The People’s Republic of China has made it clear that it is pleased with the result of the presidential election in the US. It expects US-China relations to return to a pre-US President Donald Trump condition of “normalcy” that prevailed under the administrations of Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and especially Barack Obama, in which US president-elect Joe Biden served as vice president.
That three-decade period was marked by an unequaled rise in China’s economic, military and “soft” power, and a relative decline of the US and the West generally. Those salad days for Beijing ended when a brash real-estate developer from New York shockingly became US president.
Although Trump had no government or foreign policy experience of his own, he somehow managed to assemble a superb team of people to handle Indo-Pacific Affairs (what used to be known as the Asia-Pacific region).
Trump’s own competitive, deal-making instincts melded well with the tough-minded approach of his Asia hands at the US Department of State, Department of Defense, the National Security Council and elsewhere in the executive branch. Together, the Trump administration soon put China and Russia — named in the National Defense Strategy as “revisionist powers” hostile to the US — on the defensive after they had enjoyed decades of weak or nonexistent resistance from Trump’s predecessors.
It is no wonder that communist China welcomed the departure of Trump and his team — assuming the Biden administration is not wise enough to retain many of them.
However, Beijing did more than wish for a change in US leadership and a return to the earlier go-along-to-get-along approach. According to the intelligence community, it engaged in disinformation activities to show its preference for Biden.
However, nothing was as decisive in Beijing’s desire to dump Trump as the fortuitous arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic from Wuhan, China, to the US and the rest of the world in January. If it was not a deliberate act of biological warfare, it was the next “best” thing — a deceptive and reckless series of actions by Chinese officials to encourage the West to let its guard down just as the pathogen was spread widely by travelers from China.
That brought an abrupt end to the momentum Trump’s trade negotiators had built in compelling China to change some of its dishonest and exploitative trade practices, and open the door to decades-long delays in some measure of political reform.
It also halted the remarkable economic boom Trump’s regulatory and policy initiatives had engineered — and since the economy is almost always the decisive factor in US elections, it deprived Trump of his biggest political advantage while forcing him to focus on the pandemic. Beijing could not have planned a more effective scenario to defeat Trump — if it had planned it.
Now it will almost certainly find it easier to deal with the ever-accommodating Democratic Party on national security matters starting with Biden himself. Robert Gates, Secretary of Defense in the Obama administration, deplored what he saw as both Trump’s deeply flawed character and Biden’s career-long faulty judgment on major foreign policy issues.
Biden was at Obama’s side when he said Syria’s brutal dictator, Bashir al-Assad, had to leave power for killing 400,000 Syrians, and he was there when Obama said using chemical weapons would be a “red line” that al-Assad would cross at his peril.
Al-Assad defiantly crossed the line and met no punishment until Obama was out of office and Trump replaced him. Trump bombed Syria at the very time he was hosting Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) in Mar-a-Lago, perhaps giving the Chinese communist dictator a not-so-subtle warning about continuing to push the US — in effect, telling Xi there was a new sheriff in town.
Now, Xi, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, Russian President Vladimir Putin, the Iranian ayatollahs, and other aggressors and rogue tyrants have the opportunity to test the new administration in Washington. They might look with satisfied expectation at the return of many of the officials from pre-Trump administrations.
However, if Biden chooses as his secretary of defense Michelle Fluornoy, as widely reported, they might not be so pleased at the result, especially Xi, who repeatedly expresses his impatience at Taiwan’s refusal to accept communist rule and pushes his military to test the limits of Washington’s forbearance.
Past Democratic administrations were known to express ambivalence and ambiguity about any US commitment to defend Taiwan, despite the imperatives of the Taiwan Relations Act. After Beijing fired missiles toward Taiwan in 1996, Clinton backed down when Beijing told him US aircraft carriers entering the Taiwan Strait would face a “sea of fire.”
When his leading Asia official was asked by Chinese officials how Washington would respond if China attacked Taiwan, he said: “We don’t know and you don’t know, it would depend on the circumstances.”
If Fluornoy is indeed appointed and has the president’s confidence, Beijing would get a more decisive response to any aggression against Taiwan, one of dramatic strategic clarity.
This is what she wrote in Foreign Affairs in June: “If the US military had the capability to credibly threaten to sink all of China’s military vessels, submarines, and merchant ships in the South China Sea within 72 hours, Chinese leaders might think twice before, say, launching a blockade or invasion of Taiwan; they would have to wonder whether it was worth putting their entire fleet at risk.”
Threatening to destroy communist China’s navy is not the usual policy recommendation heard in Washington’s policy circles — from either a Democratic or Republican administration. It evokes some of the “fire and fury” language Trump used to get North Korea to the negotiating table.
However, that was another example of positive Trump-
generated momentum stopped in its tracks when Xi intervened and told Kim not to make a deal on denuclearization.
We will see whether a combination of Biden’s nice guy chumminess with Xi and Fluornoy’s steel backbone can pick up the progress where Trump and his team leave off.
Joseph Bosco served as China country director for the US secretary of defense from 2005 to 2006, and as Asia-Pacific director of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief from 2009 to 2010. He is a nonresident fellow at the Institute for Corean-American Studies and a member of the advisory board of the Global Taiwan Institute.
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