U.S.-China

U.S. gathers allies to form a coalition against China

Print edition : June 04, 2021

Joe Biden, U.S. President, with Yoshihide Suga, Japan’s Prime Minister, before a joint press conference in Washington, D.C., on April 16. Photo: AFP

An RAF fighter plane lands on the U.K.’s aircraft carrier, the HMS Queen Elizabeth, on May 2. The aircraft carrier is headed for the Indo-Pacific region this year for its first operational deployment. Photo: AFP

The Biden administration’s anti-China rhetoric is getting louder, while its military and economic sabre-rattling gets a boost from Australia, India and Japan, which does not augur well for the global order.

There was a misplaced expectation worldwide that the administration of Joe Biden would tone down the military and diplomatic rhetoric aimed at China after he was elected President of the United States. The Donald Trump administration had virtually signalled the declaration of a “new cold war” against China and laid the groundwork for the revival of the Quadrilateral military alliance that comprises the U.S., Japan, Australia and India.

Adopting a bipartisan approach, the U.S. political establishment accused China of adopting genocidal policies in Xinjiang, resorting to repression in Tibet and Hong Kong and threatening the sovereignty of Taiwan. All these were virtually non-issues until 2019. The U.S. and China had been conducting business as usual until then. It was after the pandemic struck and the U.S. economy started to flounder that the Trump administration decided to make China the country’s principal strategic enemy.

The Biden administration seems to have chosen to up the ante further against the second most important global economic power. It is most likely to uphold its predecessor’s investment ban on state-owned companies of China, including the three biggest telecom firms.

The Indian government, the newest military ally of the U.S., also announced in the first week of May that it was formally excluding the participation of the Chinese telecom majors Huawei and ZTE in the 5G trials being held in the country. Earlier, the Trump administration had strongly urged the Narendra Modi government to ban Huawei products. This was before a brief border skirmish broke out between India and China.

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The Chinese embassy spokesperson in Delhi expressed “concern and regret” that Chinese telecom companies were not being permitted to conduct 5G trials with Indian telecom providers. Huawei reportedly possesses the best and the cheapest 5G technology. Indian consumers might end up paying a higher price for 5G services owing to the government’s decision to shut out legitimate competition. The development came just after signs that bilateral relations were improving, with China expeditiously providing emergency oxygen and medical supplies to India.

Biden meets Japan PM

That Biden was keen to adopt a tougher stance vis-a-vis China became all the more apparent after his meeting with Yoshihide Suga, the Japanese Prime Minister, in Washington in the third week of April, the first meeting he held with a world leader after assuming office. Biden had stressed the importance of the U.S.-Japan military alliance and the need to challenge China. In a joint statement issued after their meeting, the two leaders said that they had “exchanged views on the impact of China’s actions on peace and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region and shared their concerns over Chinese activities that are inconsistent with the international rules-based order”.

The so-called “international rules-based order” is the unilateral law laid down by the U.S. after the Second World War, under which the U.S. was designated as the dominant power while other nations could only aspire to be further down the pecking order. After the Biden-Suga summit, Chinese diplomats were quick to accuse the two countries of “stoking divisions and building blocs against other countries”. They were particularly upset with the renewed priority being given to the Taiwan issue. Le Yucheng, the Chinese Vice Foreign Minister, said that while his country was willing to do everything to find a peaceful resolution to the Taiwan issue, it had not pledged to “give up other options”.

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The Biden administration is now urging the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) and the European Union (E.U.) to get involved in the operations that the U.S. military and its allies are conducting in the South China Sea, the Taiwan Straits and surrounding areas. The United Kingdom, a key NATO member state, recently announced the deployment of its largest naval flotilla to the region. It will be led by its modern aircraft carrier, the HMS Queen Elizabeth.

According to the South China Sea Strategic Situation Probing Initiative (SCSPI), since April the U.S. has deputed 65 surveillance aircraft to keep a watch over the region. In April, the French Navy also joined in the anti-China military exercises carried out by the Quadrilateral military alliance in the Bay of Bengal.

Taiwan policy

According to military experts and China watchers, the Biden administration’s policy towards Taiwan has the potential to trigger a real war. Taiwan was first forcibly detached from the mainland by Japanese imperialism at the end of the 19th century, when China was at its weakest. The U.S.’ Seventh Fleet prevented the reunification of Taiwan with the motherland in 1950 after the victory of the Communists and the liberation of China.

After the U.S. formally established diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China in 1979 and abandoned the right-wing Kuomintang regime it had put in place in Taiwan, the “one China” policy became central to the relationship between the U.S. and China.

However, the Biden administration, at least from appearances, seems to be eager to backtrack on the sovereign commitment made by the U.S. government to the People’s Republic of China more than four decades ago. The Democratic Party platform for the 2020 election deleted the phrase “one China”, indicating that the hard-line anti-China policy of the previous administration would be further expanded and deepened.

For the first time in more than 40 years, Joe Biden became the first U.S. President since 1978 to host an envoy from Taiwan at his inauguration. And for the first time since 1969, the issue of Taiwan figured in the joint statement issued after the April meeting between the U.S. President and the Japanese Prime Minister. The statement emphasised on the importance of ensuring “peace and stability across the Taiwan Straits”.

China watchers have warned that if the Biden administration intends to formally block the reunification of China, then China will have no option but to consider radical actions such as an invasion of the island. In 2005, China had passed a piece of legislation threatening war if Taiwan declared independence. In 2017, top Chinese officials said that the Taiwan issue was of the highest concern as far as bilateral relations with the U.S. were concerned.

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As history has shown since 1949, China has always preferred the option of going to war than ceding national sovereignty. Most military analysts are of the opinion that if it really comes down to a war, there is little chance that the U.S. will prevail. According to reports in the U.S. media, the Pentagon staged around 18 war games against China over Taiwan and it could not prevail over China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) even once. Taiwan is less than 200 kilometres from the Chinese mainland and is in the proximity of 39 PLA military bases. China now has the biggest navy in the world. A conflict over Taiwan also poses the serious risk of triggering a nuclear war.

The U.S.’ military allies in the region are also getting into the act. The right-wing conservative government in Australia has been among the most belligerent in demonising China. In a widely published interview, Peter Dutton, Australia’s Defence Minister, warned about the “prospect of war with China”. He said that the Australian military was “ready for action” in the Indo-Pacific region. Dutton also weighed in to say that a military conflict over Taiwan was always a possibility.

Australia’s anti-China rhetoric

In early May this year, China, apparently fed up with the incessant anti-China rhetoric coming out of Australia, announced that it was “indefinitely” suspending all activities under the framework of the China-Australia Strategic Economic Dialogue. Chinese officials said that they had to take a stand because of the “cold war mindset” currently prevailing in Australia.

Until recently, Australia was one of China’s leading trade partners. After relations started going downhill, China stopped importing Australian coal and wine, dealing a severe blow to the country’s economy.

Shortly after the Australian Defence Minister spoke, Teodoro Locsin, the Philippine Foreign Secretary, used highly derogatory words to criticise China’s South China Sea policy. His rant was directly aimed at his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi. Rodrigo Duterte, the Philippine President, was quick to apologise to China and rebuked his senior Minister. In his message to China, Duterte recalled all the help that his country had received from China in the last five years, including help in fighting the pandemic. He said that the territorial dispute between the two countries in the South China Sea should not be allowed to disrupt bilateral ties.

G7 games

The fact that confronting China is the top priority for the new administration in the U.S. was again amplified at the G7 Foreign Ministers’ meeting in London in early May. In attendance was S. Jaishankar, the External Affairs Minister, as a special invitee along with his counterparts from Brunei, South Korea, Australia and South Africa. These non G7 invitees belong to the Indo-Pacific region, which the U.S. and its allies hope to dominate militarily.

Antony Blinken, the U.S. Secretary of State, did not bother to hide his country’s hegemonistic intentions at the G7 meeting, although he refused to describe the renewed confrontation with China as “a new cold war”. He told a television channel that under no circumstances would the U.S. allow China to emerge as a dominant power on the global stage. He claimed that China “is challenging the international order” and the U.S. would “never allow it”. In response, China politely advised the G7 powers “to abide by their promise of not taking sides on territorial disputes, respect the efforts of regional countries, stop all irresponsible words and actions, and make constructive contributions to peace and stability”.

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The U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee recently approved the Strategic Competition Act (SCA), which constitutes a virtual declaration of a new cold war with China. The SCA depicts China as the most serious current and foreign threat to the U.S. and its allies. China has been described as “a ruthless aggressor” determined to undermine democracy worldwide. There is not even a passing reference in the SCA on the importance of maintaining a modicum of good relations with China. It states unequivocally that the PRC “will put at risk, the future peace, prosperity and freedom of the international community”.

At a virtual United Nations Security Council meeting convened by China—which now holds the rotating presidency of the top body—in the first week of May, Wang Yi, the Chinese Foreign Minister, said that unlike certain countries, his government did not define international law as “a patent or privilege of a few”. He also said that no country should harbour a wish that another country not prosper.

At the same meeting, Sergei Lavrov, the Russian Foreign Minister, was even more forthright in his criticism of U.S. double standards. He said that the frequent U.S. references to a “rules-based order” were a pretext for the western nations to suppress other countries.

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