet subscription.