USA’s Newest China Reset

The US should not attempt to make peace with China right now, as the Biden administration has done in recent weeks. In the middle of May, US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan met with Wang Yi, a prominent Chinese official, in Vienna for in-depth discussions. Following this, the United States made every effort to cooperate with China in military, commercial, and political matters. The CIA Director William Burns’s covert trip to Beijing last May was revealed today.

The administration seems to believe that a lengthy era of antagonism between the United States and China can be ended if the United States confronts Beijing on difficult subjects such as trade, environment, and security policy on a consistent and high level.

Washington seems to believe this is a good plan, particularly because they need China’s assistance to get Russia to the table to discuss Ukraine. This is what the government’s European partners have been arguing for weeks. As we approach an election year, it’s possible that President Joe Biden believes he’ll need assistance from Chinese President Xi Jinping to deal with Russian President Vladimir Putin if, as some on his team fear, Ukraine fails to make significant progress in its counteroffensive and American voters reject the idea of a long conflict. If Biden is successful, he may benefit in areas such as commerce and the environment.

The fact that Beijing can see straight through Biden’s reasoning is an issue. For over two years, the current US administration has claimed that China is the greatest danger to American security. By going after China so hard a year before an election, the administration is sending a message that a political settlement is required.

This has all occurred before, which is why it all looks so familiar. When Barack Obama took office in 2009, the first thing he did was attempt to strengthen ties with Russia so that they would back the United States’ emphasis on Afghanistan. He changed his mind about placing missile defense in Poland and the Czech Republic as a thank you to the Kremlin. Obama’s relationship with China improved after Russia annexed Crimea. Xi vowed on the White House lawn not to militarize the South China Sea islands, but he did it anyway.

Biden seems to be using the same strategy. After taking office, Obama attempted to reach an agreement with Putin so that the United States could devote more time and resources to dealing with China. He postponed Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s visit to the White House, relaxed restrictions on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, and reduced the volume of military deliveries to Ukraine to give him more leeway. Putin did what he usually does when confronted: he launched an even larger onslaught.

These examples demonstrate a reasonable, though dubious, détente philosophy: approach an opponent from a position of obvious weakness, make modifications up front to gain respect, and accept an unknown political return in the future.

The vulnerabilities in this system are exploited by the adversaries of the United States. For weeks, Biden has been attempting to contact Xi, but he has not answered his phone. The same thing has been occurring at the military’s top levels, as China recently turned down a meeting request from US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin. On the other side of the Atlantic, Xi is attempting to build relationships with US allies in Western Europe who want the violence in Ukraine to cease so that commerce can resume as usual. As a consequence, there will be greater pressure on the US to try to thaw things out, as well as a higher starting point for any eventual settlement that is better for China.

Beijing’s actions demonstrate that it understands that power is what drives things here. Conciliation that is beneficial to the nation does not arise from being soft-hearted. If political development does not occur, it has the potential to harm the opposing party.

History may teach us valuable lessons. There were a lot of US combat soldiers in Southeast Asia during President Richard Nixon’s famed rapprochement with China. This provided China with a motivation to want the talks to succeed. Similar efforts were attempted with the Soviet Union after the Yom Kippur War in 1973, when the US military was not as formidable. This increased the likelihood of the Soviets deploying intermediate-range weapons in Europe and attacking Afghanistan. Prior to President Reagan’s successful opening to Russia, he worked to intentionally make the US more powerful, deploy Pershing II weapons in Europe, and increase the US military’s technological advantage via the second offset policy.

From this vantage point, the current state of affairs in Asia is not conducive to conflict resolution. The United States Pacific Command is $3.5 billion short of funds to meet its military goals. Almost half of Taiwan’s air force and other military forces are not battle-ready. To achieve the same level of nuclear power as the United States, the Chinese government has also begun construction of the world’s biggest peacetime fleet.

 

If Washington makes compromises on its own as part of the present effort to cool things down, the situation will only worsen. The Biden administration might make things easy for Beijing by reducing the effect of American sanctions on China, relaxing export regulations, and maybe even cutting off assistance to Taiwan in the background. Some argue that the US should not have to pay such a high price for détente if Beijing also requires it to cope with slower-than-expected economic growth since the outbreak. The worst-case scenario would be for the United States to make concessions in Asia on the assumption that China would uphold vague commitments tomorrow. “Pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today,” Wimpy tells Popeye.

The belief that China will halt Russia in Ukraine is ridiculous. If China ever does this, it will be to avoid being connected to a failing Russia. However, Beijing’s actions so far indicate that it intends to fight on. The icing on the cake would be if the Biden administration made a misguided attempt at détente, which would cost the US more than China, make Asian friends uncomfortable, and offer Western Europeans an excuse not to take a tougher line on Taiwan.

That doesn’t mean Washington should turn off an opportunity to discuss. Even though one side in Europe’s largest land conflict since 1945 deployed spy aircraft over the opposing side’s territory, it wasn’t the Americans. If China is willing to reform its methods, the US should be prepared to resume top-level talks. Until then, the Biden administration should maintain lines of communication open, but its top priorities should be to assist the Ukrainians, strengthen US troops in the Pacific, and persuade European allies to stand firm against China. But Biden should not expect Xi to return his call.

[Photo by the White House, Public Domain]

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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